The Obsession with Syria

New York City

The Bush Middle East foreign policy squad is shooting our country in its foot again, this time in Syria. After the release of a recent US report absolving the Damascus government from charges of accumulating WMDs and supporting terrorism, one would think that logic would dictate a rethinking of Syria policy. Instead, Washington officials have commenced another round of Syria bashing.

In October 2004 while working for UNDP Syria, near the towering ancient Roman Corinthian columns scattered across Palmyra (Tadmor), located in a palm tree-lined oasis northeast of Damascus, I asked a young Syrian computer programmer who accompanied me: “How concerned are you about the US sanctions [the November 2003 Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act or SAA] imposed on your country?”

He threw me a quizzical look, implying I was delusional. “The sanctions are a joke” he declared, referring to President George W. Bush’s May 11, 2004 directive under the SAA banning US exports to Syria. US trade with Syria amounts to less than $300 million a year. The SAA also prohibits Syrian flights from entering or leaving US territory.

“Since when did Syrian Air ever fly to the U.S.?” he asked with a guffaw, thus capturing the illogical intent of the SAA’s punitive measures: censuring Damascus for its “support for terrorism,” “occupation of Lebanon” and “development of weapons of mass destruction.” Most Syrians to whom I spoke during the Fall 2004 understood that the SAA sanctions related more to US domestic politics than foreign policy, but I nevertheless discerned a lingering concern which one Damascus economist called the “negative image that they give our country, especially to tourists and potential investors.”

Indeed, the mainstream media uncritically accept the pariah image of Syria that the SAA proponents offered. Rather than evaluate the efficacy and progress in achieving the Act’s designated objectives after the sanctions’ one year anniversary-“to hold Syria accountable for the serious international security problems it has caused in the Middle East”-Congress has restarted targeting Syria. Without holding informed debate and ignoring the facts, Members have simply accepted the claim that Syria has aggravated “serious international security problems.” Such language would make more sense applied to the United States: the continued violence and instability plaguing terrorist-haven Iraq following Bush’s March 2003 illegal invasion.

I wonder if any Members even read the final report exonerating Syria, issued on April 25, 2005 by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group. The analysts found “no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge” that Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs were moved to Syria (Dana Priest, Washington Post, April 26, 2005). Concurrently, the April 26 New York Times reported that Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton had “exaggerated” threats about “Syrian efforts to acquire unconventional weapons,” said former intelligence officers. These revelations should have forced Members of both parties to recite the old saying like a Greek chorus, “Fool me once [on the reasons for invading Iraq], shame on you. Fool me twice [Iraq and the policy of sanctioning Syria], shame on me.” But Members of Congress remained deafeningly silent.

Under the “Findings” section of the SAA, Congress even included Under Secretary Bolton’s now questionable May 6, 2002 testimony that “Syria has long had a chemical warfare program,” as though his words alone constituted irrefutable proof. The bill also quoted Bolton’s assertion that Syria “has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and is engaged in research and development of the more toxic and more persistent nerve agent VX.”

Duelfer’s report vindicated Syria. But a year before that, the proponents of the Syria Accountability Act had systematically excluded from discussion the most significant details about recent US-Syrian relations. Following September 11, 2001, Syria provided to the United States important intelligence on Al Qaeda terrorists’ activities and helped prevent a terrorist attack against the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. On April 30, 2003, the very State Department that placed Syria on the “terrorist list” confirmed this, stressing: “The Government of Syria has cooperated significantly with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and individuals” (“Patterns of Global Terrorism” report).

In light of Duelfer’s findings and the news of Bolton’s sexed-up overstatements about Syria pursuing deadly weapons, Congress should question the necessity for maintaining the sanctions, since Syria has been officially cleared of the very charges for which it was to be held accountable: aiding the Iraqi insurgency and hiding those elusive Iraqi WMDs. After Syria’s April 26 withdrawal of troops and intelligence officers from Lebanon, the SAA’s other demand-that Syria end her “occupation of Lebanon”-has also been negated.

