The United States has made a terrible error in its Middle East policy. On December 12, 2003, with little fanfare, George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability (and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration) Act SAA — which empowers the president to place economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria as punishment for its policies of “harboring terrorists,” “developing weapons of mass destruction” and “occupying Lebanon.” Administration officials on March 5, 2004 confirmed of an “imminent” announcement regarding what type of sanctions Bush would impose and when.
Reminiscent of the Administration’s earlier campaign to invade Iraq, the charges have no factual basis. Indeed, the Bush Administration did not even present evidence to Congress about Syria’s supposed accumulation of WMDs; nor did it support the allegation accusing Damascus of occupying Lebanon. The Administration did, however, commit a sin of omission by not presenting documentation about Syria’s delivery to US authorities of valuable intelligence on anti-American terrorists in the post 9/11 period.
Instead of rewarding Syria for cooperating, Bush and Congress punished the Damascus regime with the SAA and then deceitfully labeled the Act a tool to “strengthen the ability of the United States to conduct an effective foreign policy.”
In fact, the SAA retarded the war against terrorism by moving a strategically cooperative Damascus into the realm of non-cooperative. This discreditable legislation does, however, constitute a victory for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud government and, indirectly, for the Al-Qaeda gang that no longer has to worry about Syria delivering information to Washington as to its plans and whereabouts.
Syrians use the Likud-Bush connection to explain the declining state of US-Syrian relations following the Iraq invasion. In a December 2003 interview, Syrian Minister for Emigrant Affairs Dr. Bouthaina Shabaan called the Syria Accountability Act “a new obstacle in the way of Syrian-American relations.” US Middle East policy “underestimates the intelligence of people and their right to a better life,” she said. “Arab people see US policy in the region totally informed by Israeli sources and what Sharon really wants to do.”
By making Syria a pariah nation, Bush has helped to realize a goal of current Israeli policy: to secure US help in weakening its unfriendly neighbors. In addition, by getting Congress to condemn Syria for alleged weapons development, Israel refocused attention away from its own nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, Syria had tried to expose Israeli nukes as the threat to regional stability. On December 29, 2003, in a little publicized Security Council resolution, Syria called for a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. Washington will assuredly veto the resolution given its half century old “defend Israel” posture.
Nonetheless, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed el-Baredei saw “a lot of frustration in the Middle East due to Israel sitting on nuclear weapons … while others in the Middle East are committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Israel’s nuclear capacity has provided its government with the confidence to attack its weaker neighbor. On October 5, 2003, Israel bombed an alleged Palestinian camp near Damascus, an event that occurred the same day the US Congress began deliberating the SAA. Minister Shabaan dismissed Israeli charges that the base was being used to attack Israeli settlements and noted that Washington’s failure to condemn Israeli aggression showed the “green light by the US government,” as well as Israel’s demonstration of unchallenged military power in the region. Instead of retaliating futilely against a more powerful military, Syria took its case to the UN Security Council, where the US blocked a resolution condemning the strike from reaching the floor.
The Israeli and US governments won the diplomatic and media battles. Syria enjoys little international support–even less in the press. But the battle for Middle Eastern hearts and minds proceeds less than splendidly for the Bush administration.
In July 2003, in a lush field in Bosra, near the Jordan border renowned for its centuries old Roman ruins, we met Syrian Bedouins carrying loads of cucumbers on their heads. The women pickers talked of high numbers of Iraqi casualties in the US-led war and showed surprisingly keen awareness of the deteriorating political situation in the Middle East.
One middle aged woman showing off her basket of freshly picked cukes called Bush “crazy.” Another decried him as anti-Arab. On the Damascus and Aleppo streets and with academics and professionals alike, people reiterated their disdain for US policies in the region. “How could the United States align itself with a small country like Israel, which has such peculiar and narrow interests in a region where Americans have a major strategic stake?” asked an engineer at a Damascus dinner party. “I know the American people,” he said, “because I go to the United States to visit my children in the university. Americans would not approve the policy if only they knew how the Israeli lobby twists them.”
A Catholic priest in Maloula, just outside Damascus where villagers still speak Aramaic, called US policy cruel. “Syrians sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. The US government has done a very foolish thing to follow the lead of Israel.”
More sophisticated policy analysts have read Seymour Hersh’s July 28, 2003 New Yorker article (“The Syrian Bet”), which details Syria’s unreciprocated cooperation with US intelligence. In one instance, according to Hersh, “Syrians learned that Al Qaeda had penetrated the security services of Bahrain and had arranged for a glider loaded with explosives to be flown into a building at the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet headquarters.” Former National Security Council staffer Flynt Leverett also confirmed to Hersh that Syria “let us thwart an operation that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans.”
US policy has also marginalized some of the very people who stand for western democracy and free market ideas. In July 2003, University of Damascus British-educated Professor Amr-Al Azm conceded that Syria might need a shove to unglue it from its decades-old status quo, but questioned the value of invading Iraq or passing the Syrian Accountability Act. Such measures, he opined, “distract attention away from the need to reform.”
Syria has little to lose economically from the sanctions since annual trade with the US is less than $300 million. But some entrepreneurs hope to free themselves from the outdated state heavy economy and thus bemoan such policies that vitiate progress toward opening the society and economy.
By focusing on the “terrorist-weapons” issue, as he did in Iraq, Bush’s rhetoric fits the neo-con scenario for regime change throughout the Middle East. In 1996, leading neo-cons Richard Perle and Douglas Feith had already projected a policy that would allow Israel to shape “its strategic environment…by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.” In the report entitled, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Perle and Feith argued for the removal of “Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right, as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
Those who smell the proverbial rat in the push to “get Syria” will correctly look at AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as the source of the stink. This so-called “Zionist lobby,” lauded by the New York Times as “the most powerful, best-run and effective foreign policy interest group in Washington,” pushed heavily for the SAA.
Just as US Administration officials began to recognize Syrian contributions in support of Bush’s war on terror, AIPAC undermined their statements in a July 31, 2002 Memo: “Syria Undermining America’s War on Terrorism.” Syria worked with Hezbollah and Al Qaeda to “perpetrate terrorist attacks,” the memo falsely charged and was “reaching out to Iraq and the other nations the president has said comprise an axis of evil” and “stocking arms and developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used against Israel and other U.S. allies in the region”similar charges cited in the congressional findings of the SAA.
A September 5, 2002 document, “Working to Secure Israel: The Pro-Israel Community’s Legislative Goals,” later confirmed AIPAC’s intention to “sanction Syria for its continuing support of terrorism” by working “with Congress to pass the Syria Accountability Act.”
Sure enough, in November 2003, AIPAC successfully convinced an overwhelming majority in Congress to pass the <SAA.AIPAC> has a “remarkable system,” said Paul Weyrich, head of the extreme right wing Free Congress Foundation. “If you vote with them, or make a public statement they like, they get the word out fast through their own publications and through editors around the country who are sympathetic to their cause…If you say something they don’t like, you can be denounced or censured through the same network. That kind of pressure is bound to affect Senators’ thinking, especially if they are wavering or need support.”
For decades the United States and Israel have pursued parallel tracks in the Middle East. It is beyond unhealthy to have these tracks converge into an identical policy that serves the temporary goals of a right wing Israeli political party, but has little to do with short, medium or long term US interests in the region.
Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For Landau’s writing in Spanish visit: www.rprogreso.com. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, has just been published by Pluto Press. His new film is Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place, now available from the Cinema Guild. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Farrah Hassen is a senior Political Science student at Cal Poly Pomona University and was associate producer of the Syria film.