The bill calls for sanctions to be imposed unless Syria meets a series of demands. These include preventing armed groups opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq from entering into that country from Syria, shutting down the offices of Palestinian groups in Syria Washington deems terrorist, withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and halting any development of medium- and long-range missile systems. Washington has also charged that Damascus is developing chemical and biological weapons.
Were very concerned about the foreign killers that are coming in [Iraq] through Syria, said U.S. deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in a November 13 interview with the Cleveland TV station WEWS. Clearly we want the Syrians to do everything they can to shut down that kind of flow.
The measure gives U.S. president George Bush the option of imposing at least two of six sanctions against Damascus: banning exports to Syria, except food and medicine; banning U.S. business investment; restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States; banning Syrian aircraft from entering U.S. airspace; reducing diplomatic contacts; and freezing Syrian assets.
The Syrian government said it remained open to dialogue with Washington despite the threat of sanctions, according to Reuters, stating sanctions would cause little economic harm. Trade between the United States and Syria is a modest $300 million a year. ExxonMobil has joint ventures with Syrian firms for production and sale of petroleum products, and two U.S. companies have contracts for oil exploration in that country.
According to the Syrian news agency SANA, Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa condemned the Senate action saying sanctions should instead be imposed on Tel Aviv for its long-term occupation of Arab nations lands, state sponsored terrorism, [and] genocide against the Palestinian nation.
Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle said the time to sit back and hope for Syria to change course has passed. Fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer added, We cannot have relationships with Syria and close our eyes to the truth…that they are in fact supporting terrorism in ways that are very, very clear.
Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, and Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican from Pennsylvania, were among those opposing the measure. Specter argued that the bill would complicate U.S.-Syrian relations in light of cooperation by Damascus in the war on terrorism and in providing information on al Qaeda.
Until early October, the White House had used its influence to prevent the measure from reaching the floor of Congress. Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested the bill be modified to allow the president to waive sanctions in the interests of national security, which was included in the final version of the bill.
The U.S. State Department already includes Syria on its list of terrorist states, which automatically triggers a series of sanctions. Syria has been on that list since the 1970s, even though the two governments have full diplomatic relations.
Bush ended his opposition to additional punitive measures against Syria in October, after accusing Damascus of ignoring U.S. requests to crack down on Palestinian and Lebanese groups functioning in its territory. He has indicated he will sign the bill into law.
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