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Struggle Looms in Congress As Syrian Sanctions Bill Advances

September 24, 2002
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There is little debate here over whether Syria supports the Hezbollah terrorist group and effectively maintains an occupation of Lebanon.

But as pro-Israel activists lobby for sanctions against Syria, Congress is divided over whether the sanctions would bring change to the Middle East or only tie the hands of the Bush administration.

With the administration focused on overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, lawmakers say the administration is ignoring a problem of equal gravity next door to Saddam.

When the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and lawmakers first announced the Syria Accountability Act last spring, it was low on the lobby’s priority list and was not expected to be brought to a vote.

But things changed over the summer in Washington since Bush sent a tough anti-terror message to the Palestinians and began to focus on a potential war against Iraq.

Now, a Congress that is seeking an increased voice in the Iraq debate may tackle the Syrian issue and its links to Saddam’s regime. Advocates of the legislation say Syria has direct ties both to terrorism and to weapons of mass destruction.

AIPAC and others accuse Syria of harboring and supporting terrorist groups — including Al-Qaida and Hezbollah — stockpiling illegal weapons, developing weapons of mass destruction and transferring weapons and oil to Iraq.

Syria’s control of Lebanon allows terrorist groups such as Hezbollah to launch attacks against Israel’s northern border.

Syria is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and advocates say it is the only one of the seven countries on that list that has normal relations with the United States.

The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria. It also would ask the president to impose two additional penalties, choosing from several options that include restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States, prohibiting U.S. exports to Syria or preventing U.S. businesses from investing and operating in Syria.

Advocates of the Syria bill, being debated in Congress now, say the measure would increase U.S. pressure on President Bashar Assad’s regime. Behind-the-scenes pressure has failed over the years, advocates argue.

The bill calls for Syria to close down the offices of Palestinian terror groups and end Syrian ties with those groups, withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon, stop developing weapons of mass destruction, and stop violating U.N. arms and oil sanctions against Iraq.

The president would be allowed to waive the sanctions if he believed it was in the country’s national security interest.

The administration and several lawmakers who oppose the bill say it would tie the hands of the Bush administration — which has benefited from some Syrian intelligence on Al-Qaida — and would not be effective in forcing Syria to stop supporting terrorism or end its occupation of Lebanon.

Ed Gabriel, president of the American Task Force on Lebanon, said American lives have been saved in the war against terrorism because of information Syria has provided about Al-Qaida.

“I don’t believe terrorists and terrorism is going to go away because of this act,” said Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco. “You will lose leverage on the diplomatic front and be left with punitive and military measures.”

A State Department spokesman concurred with the assessment that the bill would “limit our options.”

But proponents of the legislation say the limited support Syria is giving the United States in its war on terror does not warrant a free pass on Syria’s own transgressions.

“My concern is whether Syria supports and sponsors any terrorist organization at all,” Armey said at the hearing. “It is a quibble to me to say that Syria supports this terrorist organization, but not that one.”

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