Bush Slaps Several Sanctions on Syria

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.

Divide Surfaces on Handling Security

It’s not every day that an Israeli army chief of staff calls in top journalists to express deep misgivings about government policy.

So when Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon initiated a late October briefing to warn that the government’s handling of Palestinian terrorism could provoke more intense Palestinian violence, the country sat up and took notice.

Ya’alon’s critique reflected a deep divide between two schools of thought: the hard-liners, like Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who believe relentless military pressure can force the Palestinians to abandon terrorism for peace negotiations, and relative moderates, like Ya’alon and many of the Israel Defense Force’s top generals, who maintain that Palestinian violence will only abate when serious political incentives are put on the table.

Ya’alon’s concern about the lack of a political horizon mirrors growing public criticism of government policy and decreasing confidence in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s capacity to deliver the peace and security he promised when first elected nearly three years ago.

The domestic criticism of Sharon has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where some powerful voices are urging pressure on Israel to move the Palestinian track forward and help deflect Arab anger at the U.S. role in Iraq. By going public, Ya’alon highlighted Israel’s profound security dilemma and deep differences in the security establishment over how to deal with it.

All the top brass agree that tight closures, blockades and roadblocks in and around Palestinian population centers make it harder for suicide bombers and other terrorists to get through. At the same time, though, Ya’alon and others argue that the longer Palestinians are cooped up without minimal public services, the easier it is for terrorist groups to tap into feelings of humiliation and hopelessness to recruit future bombers. In other words, they say, it may make good sense in the short term to clamp down to stop the next bomber, but in the long run, the tight closures could produce dozens more terrorists.

These differences came to a head in late October, when Sharon convened a high-level meeting to discuss the unprecedentedly tight noose Israel had imposed on the Palestinians in the wake of an Oct. 4 suicide bombing that killed 21 people in a Haifa restaurant.

Ya’alon warned of a pressure cooker in the Palestinian territories that was likely to explode and urged that restrictions on the movement of people and goods among West Bank towns and villages be eased.

The director of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter — who sees his organization as primarily responsible for stopping the bombings — objected. Any lifting of closures or roadblocks could enable suicide bombers to get through to their targets, he argued. Mofaz backed Dichter, but agreed to some minor easing of restrictions.

Convinced that the government was about to make a major blunder with potentially far-reaching military ramifications, Ya’alon decided to go public. He incurred sharp criticism from the government, primarily for making political comments while still in uniform.

Ya’alon’s supporters said distinctions between the military and political domains are not so clear-cut, and that as Israel’s No. 1 soldier, Ya’alon was duty-bound to warn the public about what he sees as a potential deterioration in the military situation.

Ya’alon did not leave it there, however. He implied that because of its hard line, the government had missed a great opportunity to take the peace process forward during Mahmoud Abbas’ brief tenure as Palestinian Authority prime minister and was likely to do so again with Abbas’ successor, Ahmed Qurei. Moreover, Ya’alon complained, every time there might be a chance to move forward, the government seemed to order another targeted assassination of a terrorist kingpin.

Government spokesmen vehemently denied the charges. Mofaz claimed he is doing all he can to ease conditions for Palestinian civilians but said ongoing terrorism makes it impossible for him to go as far as he would like. Moreover, he said, he did all he could to help Abbas — including an agreement to transfer four more cities to Palestinian control — a plan that was torpedoed by an eruption of Palestinian terrorism.

As for Qurei, Mofaz said he is willing to work with him, but progress will depend on just how far Qurei is prepared to go in cracking down on terrorism, as the Palestinians agreed to do under the “road map.”

For his part, Sharon expects to hold a key working session with Qurei soon. But his own political position is not as strong as it was when Abbas was prime minister.

Sharon’s position has not been helped by the police investigation into corruption allegations concerning him and his two sons. On Oct. 30, Sharon was interrogated for six hours on the so-called “Greek Island Affair,” in which he is suspected of taking bribes to help Likud activist and millionaire contractor David Appel secure a Greek island for tourist development. Police afterward were divided on whether they had enough evidence to press charges. But even if Sharon is not indicted, his political star seems to be in decline.

Sharon’s weakness may be one reason for emerging signs of a U.S. rethinking of the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research is recommending that the Bush administration apply pressure on Israel to stop construction in settlements in order to make headway with the Palestinians — and, the thinking goes, thereby help calm the situation in Iraq.

The recommendation is in a paper written by Carl Ford, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, which was submitted last week to the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Ford’s position is said to reflect that of CIA Director George Tenet.

Coupled with the changes of nuance in Washington, Ya’alon’s critique could herald the beginnings of new domestic and international pressure on Sharon to move on the Palestinian track.

As usual, though, the key lies with Washington — and it’s hard to say what the president might do in an election year.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.