Regardless of this reality, Congress trudges on with its campaign against Syria. The new raison d’être for attacking Syria came from Republican and Cuban-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who appears obsessed with supporting economic sanctions as a purported means of overturning authoritarian regimes and triggering democracy. Indeed, for decades she has advocated aggressive policies aimed at “Cuba’s terrorist regime.”

Ros-Lehtinen played a leading role in the passage of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the existing US embargo and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which further restricted business with Cuba and codified the embargo.

Less acknowledged is Ros-Lehtinen’s Obsessive-Compulsive Syria Bashing Disorder (OCSBD), a common diagnosis on Capitol Hill that usually originates in the infectious Israeli lobby money trail. Together with her fellow OCSBDer, New York Democratic Representative Elliot Engel, these Members persist in sponsoring anti-Syria legislation and coincidentally benefit from Israeli largesse for so doing. Indeed, the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs listed Engel as one of the “Top Ten Career Recipients” of pro-Israel PAC funds in 2004. Between January 1, 1978-June 30, 2004, he received a cumulative $135,918. Ros-Lehtinen cashed in $40,000 from the same source for the 2003-2004 Election cycle. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) also did its part to convince an overwhelming majority of House and Senate Members to “sanction Syria for its continuing support of terrorism” (AIPAC “Working to Secure Israel” brief, September 5, 2002).

Following the Valentine’s Day massacre of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, American, European and even Arab voices (including Saudi Arabia and Egypt) united around the call for President Bashar al-Assad to accelerate the pace of Syria’s phased removal of troops from Lebanon in the face of swelling Lebanese opposition. When news of the assassination reached the United States, the ever opportunistic Ros-Lehtinen advocated strengthening sanctions against “terrorist” Damascus. Although the perpetrators of the horrific attack were-and still remain-unknown, the Congresswoman had no qualms about accusing Syria of international terrorism. Ironically, in 1989 her hysterical anti-terrorist pose softened when it came to her lobbying President George H. Bush to rescind the deportation order of convicted terrorist Orlando Bosch, a mastermind of the 1976 Cubana Airliner bombing (with fellow anti-Castro terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles) which killed 73 passengers and crew members-plus a bevy of other terrorist plots.

Nonetheless, Ros-Lehtinen seems unconcerned about such contradictions. On March 8, she introduced H.R. 1141, known as the “Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act,” “to strengthen sanctions against the government of Syria,establish a program to support a transition to a democratically elected government in Syria and the restoration of sovereignty and democratic rule in Lebanon” Like its SAA predecessor, the new bill reiterated the claims that Syria had terrorist connections and an arsenal of WMDs. It also condemned Damascus for occupying Lebanon even as Syrian troops had begun their final withdrawal under the terms stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

More alarmingly, in rhythm with President Bush’s second term spreading democracy through illegal intervention beat, the “Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act” authorizes “assistance and other support for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support a transition to a freely-elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria” (Section 202, H.R. 1141).

Instead of seeking to comprehend Syrian reality, the Bush administration has launched what has become an alarming pattern of interventionist behavior. As the neo cons did with U.S.-based Iraqis, so too have Bush officials begun cultivating U.S.-residing members of the Syrian opposition (March 26, 2005 Washington Post). Last March, the State Department’s “democracy czar” Elizabeth Cheney met with Syrian-American Farid Ghadry, President of the Reform Party of Syria, which reminiscent of Bush’s own position on Iraq, openly advocates regime change in Syria as the only means to usher democracy, uphold the rule of law and stimulate economic reforms. As the following ultimatum on the Party’s official website ( sums it up, “Either Syria changes course or course will be changed for Syria.”

What a message to send to the Syrians! George Washington University Professor Murhaf Jouejati noted that this party is “almost unheard-of in Syria” (Washington Post, March 26, 2005), which I could also validate. Does no one in Washington’s upper circles recall how the White House once embraced the convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, who convinced the neo cons in Vice President Dick Cheney’s war room that Iraqis would welcome an invasion?

