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The time has come to ask: how has accusing and isolating Syria benefited U.S. interests in the region? Since the United States broke off meaningful relations with Syria at the end of 2003 and demanded that Syria withdraw its troops and influence from Lebanon, it has not based its behavior on reason. Indeed, President George W. Bush should confess that he has no coherent Middle East policy. “Dealing” with Damascus, a key player in the region, has consisted of attempts at coercion and a list of allegations-based demands as conditions for resuming direct contacts with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Lebanon continues to suffer with casualties mounting on both the Arab and Israeli sides, and as the world wrings its collective hands, the United States appears paralyzed by its own illogical rhetoric.
The unreasonable behavior started with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (publicly opposed by Syria). At the time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of supplying Iraqi fighters with night-vision goggles. An accuse-and-deny game played between the U.S. and Syria ensued. As Iraq became more unstable, US officials sought to blame outside forces, like Syria. Similarly, when Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Lebanon on February 14, 2005, Washington immediately accused Damascus of culpability. Soon after, Syria announced in May 2005 that it would halt intelligence cooperation with the U.S. At this low point, there exists limited diplomatic contact between the two states. The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, has remained in Washington, ever since being recalled following the Hariri killing.
On April 25, 2006, President Bush extended the existing trade sanctions (since May 2004) against Damascus. This meant no business with Syria. Bush referred to a laundry list of “demands.” Syria had to end its alleged support of terrorism, cease interfering in Lebanon, not build or accumulate weapons of mass destruction and stop undermining US and international efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq. (“Notice: Continuation of the National Emergency Blocking Property of Certain Persons and Prohibiting the Export of Certain Goods to Syria,” May 8, 2006).
The President did not include evidence or explain how “the actions and policies of the Government of Syria continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Examine facts and actions, however, and a different picture emerges. Start with the State Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism (released in April 2006), which cited Syria’s “political and material support to both Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups.” The Report noted, however, that “Syrian officials publicly condemned international terrorism, but made a distinction between terrorism and what they considered to be ‘legitimate armed resistance’ by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and by Lebanese Hizbullah. The Syrian Government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986” (pg. 176). Challenging the assertion that Syria’s actions and policies threaten the national security of the U.S., the Report added, “During the past seven years there have been no acts of terrorism against American citizens in Syria. Damascus has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take every possible measure to protect U.S. citizens and facilities in Syria.” The fortified — Syrian security guards — U.S. Embassy in Damascus attests to this.
Furthermore, State acknowledged Syria’s post September 11, 2001 cooperation with the U.S. in its “war on terror.” Syria provided intelligence that helped prevent an attack on the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. According to the Report, “In the past, Damascus cooperated with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations and individuals.” (pg. 177) [Syrian torture chambers for victims of U.S. renditions have cropped up in some allegations. Editors.]
Syria also worked to ban weapons of mass destruction from the region. In late December 2003, Syria introduced a draft resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East–which the Bush administration, supposedly concerned about Syria’s “weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,” failed to support. The former Syrian Ambassador to the EU, Dr. Toufik Salloum, reiterated in a recent interview, “We are in favor of a comprehensive approach to address the issue of disarmament and nonproliferation and freeing the Middle East of all WMD, and we have endeavored to do this, which proves that Syria is serious about getting rid of WMD.” (Interview with author, July 24, 2006)
To answer the charge of Syria “undermining” the US efforts in Iraq, Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Imad Moustapha replied, “Syria has been very supportive of the political process in Iraq. We are trying to bring together different factions of the Iraqi political spectrum, encouraging them to talk and reach out to one another. We are spending more time bringing Iraqis together than any other political issue in the Middle EastIn Damascus, almost daily there is a visiting Iraqi delegation. They all belong to different partiesWe are working hard for stability in Iraq while the US claims that we are undermining the political process.” (Interview, June 2, 2006)
Indeed, State’s 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism acknowledges that “Syria made efforts to limit the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq. It upgraded physical security conditions on the border and announced that it has begun to give closer scrutiny to military-age Arab males entering Syria (visas are still not required for citizens of Arab countries). The government claimed that since 2003 it has repatriated more than 1,200 foreign extremists and arrested more than 4,000 Syrians trying to go to Iraq to fight.” (pg. 177)
The Bush administration portrays Syria as an implacable foe of Israel. Yet, since 2003, President Assad has offered to restart unconditionally the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process, frozen since March 2000. Israel has not accepted the offer. President Bush has not pushed Israel to do so.
These facts should make a case for triggering a u-turn in the Administration’s approach to Syria, and on U.S.-Syrian relations. They should also provoke the obvious questions: has the Administration’s isolation of Syria enhanced Middle East security? Has the policy made Americans more secure?
Instead of facing facts, however, U.S. officials have repeated enigmatically that “Syria knows what it needs to do,” as though these words would somehow help resolve the devastation in Lebanon.
On July 21, before traveling to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that “Syria knows what it needs to do and Hizbullah is the source of the problem.” She neglected to say what Syria should do.
