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   Vol. 67/No. 46           December 29, 2003  
Bush signs bill on Syria sanctions
WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. president George Bush signed legislation December 12 that gives him discretion to impose a range of sanctions on Syria. Days earlier the European Union (EU) executive body concluded a draft economic accord with Damascus. Syrian trade with companies in Europe stands at $6 billion annually as compared to $300 million with U.S. companies.

The two actions highlight the continuing conflict between Washington and its rivals in Europe over the wealth and resources in the Middle East, one year after their sharp divisions broke into the open over the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The so-called Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act gives Bush the option of waiving sanctions against Damascus in the interests of “national security.” In October and November the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, passed the bill with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. Bush signed the bill without the usual fanfare, commenting, “My approval of the act does not constitute my adoption of the various statements of policy in the act as U.S. foreign policy.” Administration officials have cited progress in Syrian cooperation in Washington’s “war on terrorism,” including searching for Iraqi frozen assets and support for the U.S.-backed occupation regime in Iraq.

The day after the signing of the bill, however, a delegation of members of the House Homeland Security Committee visited Damascus to press Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to accept Washington’s demands.

The bill calls for sanctions against Damascus if it does not prevent armed groups opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq from entering into that country from Syria; shut down the offices of Palestinian groups in Syria that Washington deems “terrorist”; withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon; and halt any development of medium- and long-range missile systems. Washington has also charged that Damascus is developing chemical and biological weapons.

Bush has 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 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.

The “association agreement” between the European Commission of the EU and Syria would allow Damascus to export its goods to the EU at preferential rates. All EU member states must ratify the accord in order for it to come into effect. The EU began negotiations with 12 north African and Middle Eastern nations in the 1990s to establish an EU-dominated free trade zone in the Mediterranean basin.  
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