Bush Imposes Export Ban Against Syria
Published: May 11, 2004
ASHINGTON, May 11 — After months of debate within his administration, President Bush imposed today a series of economic sanctions against Syria, charging that it has failed to take action against terrorist groups fighting Israel or to halt the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Mr. Bush issued an executive order that banned virtually all American exports except for food and medicine, and barred flights between Syria and the United States, except during emergencies. The president also told the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Syrians with known ties to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the occupation of Lebanon and terrorist activities in Iraq.
In the near term, the action was largely symbolic, since trade with Syria, at about $300 million a year, is not substantial, and Syrian airlines do not fly to the United States. Moreover, the trade ban did not preclude investment, though American firms such as Conoco and Chevron, which have operations in Syria, will be required to turn to foreign suppliers, a State Department spokesman said.

The punitive steps were anxiously sought by some in Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers required the president to select from a menu of penalties within the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which was approved last year. The president went beyond the required list.

Representative Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat who was a co-author of the the legislation, said Syria was playing an increasingly destructive role in the Middle East and has ignored American appeals to crack down on such militant groups as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad or to disengage from occupied Lebanon.

"The United States government is sending a loud and clear message to the leaders of Syria that we will no longer turn a blind eye to their transgressions," Mr. Engel said. "The ball is now in Damascus' court."

The United States has long had a strained relationship with Syria, which Washington designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979. Ties with the United States improved, briefly, in 1990, when Damascus joined the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein and took part in the Middle East Peace Process in Madrid the following year. Subsequent peace talks aiming at finding peace with Israel foundered and ultimately broke down in 2000, just months before President Hafez al-Assad died. His son, Bashar, is widely seen as constrained by his father's old advisers.

Administration officials were divided over the sanctions, with some voicing concerns that they would further antagonize Arabs alarmed by the American handling of Iraqi prisoners or the administration's support for ceding parts of the West Bank to Israel.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the president apparently had delayed his announcement until after Arab leaders had set the terms of debate for their next summit in Tunisia later this month.

"The timing is no coincidence," he said.

Ammar Arsan, the spokesman of the Syrian embassy in Washington, said his country was already receiving strong support within the Arab League. He predicted that the measures would have "no impact on our economic situation," given growing trade ties with investors from Europe and elsewhere.

He said that his government would never compromise its political independence because of economic pressure from Washington.

"The United States needs to review its policy toward the Middle East, and recognize that relations between nations are based on mutual respect, and not sanctions or an escalation of tensions in the relationship" Mr. Arsan said.

In deciding on penalties, Mr. Bush went beyond lawmakers' list to order American financial institutions to cut any ties with the Commercial Bank of Syria, citing money laundering concerns. He explicitly barred the export of military equipment or such dual-use items as chemicals, nuclear technology and propulsion equipment, and threatened to take other measures if Syria did not "take serious and concrete steps" to alter its behavior and, among other things, "cooperate fully with the international community in promoting the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq."

The White House charged that Syria provided military support to Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, on the eve of the American invasion, and said it remains a transit point for foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq, despite taking some steps to control its border. It also accused Syria of failing to transfer $200 million in frozen Iraqi assets to a development fund for Iraq, as required by a United Nations resolution.

Edward P. Djerjian, a former ambassador to Syria who is now at Rice University, said the president had intentionally left open the possibility of additional sanctions — including targeting the energy sector — as a prod for better compliance. He predicted today's announcement would revive a debate in Damascus between the conservative "old guard" and would-be reformers who want to ease the confrontation with Washington.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was an original sponsor of the Syria Accountability Act, expressed satisfaction with the president's announcement. "He went beyond what was asked of him," Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said.

She said the Assad government had effectively brought the sanctions on itself for ignoring diplomatic overtures from the administration, including a mission to Damascus last year in which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spelled out the actions that Washington sought.

She said the sanctions tarred Syria's international image and would dissuade future investors.

"We're saying: you're not worthy," she said. "It sends a strong signal to Syria's neighbors that this is a country the U.S. doesn't want to deal with. It's not just a cosmetic change."