Pressure mounts on Syria

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Israel’s surprise attack on Syria shattered nearly 30 years of calm between the two countries, since the guns fell silent after a negotiated truce following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Despite this, the “situation” between Syria and Israel has been one of a conflict under control.

However, Damascus does periodically pop up on Washington’s political radar screen and since the war in Iraq began last March, President Bashar Assad’s Baathist government has never truly been completely out of Washington’s line of political fire. Particularly active in the drive to keep the Syrian issue alive in Congress are Bush’s neo-conservative friends and Lebanon’s former army commander, General Michel Aoun – strange bedfellows, indeed, when you stop to think about it. But you know how the old adage goes, the enemy of my enemy … and so forth. And there is hardly a town that loves complex politics as much as Washington.

Since the invasion of Iraq began, various members of the Bush administration have at times accused Syria of assisting the Iraqi military and abetting Saddam Hussein’s regime. Among the alleged offenses are the claims that Syria is sending the Iraqis night-vision equipment, allowing Islamist jihadis to cross the porous border into Iraq to fight American troops, supporting major “terrorist” organizations (a number of which maintain offices in Damascus) and of possession and continued development of weapons of mass destruction. Some even went as far as to assert that Saddam hid his WMD in Syria shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. Syria denies the charges and claims the offices maintained in Damascus are “information bureaus” of groups it regards as resistance movements.

However, at a roundtable discussion on Syria last month on Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, accused the Syrians of running “a terror center near Damascus.” Of course, no mention was made of the intelligence center that is reportedly based near Aleppo and where Syrian intelligence is rumored to be closely cooperating with the CIA in the war against terrorism. This might explain the White House’s reluctance in signing the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, calling for economic sanctions against Syria unless it deploys out of Lebanon and alters its policy towards these groups regarded as terrorists by the US State Department. But again last month, friends of Israel and enemies of Syria stepped up their efforts to pass the bill in a renewed effort to have sanctions imposed on Syria as punishment for failing to toe the US line. Marc Ginzburg, a former US ambassador to Morocco, said, “Syria continues to believe it can ignore any threat from the US.” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, however, said earlier Syria would meet any “reasonable” US request for help following US accusations that Damascus was not doing enough to end support of “terrorist activity.”

Undersecretary of State John Bolton also announced last month that the administration had now dropped its objection to the bill and Representative Eliot Engel said, “I think it’s time to pass this important legislation.” Engel said the bill has the support of the majority of the House (266) and the Senate (73), including the majority of Democrats and Republicans. It would be worth looking at what those sanctions would in fact accomplish should President Bush, who last year opposed passing the act, now decide to sign it.

However, a number of high-ranking seasoned State Department officials, who have served many years in Damascus and other Arab countries, and together possess more than 100 years of experience in the Middle East, believe passing the anti-Syrian legislation would be counter-productive and would not profit US interests. Instead, they say it would marginalize Syria, rendering future negotiations all the more difficult, and further infuriate an already volatile Arab world. They say it would be seen as an insult by Syria, whom the US needs as it continues to fight its war on terror. Particularly at this point in time, when events are not turning out as smoothly as the Pentagon expected.

Closing offices of what the US and Israel consider terrorist organizations, the State Department diplomats argue, would force the groups underground and would simply render the task of keeping tabs on them all that much harder. Far from solving the problem at hand, it would create new ones. Its only accomplishment would be to mark political points, which would not translate into much in real practical terms. Particularly in the spotlight are Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Maintaining relations with Damascus allows the United States to pressure Syria to, in turn, pressure Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary organization, which Syria partially funds and somewhat controls. Consigning Damascus to the proverbial corner would remove those constraints, rendering the situation along the Lebanese-Israeli border all the more precarious. This would have the opposite effect of one of the intended aims of the Syria Accountability Act — that of providing greater stability and protection for Israel from cross-border raids on northern Israeli towns and settlements. Aoun, a staunch opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, accuses Syria of “playing the role of both arsonist and firefighter.” Given the influence Damascus holds in the political arena, Syria, in this instance, can indeed be the firefighter, if it chose to. Imposed sanctions on Damascus would be received as a slap in the face and could well find them playing a single game, that of arsonist, a move that would be counterproductive in any future peace effort, say Middle East analysts. Meanwhile, following his appearance on Capitol Hill, the Lebanese government censored Aoun for his remarks. While the economic sanctions that would accompany the Syria Accountability Act does somewhat worry the Syrians, its ramifications are not all that devastating, seeing the current level of trade between Syria and the US is not all that important in the first place. According to the US-Arab Chamber of Commerce and the US Census Bureau, exports to Syria from the US in 2002 amounted to a pitiful $274.1 million, while imports from Syria for the same year were only $148.1 million. And sanctions aimed at keeping technology out of Syria would simply not work. “If Syrians need a computer, they simply drive to Beirut,” said a veteran US diplomat, intricately familiar with the area. Smuggling banned items into Syria from Lebanon would be all the more simplified by the fact that Syrian troops are still present in large chunks of Lebanon, especially along the border between the two countries. In any case, those trade figures do not represent the real volume of imports, seeing there already exists much transport of goods between the two countries. And that’s not counting imports from American companies based in Europe.

Engel, one of the congressmen pushing for the bill, blames the lack of progress on the State Department, which he said “seems to be full of Arabists supporting Syria over Israel.” The State Department, which he called “one-sided,” continues to “frustrate” the issue.

Leading up to the war in Iraq, the administration – particularly the Department of Defense – chose to ignore the State Department’s advice, whose “Arabists” seemed to know the mindset of Iraq and the Arab world far better than most others in the administration, particularly the neocons closest to the president. The rest, as they say is history. Let’s hope that this history, in this instance, does not repeat itself.

(Claude Salhani is foreign editor and a political news analyst for United Press International in Washington, DC.)