President Bush has imposed sanctions on Syria, heeding the call of lawmakers and American Jews who wanted the Bush administration to get tougher on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The president imposed several sanctions Tuesday, banning U.S. exports to Syria, except for food and medicine, and banning all flights to and from Syria. He also left in place several sanctions imposed by congressional legislation, including a ban of "dual-use" exports that could be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and freezing assets of Syrian citizens linked to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
"Despite many months of diplomatic efforts to convince the government of Syria to change its behavior, Syria has not taken significant, concrete steps to address the full range of U.S. concerns," Bush said in a letter to Congress.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the concerns included Syria's continued development of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism and failure to police its border with Iraq.
Lawmakers had been pressing the White House to impose sanctions for months, since the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed Congress last year. After Bush signed the bill in December, many believed he would impose the sanctions in March.
The Bush administration made numerous diplomatic efforts to curb Syria's links to terrorism, its attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and its continued control of Lebanon. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Syria last year and was assured by Assad that Syria's behavior would change.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, had been frustrated by the administration's delays but said Tuesday that she believed the White House's patience showed it was trying to solve the issue diplomatically.
"Waiting this amount of time shows he has done everything possible to send the diplomatic message," she said of Bush. "It shows the president went the extra mile."
Ros-Lehtinen, who sponsored the Syria Accountability Act with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said it was a "great day."
"No one is saying sanctions is going to bring down the government," she said. "We're saying it's important as a government to send a message that this is behavior that should be punished."
Engel issued a statement saying the ball now is in Damascus' court.
"It is my hope that by implementing the Syria Accountability Act, the Untied 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," he said.
The Syria bill was passed in part due to lobbying from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The group is holding its annual convention in Washington next week, and members are likely to lobby lawmakers to put additional pressure on the Bush administration about Syria.
Many believed the ascent to power of the Western-educated Assad and Syria's willingness to provide intelligence about terrorists associated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks meant the country was willing to change its ways. But Syria hasn't done what the United States had hoped.
"We've asked them to do some things, and they haven't responded," Bush said in an interview with Al-Ahram International television last week. "And Congress passed a law saying that if Syria will not join, for example, booting out a Hezbollah office out of Damascus, that the president has the right to put sanctions on."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Tuesday that the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, condemned the U.S. sanctions and that Syria has worked with other Arab states to fight terrorism.
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