Upping the ante on Syria

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It’s been ten months since President George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA) of 2003 into law, hoping to pressure Syria into adopting a more aggressive stance on terrorism, and withdraw its troops from Lebanon. However, the measures adopted by Washington vis-à-vis Damascus, which combine punitive economic sanctions with diplomatic pressure, have failed to influence the government of Bashar Assad. Instead, the Syria Accountability Act has given the Syrian leader new incentives to adopt a harder line towards Washington. The hardening of positions between the two capitals plays into what some neo-cons in Washington are hoping for; a confrontation with Syria that would lead to Washington imposing a regime change in Damascus, much as in neighboring Iraq. Can you say more chaos in the Middle East?

It is still too early to tell if SALSA has been effective. The Bush administration waited for almost all of the act’s six month grace period to choose the minimum two of six penalties outlined in the act. So while the “sticks” are now in hand, Washington has offered Damascus few proverbial “carrots” to change its policies. In off the record conversations with six seasoned diplomats from the State Department, including high-ranking officials who have served many years in Syria and other Arab countries but asked not to be identified by name, all said they believe that the anti-Syrian legislation will be counterproductive and will not profit US interests. Those diplomats say that enforcing the act will instead marginalize Syria, making future negotiations harder.

While the Accountability Act threatened to disrupt trade between the two countries, of which there is very little to begin with, it is the US that stands to lose more, from both a business as well as a political perspective. Not least is the sharing of intelligence and cooperation in the fight against terrorism that, according to Syrian sources, have been forthcoming. Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s minister of expatriates, has said that since the 9/11 attacks, Syrian intelligence has worked with the US in combating terrorism, particularly against al-Qaeda.

“Damascus has hitherto been providing the US with critical data on al-Qaeda,” wrote Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. “Like Iran, another longstanding target of Israeli wrath whom we are actively alienating, Syria is of more use to the United States as a friend than an enemy,” said Judt.

Analysts who monitor Syrian-US relations say that trade between the two nations is at a pitiful low, diplomatic relations are already strained and Syrian aircrafts do not operate in the US. On May 11, Bush chose to implement a cocktail of penalties. In terms of SALSA, the measure with the most teeth is a ban on US exports to Syria except for food, medicine, civil aviation equipment and technology to promote the “free flow of information” (read: internet). Coming in a very distant second, Bush also chose to prohibit already non-existent Syrian flights to the United States.

But that was not all. To address Syria’s “threat” to US security, Bush invoked two additional pieces of legislation to penalize Damascus for perceived transgressions. Under section 311 of the US Patriot Act, the president instructed the secretary of the treasury to issue a “notice of proposed rulemaking” concerning a measure to require US financial institutions “to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS) based on money laundering concerns.”

CBS is by far Syria’s largest bank and one of the biggest in the Arab World in terms of assets. It is responsible for most if not all Syrian government transactions abroad –including payments to foreign oil companies of production sharing revenues.

Bush also invoked penalties against Syria under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which allows the “Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to freeze, within the jurisdiction of the United States, assets that belong to certain Syrian individuals and government entities.” Nothing earth shattering as far as Syria is concerned, but a number of uncertainties remain. So far, Washington has held back from enforcing the penalties on the CBS. In late September, a delegation from the US Treasury Department visited Damascus for reportedly heated but fruitful discussions with Syria’s Ministry of Finance and Central Bank. Use of IEEPA is not even discussed by the US Embassy in Damascus. The export ban has caused considerable concern in Damascus, however.

According to figures from the US census bureau, exports to Syria from the US in 2002 amounted to only $274.2 million, and US imports from Syria for the same year were only $169.9 million. By comparison, trade with Jordan for the same period totaled $404.4 million for exports and $412.4 million for imports.

US exports to Syria for 2003 amounted to $214 million, of which approximately $75 million consisted of food and live animals, items that will not be affected under the sanctions. This means that roughly $139 million in export trade is at stake. According to the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, the sanctions will affect only a few American companies that are interested in working in Syria, particularly in oil exploration and agriculture. Beyond that, few, if any, US businesses are likely to suffer.

