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U.S. Tensions With Syria Escalate

White House Weighs Punitive Economic and Political Measures

By Robin Wright and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A01

After decades of tension with Syria, the Bush administration intensified its search yesterday for punitive actions -- from freezing assets to tightening diplomatic isolation -- to force Damascus to withdraw troops from Lebanon, end support for terrorism and block assistance to the Iraqi insurgency through Syria.

The United States is now using the world furor over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to generate momentum against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Before flying to Washington, U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey relayed a stern message yesterday to Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for additional joint action with allies to heighten pressure on Damascus. "If they can send the Syrians a message that this kind of behavior in which they're engaged is not acceptable, then perhaps the Syrians will start to worry more about their isolation . . . politically and economically, not just from us but from others as well," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The assassination put Syria back on the Bush administration's front burner at a time when U.S. attention had been focused on other flash points, particularly nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. A thorn to Republican and Democratic administrations, Syria has had 14,000 to 42,000 troops in Lebanon for three decades, a presence U.S. officials say destabilizes the country and the region.

The United States has put Syria on its list of states that sponsor terrorism for providing a refuge for extremists and a supply lifeline for groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah. Most recently, U.S. officials complained that Assad has failed to clamp down on supporters of Iraq's insurgency.

The diplomatic battle lines were shaping up yesterday as the United States and its allies pressed Assad to address international demands.

Syria and Iran, both condemned by the Bush administration for their links to terrorism, announced yesterday that they are forming a united front to deal with potential threats.

"In view of the special conditions faced by Syria, Iran will transfer its experience, especially concerning sanctions, to Syria," said Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref after a meeting in Tehran with Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri. "At this sensitive point, the two countries require a united front due to numerous challenges." He did not elaborate.

The United States, in turn, is working closely with French President Jacques Chirac, who made a surprise trip to Beirut yesterday to convey condolences to the Hariri family. What to do about Syria is "rapidly climbing up the agenda" of a meeting on Monday between President Bush and Chirac, said a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity. "We're on the same page. . . . The entire international community wants to see something happen."

The administration is exploring three baskets of measures -- under the Syrian Accountability Act, under the USA Patriot Act and by executive order, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Under the Patriot Act, Washington can cut off access to U.S. banking institutions that serve as clearinghouses for international financial transactions -- not just with the United States -- in ways that would hurt Syria, U.S. officials said. Threatening to invoke this measure in the past produced new cooperation, said sources familiar with the move.

But imposing new sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act, such as limiting travel of Syrian diplomats at the United Nations and in Washington, could backfire, U.S. officials said. Damascus could impose the same 25-mile limit on U.S. diplomats, curtailing intelligence operations and monitoring the Syrian border with Iraq.

Another potential tool is a presidential executive order to freeze Syrian assets in the United States, an administration official said.

Washington is interested in new measures in part because Syria has rebuffed repeated overtures, U.S. officials said. Former U.S. ambassador Edward P. Djerejian met Assad on Jan. 13 and conveyed messages from the United States asking Syria to act urgently to head off a serious rupture in relations. Djerejian said Assad responded with "a list of things he had been doing," but said they were unconvincing. As a result, relations are now at "a crossroads," he said.

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