WASHINGTON -- Syria has failed to fulfill key promises to cooperate on Iraq, particularly to close down the traffic of foreign fighters, smugglers and others across its border, which is triggering new congressional efforts to impose tougher U.S. restrictions on Damascus, according to U.S. and congressional officials.
President Bashar Assad has also not returned to Iraq $3 billion from Saddam Hussein's government held in Syrian banks, or closed offices of Islamic extremists and Palestinian radicals in the Syrian capital, as he promised Secretary of State Colin Powell in talks a year ago, U.S. officials said.
At the time, Powell told Assad that if he wanted to avoid sanctions contained in a bill proposed in Congress, he needed to take action to satisfy U.S. concerns. But Syria often failed to live up to administration expectations. While Saddam's money was frozen, for instance, the Syrian government then used it to pay claims to Syrians who said they were owed money by Iraq, reducing the amount left, U.S. officials said.
The White House last fall lifted its objections to the bill, known as the Syrian Accountability Act, and now pressure is mounting on the Bush administration to finally impose the sanctions it outlines. The administration was expected to select from a list of possible sanctions more than six weeks ago, but has repeatedly deferred action.
Congressional sources said the administration intended to impose penalties in stages, to see if a gradual unrolling would prod the Syrian government to reverse course. The law requires the administration by June 12 to ban export to Syria of any dual-use goods that could be used to produce weapons of mass destruction _ though some exemptions will be made for products such as communications gear _ and then pick at least two of six punitive measures listed in the legislation.
But some House lawmakers said they were tired of waiting and intend to introduce a new Syria-Lebanon liberation act, modeled to some extent on the Iraq Liberation Act, that would mandate broader sanctions against Syria than are called for in the current law and, by implication, support regime change.
"My patience has run out," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., one of the co-sponsors.
U.S. officials said the Bush administration is also frustrated, in part because the Syrian government has been either unable or unwilling to stop the traffic across the 400-mile border that it originally encouraged or facilitated, despite repeated pledges of action.
"It's a mixed bag at best. On occasion they are cooperative when they're motivated to do so. They could do a lot more on the borders of Iraq and hint that they will, but we'd like to see more evidence of it," said a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. "There's not a lot of progress on stopping people going through or the money. They're reluctant to be excessively helpful, and there's no good explanation why _ maybe solidarity with neighbors or not wanting to be seen to collaborate with the Americans."
Because Syria does not require visas for Arabs, the Syrian border has been the main route into Iraq for foreign fighters, many of whom are now fighting in Fallujah, officials say. In the early days of the U.S.-led intervention, the Syrians helped arrange logistics and transportation for anyone interested in crossing into Iraq, U.S. officials say.
Under pressure from the United States, Syria has repeatedly promised to end its direct help, but has been unable or unwilling to cut off the infrastructure it put in place, the officials say.
Part of the problem is that the Syrian government does not totally control the border. In some cases, tribes along the border have facilitated cross-border travel because of bribes or disinterest in heeding the message from Damascus; in others, Syrian border guards have looked the other way for bribes, the officials say. Over the past year, traffic across the border has become good business. Many Syrians do not agree with government policy or any move that is seen to assist forces occupying an Arab country, U.S. officials say.
Many Syrians are among the fighters who have shown up in hospitals or in custody, another reason Washington has continued to pressure Damascus, U.S. officials say.
But the U.S. official called Syria's failure to comply over the past year "a missed opportunity," adding that the administration had not been surprised by the failure to follow through on its promises.
State Department officials said that the White House has not put into effect the provisions of the original sanctions law because it did not want to overshadow the scheduled Arab League summit last month or embarrass Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, who had just held talks with Assad, during their visits to Washington this month. But the Arab League summit and the visit of the Jordanian king have been postponed until May, further delaying White House actions, State Department officials add.
But congressional officials say the administration is divided on whether to sanction Syria when the United States needs cooperation. "There is obviously an internal debate going on pitting some inside the NSC (National Security Council) and Defense against State and (CIA director George J.) Tenet," said a senior congressional aide familiar with the conversations between Capitol Hill and the White House. "Tenet is the voice, saying, 'Slow down, slow down, no matter how big a trickle (of cooperation there) is, at least it is a trickle."'
The State Department's annual report on terrorism, released Thursday, said Syria has cooperated in fighting al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and has discouraged signs of public support for al-Qaida within Syria. But it was faulted for continuing to provide "political and material support to Palestinian rejectionist groups." The report said that a number of groups continue to operate from Syria, "although they have lowered their public profiles since May, when Damascus announced that the groups had voluntarily closed their offices."
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