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Bush slaps economic sanctions on Syria

Ron Hutcheson Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON — President Bush slapped tough economic sanctions on Syria on Tuesday as punishment for the country’s ties to terrorists, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its attempts to undermine the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

Bush’s executive order virtually shuts down the modest U.S. trade with Syria, except for food and medicine, bans flights between the two countries and freezes certain Syrian assets in the United States. Trade between the United States and Syria totals about $400 million a year, but is important to Syria, a relatively poor country that is struggling to participate in the global economy.

Bush’s decision reflects his growing frustration with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the president challenged to join “efforts to build a Middle East that is stable, secure and free from terror and violence.”

Bush’s get-tough approach, however, could further alienate Arab nations that are already angry over the U.S. occupation in Iraq, abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers and Bush’s strong support for Israel.

Bush issued the executive order after signaling his intention to punish Syria in an interview last week with Al-Ahram International, an Egyptian newspaper.

“They won’t join us in fighting terror. We’ve asked them to do some things, and they haven’t responded,” he said in the May 6 interview. “We’ve talked to the Syrian leader very clearly. These are reasonable requests and, thus far, he hasn’t heeded them.”

A White House fact sheet on the sanctions says Syria “has one of the most advanced Arab state chemical weapons capabilities” and “is believed to have chemical warheads.” The fact sheet also says that it’s “highly probable that Syria continues to develop an offensive biological weapons capability.”

Ammar al-Arsan, a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, called Bush’s action “another step back in the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a step back in U.S. credibility in the Middle East and also a step back in Syria-American relations.”

He said Syria would nevertheless make “every possible effort” to improve relations with the United States.

Pro-Israel groups and members of Congress who’d advocated a hard-line approach to Syria praised Bush’s decision. Congress cleared the way for tough action last year by passing the Syria Accountability Act, but administration officials had been split on whether to impose sanctions.

Some State Department officials felt that Assad, who took over from his father, Hafez al Assad, in 2000, should be given time to improve relations. Assad encouraged hopes for closer ties by offering some help against the al Qaeda terrorist network, but he infuriated U.S. officials by failing to stem the flow of Islamic extremists who are eager to battle U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq.

Assad has been highly critical of the U.S. occupation and has voiced approval for Iraqi attacks on U.S. troops.

Another long-standing point of contention is Syria’s status as a safe haven for Hezbollah and other organizations that sponsor terrorist attacks against Israel. U.S. officials also have pushed for Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon, where they have been since 1976.

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