World - Reuters

White House to Delay Syria Sanctions-Sources

Date: Thu Mar 25, 8:59 PM ET

By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has decided to delay new sanctions against Syria for backing anti-Israel militants, citing concerns about rising tensions in the region, congressional sources said on Thursday.

President Bush (news - web sites) 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.

Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam this week urged the Bush administration to reconsider imposing sanctions and said they would hurt American interests as much as Syria.

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 plans to send a delegation to the region next week to "see if we can't keep the (peace) process alive."

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.

But some Democrats criticized the delay.

"The Middle East is a volatile region, and every two weeks there is another crisis. The administration should not get caught up in the passions of the moment and should implement the Syria Accountability Act without delay," U.S. Rep. Eliot Engle, a New York Democrat, said.

"Regardless of other regional disputes, Damascus continues to support terror, occupy Lebanon, and stockpile weapons of mass destruction," he said.

ACCOUNTABILITY ACT

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 (news - web sites) from Syrian soil, developing chemical and perhaps biological weapons, and keeping troops in Lebanon.

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. It denies giving more than political support to militants it says are fighting Israeli occupation.

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. Syrian planes do not now fly to the United States.

Annual trade between the countries is $300 million or less, so the new sanctions would have little 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. 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.

SOURCE

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