White House to delay Syria sanctions-sources
The Bush administration has decided to delay new sanctions against Syria for backing anti-Israel militants, citing concerns about rising tensions in the region, and congressional sources said on Thursday.
U.S. President Bush had planned as early as this week to curb future investments by American energy firms in Syria and prohibit Syrian aircraft from flying into the United States.
Bush was also expected either to block transactions involving the Syrian government or ban exports to Syria of U.S. products other than food and medicine, the sources said.
"The situation on the ground in the Middle East warrants that the announcement be postponed," said one congressional source briefed by the administration.
The sources said the sanctions were now likely to be delayed until mid-April, underscoring U.S. and international concerns their imposition could exacerbate tensions in the region following the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin by Israeli forces.
Bush said on Tuesday that he plans to send a delegation to the region next week to "see if we can't keep the (peace) process alive." The U.S. team will be led by deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, National Security Council Middle East chief Elliot Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, officials said.
Administration officials said Bush was not backing away from the sanctions, under legislation he signed into law in December known as the Syria Accountability Act. They said the decision to impose them had been made, but the timing was in flux.
The Syria Accountability Act offers Bush a menu of sanctions to punish Damascus for backing "terrorism," failing to stop anti-U.S. fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syrian soil, developing chemical and perhaps biological weapons, and keeping troops in Lebanon.
Syria denies giving more than political support to militants it says are fighting Israeli occupation.
Syria, still formally at war with Israel, has not admitted having unconventional arms, but says it has a right to defend itself against the Jewish state and its alleged nuclear arsenal.
Congressional sources briefed by the administration said the White House plans to clamp down on new licenses to prohibit U.S. energy companies from making future investments without disrupting existing projects.
Under the flight restrictions, aircraft of any air carrier owned or controlled by Syria would be prohibited from taking off from, landing in, or flying over the United States. The move would be largely symbolic since Syrian planes do not now fly to the United States.
With trade between the two countries a modest $300 million or less annually, the new sanctions would have more political than economic effect.
Last month ConocoPhillips, the No. 3 U.S. oil company, announced that it would end its operations in Syria.
Devon Energy Corp. has a four-year lease to drill for oil on land in northeastern Syria. Exxon Mobil Corp., which has operated in Syria for over 50 years, has a stake in a lubricants-related joint venture and sells a limited volume of chemicals. Both firm said they would comply with any new U.S. rules.
The proposed penalties against Syria stand in stark contrast to the White House's decision to ease sanctions on Libya as a reward for scrapping its nuclear arms programs. Bush has seized on Libya's pledge to abandon weapons programs as an example for other countries, including Syria.