White House Considers Syria Sanctions

By Ori Nir

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is signaling its intention to slap new sanctions on Syria, say congressional sources and Western diplomats.

“There is very little doubt in anyone’s mind that more sanctions will soon be imposed,” said a congressional aide who was recently briefed by administration officials.

Frustrated by Syria’s failure to block militants from crossing into Iraq to join the insurgency there, the Bush administration has been preparing new sanctions since July, sources said. The administration waited before imposing new sanctions mainly because the White House wanted to coordinate its policy with America’s European allies.

Last week sources in Washington were saying that new sanctions could come as soon as the end of the month, when a United Nations commission was expected to file a report on the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. But this week the commission reportedly was seeking to extend its deadline for filing with the U.N. Security Council until December.

On Capitol Hill, sources were predicting that the commission’s report would point a finger at the inner circle of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. But a major German newspaper recently reported that members of the commission are privately saying that it will probably not end up blaming Assad’s regime, despite increasing pressure to do so from American officials. The U.N. commission’s chief investigator is a German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis.

Operating under the authority of the Syria Accountability Act, a law passed by Congress in 2003, the Bush administration has already banned American exports to Syria except for food and medicine; prohibited Syrian aircraft from flying into and out of the United States; frozen some Syrian assets in the United States, and cut off relations with one Syrian bank because of money-laundering concerns. Under the law, the administration could also move to restrict the movement of Syrian officials in the United States, downgrade diplomatic relations with Syria and prohibit American businesses from investing in Syria.

In addition, some experts said, depending on the scope of the conclusions of the U.N. commission investigating Hariri’s assassination, the Bush administration could feel empowered to press for international sanctions.

According to a report Sunday by the Knight Ridder syndicated news service, the Bush administration is even considering limited military action against Syria, such as bombing remote villages that are suspected of hosting anti-American guerrillas on their way to Iraq.

Hariri, a highly respected Sunni businessman, was killed February 14 in a Beirut bombing that also left 17 bystanders dead, after he began calling for Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

With the U.N. commission expected to implicate the Syrian regime directly, the Bush administration believes it will have the support of European powers — particularly Lebanon’s traditional ally, France — to “further tighten the screws” on Syria, in the words of a key congressional aide.

The administration has significantly escalated its anti-Syrian rhetoric in recent weeks. Referring to cross-border insurgents, President Bush on September 13 said: “These people are coming from Syria into Iraq and killing a lot of innocent people.” He added that “the Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously.”

A week later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice weighed in.

“Syria needs to get on the right side of events that are going on in the Middle East,” she said, adding, “Lebanon has to be free of foreign interference. This is an issue of national sovereignty for Lebanon, and Syria must respect the national sovereignty of Lebanon.”

Depending on the findings of the U.N. commission inquiry into the killing of Hariri, the Bush administration may consider other measures that go beyond the 2003 sanctions law, said Scott Lasensky, an expert on sanctions and a Middle East scholar with the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank in Washington.

The commission’s report could serve as a “springboard event” to recruit the support of other countries for comprehensive international sanctions, Lasensky said.

“This may help the U.S. galvanize additional support for multilateral action,” Lasensky said, adding, “If we want our sanctions to go beyond simply signaling further U.S. displeasure and really try to have a bite, we have to look for different formulas.”

Lasensky argued that unilateral American sanctions can only have limited impact due to the limited nature of America’s trade relations with Syria. “There is very little left in the U.S. toolbox against Syria, because we start from a baseline of so little commerce with it,” Lasensky said.

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