Administration Follows Hill Approach to Syria

Congress has nearly finished a bill that allows President Bush to sanction Syria for its support for terrorism and aid to insurgents in Iraq, authority the White House has been reluctant to accept as it pursues alternative maneuvers to influence the Middle Eastern nation.

The Syria Accountability Act (search) was being debated in the Senate on Wednesday evening, though passage was widely expected since 76 senators co-sponsored the bill.

The House passed an identical bill, 398-4, in October after the administration had beaten around the bush for months deciding whether to endorse it.

Experts say the Bush administration is eager to guarantee that Syria not aid terrorists, but with the complicated political geography of the Middle East in mind, was looking for a less formal method of persuasion and inducements.

"The administration would have preferred to control the timing of sanctions so as to maximize the leverage of them," said Heritage Foundation (search) Middle East expert Jim Phillips, adding that Congress' action appears to punish Syria for past actions rather than encourage future good behavior.

The bill requires Syria to stop supporting terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, halt production of weapons of mass destruction and cut off aid to Iraqi guerrillas if it seeks to avoid sanctions. Among the penalties for non-compliance, the United States would prohibit sales to Syria of dual-use items and the president would be required to impose two of six penalties.

Those penalties are  banning exports to Syria, prohibiting U.S. businesses from operating in Syria, restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States, blocking the flights of Syrian airlines to the United States, reducing diplomatic contacts with Syria and freezing Syrian assets in the United States.

Already the United States lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposes sanctions on the country, which is also ineligible to receive most forms of U.S. aid or to purchase U.S. military equipment. The United States does not currently have an ambassador in Syria, though the embassy is operating.

Most U.S. businesses in Syria are oil companies, and Syria primarily imports agricultural products, irrigation equipment and medical supplies from the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2002, the United States imported $160.8 million worth of products from Syria and exported $274.1 million in goods to Syria. The numbers are a relatively small part of Syria's overall trade, which totaled $5.1 billion in imports and $6.1 billion in exports in 2002, according to the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (search).

Some experts say that the low trade figures indicate that if Congress is seeking to compel Syria toward cooperation through sanctions, it's on the wrong track.

The act lacks teeth because it focuses on trade, said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy (search).  

"We don't have trade with Syria. It's more of a big demonstrative step," Wurmser told

"If the Syrians are, in fact, going to be kicked out of the terrorism business, it's going to need a lot more pressure," Phillips said, acknowledging that congressional efforts are not entirely wasted.

Syria's economy is struggling, and hitting that country in the wallet, even to a relatively small extent  "does make a bad situation worse," Phillips said. 

Damascus is not ignoring the message, added Wurmser, regardless of its impact.

"Is the Syrian regime freaking over it? Yes, we know they are. They’ve said so. [But] will it actually make a difference in policy? Not likely."

Phillips said the current measure may send a scare into Syria regarding its continued occupation of Lebanon or support of militants in Iraq. It also may embolden Lebanese opponents of Syrian rule.

Though the House's bill was introduced in April and the Senate's in May, the Bush administration waited until October to say it would not protest the bill.

"We have expressed that we are not opposed to this bill ... And I would remind you that we have repeatedly said that Syria is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism, and that Syria needs to stop harboring terrorists," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said after earlier refusing to speculate about the possibility of economic sanctions.

Before its change of heart, the White House had asked Republican congressional leaders to keep the legislation from moving forward, fearing that it would complicate events in Iraq and disrupt the "road map" for peace in the Middle East.

However, the White House, weary of Syrian aid to terror groups in Israel and Damascus' failure to better patrol its porous borders, dropped its objection shortly after Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton testified to Congress that Syria was allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers and was trying aggressively to acquire and develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The prospect of a showdown with Syria has worried the administration, which has not wanted to get muddied by stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Wurmser said.  

"We're basically looking to walk through a whole bunch of problems in the Middle East without getting entangled," she said of the administration's attitude. "We don't need another hornet's nest. We're just trying to do Iraq and not get in trouble before another election campaign."

Wurmser and other critics fault the State Department for the contrast between the way Capitol Hill and the administration want to deal with Syria.

That "disconnect between the policies of Congress and the line taken by the State Department" was even more evident following Secretary of State Colin Powell's May visit to Syria, a trip Wurmser called "a huge mistake" because it could have left the impression, especially in the context of Middle East politics, that the United States was weak in its position.

Likewise, Joel Mowbray, author of "Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security," blames the State Department for the administration's delay on the bill, saying that although the bill "was so mild," the State Department still worried that it would send the wrong message to Arab nations that the United States was picking on one of the Arab world's weaker members.