Strolling through Syria’s fashionable shopping districts, it is increasingly difficult to notice that the country is subject to a heavy raft of US sanctions. American icons like KFC, iPod, Ford and GAP are all increasingly available to a public hungry for foreign goods. A glance at the Syrian-US trade sheet only adds to the confusion. Bilateral trade between the two countries grew by 7% last year to hit $471.9 million, with American exports — targeted by sanctions — surging a massive 61% to $361.4 million.
Indeed, since George W. Bush became president, US exports to Syria have more than doubled. Over the same period, US imports from Syria — not banned under any sanctions regime — have fallen from $158.7 million in 2000 to $110.5 million in 2007. Syrian-US trade is also certain to be higher than official figures show, given that Syrian traders can easily source American goods through regional countries like Lebanon and Dubai.
The United State’s trade embargo becomes all the more questionable when US-Syrian trade volume is compared with that of Damascus’ high profile ally Iran, a relationship producing ever more angst among key regional and international players. For all the hype of the Syrian-
Iranian economic relationship, trade volume between Damascus and Tehran stood at just $200 million last year, less than half the volume of US-Syrian trade. Even US-
Iranian trade eclipsed the Damascus-Tehran trade volume, weighing in at $318.8 million, with the US importing around $173.2 million of goods from the Islamic Republic, only slightly less than Syria.
All this from an administration which holds isolating Syria as a main tenant of its Middle East policy. Not that it hasn’t tried. Since taking office Bush has unleashed a constant barrage of trade sanctions aimed at putting an economic choke on Damascus. The latest (and most personal) hit came in February when the Bush administration moved to freeze the assets of Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s highest profile businessman and cousin to President Bashar al-Assad.
The charges against Syria are well known. Damascus’ support for groups Washington deems terrorist organizations but which Damascus holds as national liberation movements — Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — has ensured its continued appearance on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Damascus’ role in the latest Lebanese political deadlock is also drawing heavy fire, while her alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and efforts to destabilize Iraq are obligatory footnotes to any White House press release concerning Syria.
Whatever one’s point of view regarding the validity of such charges, it is clear that economic sanctions have failed to produce any substantial change in Syria’s foreign policy. In Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, the Syrian playbook remains the same. Furthermore, Washington has long admitted its economic embargo is not working. At a congressional subcommittee convened to discuss the effectiveness of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act in early 2006, four panelists — including Ted Kattouf, former advisor to the US ambassador to Syria, and David Schenker, former adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — were asked to rate on a one to ten scale the effectiveness of sanctions in changing Syrian behavior. The average answer was four.
Indeed, clear cases exist where sanctions are producing the opposite of their intended goals. The SyriaPol website, designed to measure Syrian attitudes towards governance, economic and democratic reform and the Syrian-
Israeli peace process, was blocked from view in Syria in 2006 — not by the Syrian government but by the American web hosting company which sold the site its domain name because it was asked not to conduct business with any Syrian individuals. The irony of a website dedicated to promoting democratic debate in Syria being blocked because of sanctions supposedly aimed at brining about such change is not lost on many.
Washington’s insistence on economic sanctions has also come at a time of unique possibility in Syria, with the country’s economic opening yielding numerous opportunities for low level engagement with Syria via the private sector. But instead of American businessmen engaging with their Syrian counterparts and, inevitably, explaining and personalizing the United States in a country rife with misconceptions regarding America, Iranian counterparts are taking their place. The role America’s private sector could be playing in creating common ground and shared interests between the US and Syria — groundwork that would no doubt be useful in resolving many of the region’s ills — has been wasted.
The Bush administration’s latest move — freezing the assets the country’s leading businessman Rami Makhlouf — only serves to muddy the waters. Makhlouf is extremely unlikely to have any business interests in the States; the owner of Syria’s largest mobile phone company Syriatel told a Reuter’s journalist he “did not have a penny” invested in America. All of which is known by the Bush administration. The latest measure is best explained as an attempt to cement a hostile US-Syrian relationship long after Bush and his band of brothers have rolled out of the White House. Salt the fields and poison the well on the way out. Unfortunately, it may well be one of the Bush presidency’s few successful moves.
John Dagge is a freelance journalist based in Damascus.