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U.S. News
Santorum trying again on Syria sanctions bill

Friday, April 18, 2003

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., said yesterday he hopes to see prompt Senate action on a revised version of the Syria Accountability Act, legislation that he co-sponsored last year with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., in his Capitol Hill office last week. (Susan Walsh, Associated Press)

The measure, which has not come to a vote, calls for economic sanctions against the Damascus government unless it halts a variety of actions considered to aid terrorism.

Santorum, after an appearance at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute in Oakland, said pressure to change Syria's behavior should be the Bush administration's first priority as it moves to exploit its military victory in neighboring Iraq.

For now, however, he said that the case against Syria should be pressed with diplomatic and economic pressures.

"I don't think military action should be on the table right now," he said.

The measure he introduced with the California Democrat last year maintains that sanctions should be imposed on Syria until the president certifies that it has ended its occupation of Lebanon, ceased support for terrorist groups -- including Hezbollah which operates in southern Lebanon -- and halted the devel- opment of biological and chemical weapons.

The penalties specified include banning U.S. investment in Syria, banning certain exports, and the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador.

Santorum said that he hoped to update the measure's language to reflect some of the additional administration criticisms of Syria's action that have emerged in connection with the new Gulf war, in particular the charge that it has allowed itself to be a haven for senior members of the Baathist regime.

The Bush administration was not enthused about the legislation last year, maintaining then that it could complicate its overall diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. In the waning days of the military conflict in Iraq, however, the administration has been increasingly confrontational toward the Syrian regime.

"I just think it is really time to get tough with Syria," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., who reintroduced the Syria Accountability Act in the House just before Congress recessed last week.

Many of the congressional supporters of sanctions against Syria are also strong allies of Israel, though they say the attempt to act against Syria, while potentially helpful to Israel, is part of a broader anti-terror campaign.

Syria has adamantly denied that it possesses germ, gas or nuclear arsenals and has questioned the motives of the United States for its tough criticism, saying it is tied to support for Israel.

Yesterday, the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, reiterated his government's willingness to allow weapons inspections if they applied to all regional states, including Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear arms.

The call for Syrian sanctions comes as congressional Democrats have expressed some unease about the administration's intentions toward Syria.

"America cannot go to war nor should it go to war with the world," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, though he said he believes that Syria needs to make major changes in its policies.

Authors of the Syrian sanctions say they would oppose any rush to military intervention.

"I don't think you can go from Step 1 to Step 10," Engel said. "We should not be invading. But I just never understood the complacency with which we acted toward Syria."

Santorum said the sanctions legislation could lay the groundwork for more serious action should Syria not respond to the American demands. He observed that the United States pursued diplomatic solutions against Iraq for 12 years. "My guess is it will not take us 12 years with Syria," he said.

James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. The New York Times contributed to this report.

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