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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
White House Ready to Support Sanctions on Syria

Karen Yourish

A bill that would levy sanctions on Syria is winding its way through Congress and is expected to be signed by President George W. Bush when it lands on his desk later this fall. The House of Representatives voted 398-4 on Oct. 15 to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria unless it immediately halts development of ballistic missiles and production of biological and chemical weapons, stops supporting terrorism, and withdraws its forces from Lebanon. A similar measure in the Senate is expected to be sent to the floor for a vote in mid-November.

As passed by the House, the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003” (H.R. 1828) requires the president to impose two or more sanctions from a list of six if Syria fails to comply. The sanctions include a ban on exports other than food and medicine; restrictions on travel for Syrian diplomats in the United States; a prohibition on U.S. investments or business operations in Syria; a ban on any aircraft owned or controlled by Syria from taking off from, landing in, or flying over the United States; a reduction of U.S. diplomatic contacts; and a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States. The bill allows the president to waive the imposition of sanctions for six-month periods for national security reasons.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) will seek to modify the Senate version of the bill (S. 982) before it is sent to the floor, to provide the president with maximum flexibility. “Senator Lugar has always been philosophically opposed to sanctions,” said Mark Helmke, a committee staffer. The committee held a hearing on the bill Oct. 30.

Last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials only barely thwarted a similar bid by lawmakers, contending at that time that imposing sanctions on Syria would make peace efforts in the Middle East more difficult. This time around, they have dropped their opposition, and everyone seems to be on the same page. “The administration informed Congress…this week that we did not…object to the Syria Accountability Act,” Adam Ereli, Department of State deputy spokesperson, said during a briefing Oct. 9. “I think this is a recognition of the fact, frankly, that…we were very clear with Syria about what we thought it needed to do to act effectively against terrorism.” Ereli said Powell told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in May that there would be consequences if Syria failed to take steps to ameliorate U.S. concerns.