Lessons apparently don’t get learned if they conflict with ideological convictions. Syria withdrew from Lebanon and renewed overtures to cooperate on the contentious issues of terrorism (including Syrian discrepancies over the US and Israeli definition of Hizbullah’s political wing as a “terrorist organization”), arms control and democracy. The US response remains rooted in coercion, as the latest “Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act” suggests.

Last November, I attended an “Election Returns Viewing Party” gathering hosted by the American Cultural Center in Damascus, which stretched into the early morning before Democratic contender John Kerry conceded defeat. I joined some folks engaged in casual conversation and recoiled in disgust when I heard one Embassy official propose that the “U.S. hold elections in Syria to educate the Assad government about what it means to have a two-party system and democracy.” Her self-righteousness was reminiscent of Ros-Lehtinen’s, or President Bush, whose re-election victory upset, but didn’t shock, most of my work colleagues and Syrian friends who could only utter, “God help us all.”

Bashar al-Assad, however, is not waiting for God’s salvation. Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed says Damascus has already responded to the provocative new legislation by creating “a new Ba’ath Party lawbreaking the socialist parties’ monopoly over politics in Syria” (“Syria’s Ba’athists Loosen the Reins,” Asia Times, April 26, 2005), which the President will unveil in June.

Most Syrians I talked to would have said: “Praise God, it’s about time!” Since the early 1970s, Syria’s Ba’ath Party has become almost synonymous with the name Assad (the young Bashar assumed power in July 2000 soon after his father, Hafez al-Assad, died. He had ruled Syria authoritatively since 1970). In souks, restaurants, universities and private homes, people expressed their concern about this fact. “Can’t we have a President who doesn’t come from the Assad family? I’m sick of seeing pictures of Bashar and his father everywhere!” asked a middle-aged woman named Hanan.

The British educated Bashar did initially push to liberalize Syria’s traditionally protectionist economy and open its political space. He released 600 political prisoners and allowed political discussion groups to develop. During the first six months of the so-called “Damascus Spring,” pro-democracy and civil society leaders expressed hope that they could participate meaningfully in the Ba’ath party-dominated Syrian society. But the old guard within Assad’s government and the corrupt and overgrown bureaucracy in need of streamlining stifled the pace and extent of meaningful reforms that Assad had ignited in 2000-2001.

Even so, those university students, professors, economists, taxi drivers and others with whom I conversed over palpitation-inducing cups of Cardamom-laced coffee about desiring more procedural reforms in Syria, including political pluralism, free speech and assembly, never hesitated to emphasize the accompanying caveat, “–that reflects our culture, without US or foreign meddling.” They recalled the current woes of their Iraqi neighbor and their lingering revulsion over the Abu Ghraib prison abuses committed by US “freedom fighters.” In a country where the current unemployment rate hovers at around 20%, freedom from want also completes the Syrian definition of “democracy.”

In stark contrast, US officials remain committed to ideological constructs without supporting evidence. Many of them emanate from pro-Israeli lobbies and sources. Washington also seems prone to disregard intelligence that it could easily glean from knowledgeable Syrians-especially when it concerns exporting US style democracy to one of the few remaining “disobedient” regimes. For example, McDonald’s, a ubiquitous symbol of the corporate, global economic order, still doesn’t operate in Syria. In place of golden arches, neon-lit emerald minarets adorning the mostly Sunni mosques dominate the panoramic view of Damascus at night from atop the Qaysoon Mountain.

Six months later, it may take more than Divine intervention to redirect the foolish path of US Syria policy. The abrogation of Congressional sanctions based on allegations would serve as a crucial start for widening the existing debate over how the US government could complement, rather than derail, the much-needed Syrian reform process.

FARRAH HASSEN, a Political Science graduate from Cal Poly Pomona University, was the associate producer of the 2004 documentary, “Syria: Between Iraq & And A Hard Place,” with Saul Landau. She recently spent 2 months working for the United Nations Development Programme in Syria. She can be reached at:













Farrah Hassen, J.D., is a writer, policy analyst, and adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona.