Congress renews tough talk on Syria

Lawmakers plan push for economic and diplomatic sanctions

April 18, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers in both parties say they will renew a push for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria when Congress returns at the end of the month, reviving proposals resisted by the White House last year.

Advocates of the sanctions, which have bipartisan support in the House and Senate, said they do not envision immediate military action against Syria. But they say the legislation would provide the framework for an aggressive new effort to force Syria to abandon its occupation of Lebanon, support of terrorism and suspected possession of weapons of unconventional weapons.

"I just think it is really time to get tough with Syria," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat who reintroduced the Syria Accountability Act in the House just before Congress recessed last week.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a member of the Republican leadership, said he believed that the Bush administration's quick transition to complaints against Syria should provide impetus for a similar measure he introduced last year with Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

"There is a sense that Syria is a very bad actor," said Santorum, who said the administration's recent criticism of Syria had brought that country's activities "foursquare into focus."

Many of the congressional supporters of sanctions against Syria are also strong allies of Israel, though they say the attempt to act against Syria, while potentially helpful to Israel, is part of a broader anti-terror campaign.

Syria has adamantly denied that it possesses germ, gas or nuclear arsenals and has questioned the motives of the United States for its tough criticism, saying it is tied to support for Israel.

Yesterday, the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, reiterated his government's willingness to allow weapons inspections if they applied to all regional states, including Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear arms.

Under the House proposal, Syria would be held accountable for any attacks committed by Hezbollah, an Iranian- and Syrian-backed Lebanese militant group. The proposal would also find Syria in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions because of its occupation of Lebanon.

The measure also states that Syria's "acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs threatens the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States."

The proposal would prohibit U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine, halt American investment, freeze Syrian assets in the United States, restrict Syrian diplomats and reduce diplomatic contacts between the United States and Syria.

Sponsors of the proposal said the administration worked behind the scenes against the plan last year, arguing that it would distract from the effort against Iraq and that Syria was cooperating in the hunt for terrorists.

"Anything that would take full attention away from Iraq, they frowned upon," Engel said.

It was uncertain how the White House, which has called Syria a rogue nation, will respond to the renewed push. But officials on Capitol Hill said the administration might resist the effort by Congress to get too deeply involved in policy regarding Syria, limiting administration flexibility.

Aides said a new proposal is being drafted in the Senate and suggested that the language might be softened from the House version.

Aides to Boxer, who was an opponent of giving President Bush authority to act unilaterally against Iraq, said she remained supportive of the Syrian effort and saw it as means to apply diplomatic pressure, not a step toward military conflict.

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