Washington, Nov. 12 (Reuters): The US Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions on Syria unless the White House says it has stopped sponsoring terrorism and halted programmes for weapons of mass destruction.
The Senate passed the Bill 89-4, following similar action by the nearly unanimous House in October. The vote came amid rising tension with Damascus, which Washington also accuses of occupying Lebanon and failing to secure its border with Iraq while allowing anti-American fighters to make their way there.
The Senate changed the Bill to give President George W. Bush more power to waive the economic and diplomatic penalties if he deems it in the national interest, and the House must approve the change before the measure will go to Bush.
The White House had resisted the bipartisan push in Congress to impose penalties on Damascus, but lifted its objections after it accused Syria of ignoring US requests to crack down on Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla groups.
The administration has accused Damascus of doing little to help the US in its war against terrorism and said it has allowed groups to pass into Iraq to attack US soldiers.
Syria has said relations with the US were the most negative in years. It said it is working to secure the border and urged Washington to do the same on the Iraq side.
The Bill, some two years in the making, lets Bush “calibrate US sanctions against Syria in response to positive Syrian behaviour,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar said. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said Damascus has a choice of continuing “to harbour and support groups devoted to terror, or it can act in ways that will help restore stability and peace to the region and thereby create a better economic future for its people.”
Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said the time “to sit back and hope for Syria to change course has passed,” and that it “simply has failed one too many times to live up to these obligations.”
No senator spoke against the sanctions Bill.
With trade between the two countries a modest $300 million or less annually, the sanctions would have more political than economic effects.
The Bill would ban US trade with Syria in items that could be used in weapons programmes.
It also calls on Bush to impose at least two other sanctions from a menu including barring US businesses from investing in Syria, restricting travel in the United States by Syrian diplomats, and banning exports of US products other than food and medicine to Syria.