WASHINGTON – With Syria (search) defying international pressure to withdraw from Lebanon (search) and with tensions over Iraq still high, the Bush administration is weighing new sanctions on some Lebanese officials.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (search), R-Fla., said she is confident the administration will support a request she made along with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., to freeze the assets of Lebanese officials with close ties to Syria.
"I think that all signs point to the fact that the Bush administration is going to take these measures," said Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee. "It's a matter of timing whether it will be now, whether it will be a little bit later."
Acting under legislation pushed by the two lawmakers, President Bush in May banned all American exports to Syria except food and medicine and barred Syrian planes from landing in the United States. The Bush administration considers Syria a sponsor of terrorism and has criticized its military presence in Lebanon and its failure to do more to secure its border with Iraq.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to comment on the likelihood of additional penalties, but noted that Bush said in May he would consider other sanctions.
A State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "I don't think we're far enough along in the thinking to say it's likely or unlikely."
Some analysts question whether sanctions would be effective. Murhaf Jouejati, a George Washington University professor, said they would not affect Syria's role in Lebanon.
"In the end, it is only exacerbating anti-American resentment in the area," said Jouejati, a former adviser to the Syrian delegation to the Middle East peace talks
Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 to serve as peacekeepers during the country's civil war. They remained after the war ended in 1990. Today, Syria is seen as dominating the Lebanese government, recently pressing for a constitutional amendment to allow a second term for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.
Syria's involvement in Lebanon has come under increased international scrutiny in recent weeks. The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in September calling for it to withdraw its 14,000 soldiers, allow presidential elections and disarm the Hezbollah militant group. The resolution was backed by the United States and France, which found common ground despite their differences over the war in Iraq.
After U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported Oct. 1 that Syria had not complied with the resolution, Ros-Lehtinen and Engel wrote Bush urging him to freeze the assets of Lebanese officials "who have flagrantly and unabashedly cooperated with the Syrian regime in maintaining its control over Lebanon."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., also wrote Bush, asking him to freeze the assets of "individuals and entities contributing to the government of Syria's problematic behavior."
It is not known how much money Lebanese officials have in the United States, but wealthy Lebanese have long used banks in the United States and other nations as safe havens for their money.
Until he resigned Wednesday, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman, was Lebanon's prime minister. It is not clear whether the threat of sanctions contributed to Hariri's decision to step down; Hariri has had differences with Lahoud over Syrian influence.
But Hariri showed he was concerned about possible sanctions when, four days before resigning, he summoned U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman to raise objections to the lawmakers' proposals.
Hariri was replaced by Omar Karami, who is seen as a close ally of Syria. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Abu Dhabi television that the choice "once again shows that Syria is playing an inappropriate role in political life and in the civic life of the Lebanese people."
Ros-Lehtinen said the Lebanese leadership is "just a puppet government of the Syrian regime. I don't think the Lebanese people want to live that way."
But Martha Kessler, a former Middle East specialist for the CIA, said a sudden Syrian withdrawal could destabilize Lebanon.
"Lebanon has really never healed since its civil war," she said. "It still has a huge Palestinian community that is deeply disenchanted and disenfranchised. The stability of Lebanon is a big unknown should Syria withdraw."