Earlier, on July 23, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad told Reuters that “Syria is ready for dialogue with the United States based on respect and mutual interests,” calling for an immediate ceasefire followed by a prisoner exchange and end to all Israeli occupation of Arab territory. (July 24, Christian Science Monitor)
Blaming Syria is part of an avoidance process. Instead of condemning Israel for destroying the Lebanese infrastructure and killing hundreds of civilians, Rice initially referred to the carnage in Lebanon as symbolizing “birthpangs of democracy.” The Administration refuses to recognize the fundamental issues: the illegal occupation of Palestinian land (and the Syrian Golan Heights) since 1967.
Having identified the Damascus regime as evil, it seems convenient to charge them for a variety of “wrongdoings.” For example, in 2005, Rice wanted “Lebanon to be able to function as a sovereign government without the interference of foreign powers that’s why Syrian forces were told to leave Lebanon” President Bush, however, implied on July 17, 2006 that Syria should re-intervene in Lebanon when he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that it was up to Syria “to get Hizbullah to stop doing this…”
The Lebanon example highlights the root of the problem exacerbating U.S.-Syrian relations. U.S. demands plus the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” and “spreading democracy” fall short of coherent “policy.”
In his February 2, 2005 State of the Union address, Bush announced that the “United States will work with our friends in the region to fight the common threat of terror, while we encourage a higher standard of freedom.” He then added, “We expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom.”
The next year, the President linked Syria to Burma and Zimbabwe: “At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half — in places like Syria and Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran — because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom, as well.”
In the March 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States, the following underlined the importance of rhetoric over fact. “Tyrannical regimes such as Iran and Syria that oppress at home and sponsor terrorism abroad know that we will continue to stand with their people against their misrule.” (pg. 38) Such language leaves no room for policy — other than regime change which, as the United States stumbles in Iraq and Afghanistan and as Lebanon burns, seems unlikely.
If the Administration truly wants reforms in Syria, like the elimination of the 1963 State of Emergency Law and the emergence of dynamic political pluralism, it should help remove “excuses” for the regime to cling to the status quo, which gives priority to security, not procedural reforms.
During recent discussions organized by editor of all4syria.org Ayman Abdel Nour with analysts and government officials in Damascus, I found a consensus: the absence of a U.S. policy on Syria vitiates solutions to resolving the Lebanese conflict. Moreover, the crisis has bolstered the Assad regime. In October 2005, former UN investigator Detlev Mehlis released his report implicating Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials for the killing of Rafik Hariri. Commentators and reporters began predicting the fall of the Assad regime. Less than a year later, however, UN prosecutor Serge Brammertz found no incriminating evidence against Syria for the crime.
According to Dr. Sami Al-Taqi, head of the Orient Center for Studies, a new think tank in Damascus, “Syria holds all the cards. It knows it is playing the game spoiler and is doing so for a specific purpose.”
He also added, “The US has no vision for conflict resolution in the Greater Middle East. A power vacuum has been created with this deadlock for smaller players like Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas to have incremental effects. Syria is therefore powerful because of the incompetence of the Americans and Israelis.”
“In 2000, Syria had no strategic card–and now, Syria has become an ideological power for Palestinians and Iraqis,” said Dr. Al-Taqi. (Interview, July 24, 2006)
The Bush administration’s “Syria needs to do” line, according to Syrian Minister of Expatriates Dr. Bouthaina Shabaan, “means that Syria should bend its head to what Israel and the US want it to do.” (Interview, August 2, 2006) Indeed, in light of Syria’s past unreciprocated cooperation with Washington, the lingering question in Damascus is: what is the quid pro quo?
Israeli troops in nearby Lebanon and U.S. troops towards the east in Iraq hover over Syria. Yet, Damascus pulsates as it has for centuries, albeit more crowded with over 100,000 Lebanese refugees. Add about 400,000 Iraqi refugees who have had to flee their instable country, to begin to understand the direct effects that U.S.-sanctioned policies in the region have on Syria’s porous borders.
At one center housing 600 Lebanese refugees in Kafer Susa, Damascus, run by Bana, a non profit organization that normally assists the visually impaired, director Lana Koureih offered a warning to President George W. Bush: “He is planting seeds of hatred here,” she said. “Wait until he sees the consequences. The US needs to step in and stop this war. The kids who are here at this center will never forget what happened and will grow to hate America.” (Interview with the author, July 26, 2006)
Secretary of State Rice has declared that “it’s time for a new Middle East.” Yes, that also means it’s time for the Administration to reconsider its self-defeating approach, not policy, towards Syria. As a first step, hold direct talks with Bashar al-Assad’s regime on resolving the present crisis in Lebanon and the larger Middle East peace process. Establishing a policy that includes mutually-beneficial goals for the region, including the elimination of all deadly weapons and the security and stability of Iraq, should follow.
FARRAH HASSEN is a Seymour Melman fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com