The Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act of 2003 charges Syria with supporting "terrorist groups" such as Hamas, Hizb Allah and Islamic Jihad, continuing to develop a weapons of mass destruction programme and permitting Arab fighters to cross its border into Iraq to attack US troops.
It also criticizes Syria for refusing to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, where it maintains roughly 17,000 troops.
If passed, the bill would impose various sanctions against Syria, some of which already exist because of the country's classification by the US State Department as a terrorist-sponsoring state.
The House International Relations Committee recently voted overwhelmingly to send the bill to the House floor for further debate.
Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who sponsored the legislation along with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, said the bill is “the right mechanism to press the Syrian regime to halt all of its destructive policies.”
“The time has come to hold Syria accountable for its actions,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
According to the bill, those actions include allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to maintain terrorist training camps within Syria, camps that the Israeli government says produce "suicide bombers". Many congressional supporters of the bill seem to agree.
“The training of terrorists in terrorist camps in Syria is an outrageous affront to the civilized world,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-CA, the committee’s ranking minority leader.
The Palestinian 'guerrilla camp' hit
by Israeli warplanes in Ein Saheb
Syria denies that any such camps exist and has expressed outrage at the recent bombing strike of one such alleged camp outside Damascus by the Israeli Air Force following a human bombing in Haifa.
Dr Murhaf Jouejati, an expert on Syrian affairs at the Middle East Institute, said the camp bombed by Israel “had been abandoned for seven years.”
Furthermore, he said the bill wrongly accuses the Syrian government of allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to maintain offices in Damascus from which to conduct operational planning for suicide attacks against Israel.
“These offices do not provide any logistical support to operations in the occupied territories… They do not train people to put belts around their waists to commit suicide,” he said, saying the offices are more devoted to press operations than anything else.
Yet, few congressional supporters of the bill are buying that argument.
“In fact, the leader of the Palestine Islamic Jihad, which just murdered 19 innocent people in the Israeli city of Haifa, lives in Damascus,” Engel said. “Not only has the Palestinian Islamic Jihad murdered scores of Israelis, but it has killed several US citizens.”
Engel said given what he perceived to be Syrian support for Palestinian terrorists groups, Israel has a legitimate right to strike Syrian targets.
However, Jouejati argued that by not condemning the Israeli bombing of Syria, the Bush administration was reinforcing the widespread belief in the Middle East that the United States is biased in favour of Israel.
“It is inescapable to view the American action and the Israeli action as being in cahoots with each other… This is not a good thing for the US administration in the Arab world”
Middle East Institute expert
“It is inescapable to view the American action and the Israeli action as being in cahoots with each other… This is not a good thing for the US administration in the Arab world,” he said.
The bill strikes hard at the belief that many of the resistance fighters attacking US forces in Iraq are entering the country from Syria with the implicit approval of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.
Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, said during his recent congressional testimony that 123 of the 278 foreign nationals arrested in Iraq were Syrians.
Critics of the legislation argue that Syria has helped the United States in its so-called war on terrorism, sharing intelligence with US agencies that led to the arrest of several members of al-Qaida.
“In light of this, it makes more political sense to reward Syria than to punish it,” Jouejati wrote in an article for the Middle East Institute.
Proponents of the bill countered that any Syrian assistance in fighting terrorism was outweighed by its dubious connections to organisations like Hizb Allah.
“Damascus is at best two-faced - throwing just a few small bones of information to American sources while continuing to aid the most violent terrorist groups in the Middle East,” Engel said.
“We’re in many ways threatening the Syrians to do exactly as we say or else, and I just don’t think that’s a good way to get along”
One of only two members of the House International Relations Committee to vote against the bill was Republican Ron Paul of Texas, who said, “It just looks like we’re looking for more trouble.”
“We’re in many ways threatening the Syrians to do exactly as we say or else, and I just don’t think that’s a good way to get along,” he said.
The bill would reaffirm sanctions already levied against Syria that prohibit Syrian airlines from flying in the United States and ban US military aid.
Other punitive measures would make it illegal for US businesses to operate with or inside Syria and would prevent the exporting of any “dual-use” products to Syria.
Finally, in what some would call a diplomatic slap in the face, the bill would prevent Syrian diplomats in Washington, DC from traveling more than 25 miles outside the US capital.
The sponsors of the bill said they have strong support in the rest of the House and expect it to pass in a full floor vote.
Then they will have to wait and see how a similar bill fairs in the Senate before knowing whether a final piece of legislation will make it to the president’s desk.