Congress Approves Syria Sanctions Bill

Karen Yourish

Congress has sent a bill to the White House that requires President George W. Bush to sanction Syria unless the country immediately halts development of ballistic missiles, stops producing biological and chemical weapons, ends its alleged support for terrorism, and withdraws from Lebanon. However, the bill provides the White House with broad authority to waive the penalties in the interest of national security. In acceding to the Senate’s version of the legislation Nov. 20, the House endorsed a more flexible measure that is supported by the Bush administration.

Representative Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the author of the original House bill, said after the 408-8 vote that the bill is “a fair approach to dealing with the threat that Syria poses to the stability of the Middle East and to American interests around the world.” Recognizing the watered-down nature of the measure, however, he urged the president to “strictly enforce this important legislation.”

The Bush administration was initially reluctant to impose sanctions on Syria, fearing it would make Mideast peace efforts more difficult. Administration officials changed their tune after warning Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, without success, that there would be consequences if Syria failed to stop its support for terrorism. (See ACT, November 2003.)

Ever the more cautious chamber, Senate leaders stressed the flexibility inherent in the measure. “The bill, as amended, adds to the tools available to the president to move Syria toward a more responsible course,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said on the floor prior to the Senate’s 89-4 vote on Nov. 11. He said the bill “provides the president with the ability to calibrate U.S. sanctions against Syria in response to positive Syrian behavior when such adjustment is in the national security interest of the United States.”