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After Months of Hesitation, Bush Slaps Sanctions on Syria

May 12, 2004
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President Bush has imposed sanctions on Syria, heeding the call of lawmakers and American Jews who wanted the Bush administration to get tougher on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The president imposed several sanctions Tuesday, banning U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine, and banning all flights to and from Syria.

He also left in place several sanctions imposed by congressional legislation, including a ban of “dual-use” exports that could be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and the freezing of assets of Syrian citizens linked to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

“Despite many months of diplomatic efforts to convince the government of Syria to change its behavior, Syria has not taken significant, concrete steps to address the full range of U.S. concerns,” Bush said in a letter to Congress on Tuesday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that the concerns included Syria’s continued development of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism and failure to police its border with Iraq.

Lawmakers had been pressing the White House to impose sanctions for months, since the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed Congress last year. After Bush signed the bill last December, many believed he would impose the sanctions in March, but Bush waited until this week.

The Bush administration made numerous diplomatic efforts to curb Syria’s links to terrorism, its attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and its continued control of Lebanon. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Syria last year and was assured by Assad that Syria’s behavior would change.

“Waiting this amount of time shows he has done everything possible to send the diplomatic message,” she said of the president. “It shows the president went the extra mile.”

“No one is saying sanctions is going to bring down the government,” she told JTA. “We’re saying it’s important as a government to send a message that this is behavior that should be punished.”

Engel issued a statement saying the ball now is in Damascus’ court.

“It is my hope that by implementing the Syria Accountability Act, the Untied States government is sending a loud and clear message to the leaders of Syria that we will no longer turn a blind eye to their transgressions,” he said.

The Syria bill was passed in part due to lobbying from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The group is holding its annual convention in Washington next week, and members were likely to lobby lawmakers to put additional pressure on the Bush administration about Syria.

Many believed the ascent to power of the Western-educated Assad, and Syria’s willingness to provide intelligence about terrorists associated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, meant the country was willing to change its ways.

But Syria hasn’t done what the United States had hoped.

“We’ve asked them to do some things and they haven’t responded,” Bush said in an interview with Al-Ahram International television last week. “And Congress passed a law saying that if Syria will not join, for example, booting out a Hezbollah office out of Damascus, that the president has the right to put sanctions on.”

Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, said Tuesday that the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, condemned the U.S. sanctions and that Syria has worked with other Arab states to fight terrorism.

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