WASHINGTON – Congress passed legislation Thursday to impose economic penalties against Syria (search), reflecting broad agreement among lawmakers that Syria has been a detriment to the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and Iraq.
President Bush is expected to sign the bill even though he is not enthusiastic about such restraints on his foreign policy. The measure requires the president to act if Syria does not make significant steps to reverse its tolerance and support of anti-American forces.
The House voted 408-8 in favor of a Senate-amended version of the legislation that, at the urging of the White House, gives the president greater leeway to waive the punishment on the basis of national security.
"The Syrian regime has the blood of Americans on their hands," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (search), R-Fla. Administration officials agree, she said, that "Syria is on the wrong side of history and now it is time for it to suffer the consequences."
Syria long has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Iran and Libya. But Syria is the only country on that list to have full diplomatic relations with the United States.
Awarding normal relations to Syria never made any sense, said Rep. Eliot Engel (search), D-N.Y., a lead sponsor of the bill. Congress is saying to Syria in the legislation that "the time is up ... we are not coddling you any more," Engel said.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Syria, at Washington's prodding, has taken steps to prevent anti-American terrorists and weapons from crossing its border with Iraq. But lawmakers said the Damascus government has fallen short in numerous other areas.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (search) agreed, saying that when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Damascus in May "he made it very clear to President Assad and his colleagues that they had come to a fork in the road. ... They didn't choose to take the right one."
The legislation notes that Syria has provided a safe haven for anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and is accused of pursuing the development and production of biological and chemical weapons.
It states that Syria must end its support of terrorists, terminate its 27-year military presence in Lebanon, stop efforts to obtain or produce weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles and interdict terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq.
If Syria fails to meet those conditions, the president must ban sales of dual-use items, which can have both civilian and military applications.
He also must impose at least two out of a list of six possible penalties: a ban on exports to Syria, prohibition of U.S. businesses' operating in Syria, restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States, limits on Syrian airline flights in the United States, reduction of diplomatic contacts or a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States.
The original House bill gave the president waiver power for the two sanctions. The Senate, in approving the bill last week by an 89-4 margin, added an amendment that extended the national security waiver to include dual-use sales.
The Bush White House and its predecessors have made liberal use of waivers in the past to avoid disrupting diplomatic links with other nations, and sanctions on Syria would likely have greater political than economic effect. Bilateral trade with Syria amounts to only about $300 million a year.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian Embassy in Washington, although Syrian officials have warned that it would damage America's overall standing in the Middle East.