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U.S. slaps sanctions on Syria

By KRISHNADEV CALAMUR

WASHINGTON, May 11 (UPI) -- The Bush administration announced sanctions against Syria Tuesday, including a ban on exports and a freeze on certain Syrian assets.

In a statement announcing the sanctions, President George W. Bush accused Syria of "supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq ... ."

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The sanctions prevent the export to Syria of military or dual-use items and U.S. products others than food and medicine. It also prevents Syrian aircraft from taking off or landing in the United States. U.S. banks must cut ties with the Commercial Bank of Syria due to money-laundering concerns, and the U.S. assets of certain Syrian individuals and government entities will be frozen.

The sanctions were mandated by the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which Congress passed last November and Bush signed the following month. The act aims to punish Damascus for its support of militant groups in the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which are on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations; its military presence in neighboring Lebanon where it has some 20,000 troops; and its alleged attempts to make chemical and biological weapons.

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Washington regards Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and has also accused Damascus of not doing enough to curb the influx of militants from Syria into Iraq, which is under U.S. occupation.

It is unclear, however, how much the sanctions will really hurt Syria. Syria's national airline does not fly to the United States and there is already a restriction on the sale of military equipment to the country because of its alleged ties to terrorist organizations. Also, no individuals or entities have yet been designated to have their assets frozen.

However, it is U.S. companies, mainly oil firms that are already in Syria, that are bound to be the most hurt.

"They are well aware of the situation," said a senior U.S. State Department official, who asked he not be named. "It will be difficult for them to stay in operations."

U.S. exports to Syria in 2003 were $214 million; food and machinery accounted for 63 percent. The sanctions are likely to affect some $100 million worth of sales to Syria. In contrast, last year Syria exported $259 million worth of goods to the United States, 75 percent of it oil-related products. Syrian sales to the United States are not affected by the sanctions.

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The imposition of the sanctions comes as U.S. officials have acknowledged dialogue between the two countries over the issue of Iraq. Syria is also said to have provided information on al-Qaida operatives to the United States.

"Syria has offered specific and very valuable tips on al-Qaida threats ... ," the senior State Department official said.

There have been several differences over security, however.

During the U.S.-led war on Iraq, U.S. officials accused Syria of selling military equipment to the Saddam Hussein regime and later said Damascus was allowing fighters to use its borders to cross into Iraq and engage in anti-U.S. violence. Syria acknowledged the second problem and said later it was doing all it could to prevent the infiltration.

The senior State Department official acknowledged there had been "a certain degree of cooperation" on the border issues, but added, "there needs to be more."

The presence of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas on Syrian soil also continues to be a sore point between the two countries. Although the Syrians maintain the offices are for media activities only, the senior State Department official said the groups had used Syrian soil to plan specific terror attacks on Israel.

"The Syrian government is aware," the official said. "They have taken no steps whatsoever."

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The official said Tuesday continuing cooperation by Syria despite the sanctions could only help Assad government.

"Our message to Syria ... be responsive and we can move in a different direction," the official said.

The official said the sanctions were imposed after much deliberation and dialogue with Syria, but few concrete results.

"We had a year of intense dialogue," the official said. "The decision was taken with regret."

The Syrians were notified of the action earlier Tuesday by the U.S. ambassador to Damascus, the official said.

The official warned that the United States would be paying close attention to the Syrian response to the sanctions.

"The administration will be reviewing very carefully Syria's response to the steps taken," the official said. "There are other sanctions that can still be invoked."

In Damascus, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri criticized the sanctions.

"They are unjust and unjustified," he told reporters, adding, "These sanctions will not have any affect on Syria."

It remains to be seen how Syrian will respond to the sanctions, however.

In a visit to the State Department in March, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha told reporters the two nations would continue to cooperate even if sanctions were imposed.

We in Syria believe that we want to improve our relations with the United States," he told reporters outside the U.S. State Department following a courtesy call on Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We want constructive relations with the United States."

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He added, "When we decided to cooperate with the United States on certain issues we did so because of our convictions, not from fear of sanctions."

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