Nonetheless, one danger emanating from the Syria Accountability Act is that American businesses may find themselves left out of potential future trade deals. Brazil’s initiative to drum up more trade with Syria, as highlighted by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s visit in December 2003, and the December 10, 2003, announcement by the European Commission of a new pact to develop political and trade ties with Syria will not benefit American firms.

Furthermore, sanctions aimed at keeping American or Western technology out of Syria would be impossible to enforce. “If the Syrians need a computer they would simply drive to Beirut and get one,” said a veteran US diplomat, familiar with the area.

Syria’s thousands of miles of rugged borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan are extremely porous, and the smuggling of contraband-particularly across the Turkish and Lebanese borders-is as ancient as the Bible. Passing banned items into Syria from Lebanon – especially if it was sanctioned by the Syrian government – would be further facilitated by the fact that Syrian troops still control parts of Lebanon. One Washington insider with a deep knowledge of US-Arab relations summarized the whole exercise: “It will be a slap on the arm.”

Bush has other arrows in the SALSA quiver, including a possible ban on US investment in Syria, restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States, downgrading US diplomatic representation in Damascus, and banning transactions with institutions in which the Syrian government has interest. Are more penalties on the way in the near future? So far, Washington has little to show for its new pressures on Syria. As with the Palestinians, the Bush administration believes the stick is a far more effective approach than the carrot in achieving American security objectives in the Middle East. That belief demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of Levantine culture where saving face is of paramount importance. That, in part helps explain why overt pressure rarely works.

Raising the stakes and holding the Syria Accountability Act as a sword of Damocles over Damascus did little to encourage cooperation with Damascus or bring the Syrians to the negotiating table. It may indeed have had the reverse effect – that of backing Syria into a corner. Instead of cooperating, the natural instinct of a cornered enemy is to fight back with renewed vigor. Instead of inviting a negative response, the US should promote dialogue and foster engagement.

“To encourage progress,” wrote Daniel Byman, an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, “the United States should couple its sticks with carrots and [offer Syria] some positive incentives to cooperate.”

What the advocates of a confrontational approach to Syria seem to ignore, is that there is a difference between pressuring and bullying nations. Right or wrong, much of Washington’s hard-line policy in the Middle East is seen as favoring Israel. And that belief is building resentment in a region where Washington is trying to win hearts and minds.

The Bush administration has called on the Assad regime to halt its support for what it calls “terrorist organizations” and to expel “terrorist groups” from Syria. Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command all maintain offices in Damascus. Israel and the US consider them terror groups.

Syria sees its influence on these groups and its presence in Lebanon as the only cards it has to play in any future negotiations with Israel. Forcibly shutting down the offices of those organizations, State Department diplomats argue, would render the task of keeping tabs on them that harder and would not really solve the problem at hand. It would be a largely superficial move – the groups could relocate elsewhere in the Arab world, including to places where it would be much harder to track and monitor their activities. As it stands, the act does not translate into much in any practical sense.

“Bashar is someone who is genuinely interested in taking Syria in a new direction,” said Flynt Leverett, a former senior director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, who focused on Arab-Israeli issues (and a former senior analyst of Middle East and South Asian affairs at the CIA). Maintaining relations with the government in Damascus, as opposed to distancing it from Washington, is important to the US war on terrorism. The US Department of State has listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979, when the list was first created, but Syria has not been directly linked to any acts of terrorism since 1986, and the government officially bars groups based in Syria from launching terrorist attacks. More important, the government of Syria has no ties to al-Qaeda and has brutally repressed other Muslim fundamentalist groups – most notably the Muslim Brotherhood – that the government sees as a threat.

The Syria Accountability Act will give the Bush administration a little more pull, but as Leverett points out, “It will not bring change.” For that to happen, he said, “We’ve got to get a smarter policy.” A smarter Middle East policy would engage the moderate forces in Syria – and for that matter in the rest of the Arab world –

in positive dialogue and to promote business. Rather than impose economic sanctions on Syria, Leverett urges that the Bush administration lift restrictions, which as was learned from the case in Iraq, only hurt the people and not the regime.

Brink Lindsey and Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, have similarly documented how greater economic engagement and free trade combat terrorism by encouraging the spread of democracy and political freedom. In this vein, more trade, not less, is likely to lead to favorable outcomes for US security.


Claude Salhani is international editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington.