2. Bush Administration Backs away from Sanctions for Syria

Two weeks before the Syrian Accountability Act comes before the US Senate, top administration officials are at loggerheads over the final text.

Last month, a tough version imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions was approved by the House of Representatives 398-4. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld favors harsh punishment for Syria for its support of guerrilla fighters in Iraq, to show a cocky Syrian President that Washington means business.

However Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind), an avowed anti-sanctions advocate, seeks to water the text down “to provide the president with maximum flexibility.”

Our Washington sources report that he reflects the views of a pro-moderation camp led surprisingly by Vice President Richard Cheney, as well as secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage.

Whereas one member of the Rumsfeld camp referred indignantly to Syrian president Bashar Assad, “Who does he think he is?” an official on the opposite side said: “Additional pressure does need to be brought on Syria, but this is not the right time.”

Lugar has promised to modify the Senate version of the bill before it is sent to the floor.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources detail the modifications referring to Syria’s espousal of terrorists. Whereas the original Act requires the president to impose two or more sanctions from a list of six if Syria fails to cut its links with terrorist groups including Hamas, Hizballah and the Islamic Jihad or halt its ballistic missile program and biological and chemical weapons productions, the bill put before the Senate allows the president to waive the imposition of sanctions for six-month periods for national security reasons.

The clause requiring Syrian compliance coming up for review every six months is omitted as is the preamble defining a state sponsoring terrorism as a terrorist state. The sanctions law can therefore be invoked only if the Syrian government is proved to be directly complicit in terror operations. Under another modification, Syria is no longer held responsible for the actions of the Hizballah and the Palestinian terrorist groups based in Damascus. The call for action to curtail Syria’s efforts to expand its support of the Hizballah has made way for a lukewarm request to the administration to consider such curtailment.

The original bill for the first time imposed sanctions on a state sponsoring terror in a clause that drew a parallel between the Hizballah and al Qaeda. That key parallel has been dropped, further diluting the legislation as a whole.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources, opposition to toning down the sanctions bill comes from an unexpected quarter, Kuwait. Thursday, Nov 6, Ahmed Jarallah, the editor of the semi-official Al Sayassa, called for the Assad regime in Damascus to be toppled without delay because of its direct responsibility for the current terror and turmoil in Iraq. Kuwait fears the export of the instability to the emirate. Already, as Assad told Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak this week (see separate article in this issue), Al Qaeda agents and operatives are infiltrating Kuwait to reach Iraq.

Cheney and Rumsfeld in rare disagreement

The Vice President and defense secretary have always seen eye to eye on Iraq policy. However, for the first time, our sources in the US capital see a significant area of disagreement.

Cheney, backed by Powell and Armitage, argues that for the present, Washington must put up with Assad’s misbehavior because the administration and US administrator Paul Bremer need Syria’s help on a very specific plane.

The way Cheney sees it, what Iraq needs at this moment is bright lights.

Full illumination of the dark warrens of Iraqi cities, towns and villages will do more than anything to bring stability, uphold security and cut down on guerrilla attacks against US troops. For this, United States needs cheap electricity – massive wattage – from the power plants of eastern Syria.

Moreover, the complex relationship between the Turks and the Kurds leaves the land route to Iraq from Syria’s Mediterranean ports as the safest way to ship goods into Iraq. It’s also the cheapest: Syrian custom levies are low while the Kurds in northern Iraq charge more than 125 percent of value for the passage of goods through their border posts with Turkey.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have learned that, in the latest round of discussions on Syria, Cheney has been especially critical of Massoud Barzani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Most of the border stations on the Iraq-Turkish frontier are manned by PUK men. Cheney accuses Barzani of turning the gouging of importers into his main source of income. In the meantime, the debate over the Bush administration’s handling of the Syrian dilemma continues to swing back and forth.

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