Syria’s misplaced optimism

The idea of punishing Syria seems to be making a comeback in Washington. Though no dates have been set by Congress to discuss the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, there are many on Capitol Hill eager to get the ball rolling.

Unless quashed by the Bush administration, the act will easily pass in the House and Senate. The administration, reluctant to see its hands tied, could delay matters. On Tuesday Undersecretary of State John Bolton was supposed to discuss weapons of mass destruction and Syria before a congressional subcommittee, but the State Department postponed his testimony, officially because of the row over the faulty Niger-Iraq yellowcake allegations. This may have also been its way of buying time on congressional action on Syria.

The Syria Accountability Act calls on Syria “to halt support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” and holds Syria accountable for its role in the Middle East. If implemented, it would impose a ban on US exports to Syria (other than food and medicine), prohibit US businesses from investing there and restrict the movement of Syrian diplomats in the US.

President George W. Bush would retain the right to waive the act’s clauses if he deems this necessary. The administration has deep reservations about the act, because presidents don’t like it when Congress forces their hands on foreign policy issues. In several letters to Congress, State Department officials have said that while they support the spirit of the act, they oppose its implementation today.

The Syrian leadership feels it has weathered the storm of US threats that followed the Iraq war. Concerns about “being next” on the American hit list have been replaced by cautious confidence over dealing with the US without forsaking Syrian priorities. Syria’s leadership thinks growing Iraqi resistance against coalition forces and the upcoming presidential elections in the US will restrict American actions. It also believes the US will eventually be entangled in an Iraqi intifada.

However, Syria has also accepted that US forces will not soon leave Iraq and has decided to avoid any confrontation with Washington. Accordingly, the Syrians have toned down their opposition to the occupation, while continuing to express an interest in cooperating with the US. This was reflected recently by Syria’s quiet diplomacy with Washington over resolving the fate of Syrian soldiers captured by US troops on the Iraq-Syria border.

Significantly, Damascus considers the president’s waiver clause in the accountability act as a way of neutralizing the legislation. It sees that sanctions against Syria did not prevent US president Bill Clinton from meeting with the late President Hafez Assad twice, including in Damascus in 1994.

Though Syrian officials are still concerned with US plans, they apparently believe the right dose of co-operation can counterbalance the effects of the act. Syria has reportedly closed the offices of Palestinian terrorist organizations in Damascus and is keeping Hizbullah quiet along the southern Lebanese border. It might also pursue limited military redeployments in Lebanon (as it did Monday) to ease domestic tension there.

However, Syria will not disarm Hizbullah, stressing the party’s resistance role. And it will point to Israel’s arsenal of unconventional weapons if Washington demands that Syria rid itself of WMDs. The Syrian leadership has adopted a facade of indifference to the Syria Accountability Act. President Bashar Assad indicated that he did not discuss it with congressmen who recently visited Syria, saying: “The issue is an American issue and Congress is an American institution.”

The Syrians should not, however, construe the administration’s reluctance to move on the act as a desire to return to the ambivalence in the US-Syrian relationship that existed prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Despite the fact that Washington and Damascus maintain diplomatic ties, Syria remains on the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. The threats to revive the Syria Accountability Act confirm that Syria is not out of the woods.

Syria should watch out for several changes in US attitudes. First, the dynamics of the US-Syrian relationship have shifted in favor of administration hard-liners, thanks partly to Syria’s opposition to the Iraq invasion. Second, Washington no longer sees Syria as very relevant in the region and the administration has pointedly avoided giving Syria its own “road map.” Third, the US can no longer afford an ambivalent relationship with Syria when embarking on an enterprise to bring democracy to Iraq while also sponsoring peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Washington needs a transparent relationship in tune with its strategy elsewhere in the region.

The Bush administration would be wrong to think that the act will dramatically change Syria’s behavior unless the US also addresses Syria’s desire to retrieve the Golan Heights and protect its regional interests. The act, if passed, could be effective in the context of a comprehensive peace process sweetened by regional and economic incentives. In that case Syria would have no reason to avoid addressing the issues raised by the legislation. Otherwise, it would be committing political suicide.

Robert Rabil is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR





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