Sunday, August 08, 2004

Armitage threatens more sanctions for Syria

Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, threatened to place Syria in a full-nelson rather than the half-nelson it threw on the country in May with SALSA. He said that Syria hasn't "made any fundamental decisions to (becoming) a much more positive player in the region." "I don't think they fully learnt the lessons of Iraq and the termination of that Baathist player, so I think they still have some internal discussions ... to go through," he said without elaborating.

The Bush administration is studying Damascus' response to sanctions imposed in May, and warned that stricter sanctions could follow. "We have the ability to go to stage two, which will be a more draconian sanctions regime," Armitage said.

Armitage also threatened Syria with the Lebanon card. He urged Syria to withdraw its troops from neighboring Lebanon, where thousands of Syrian soldiers have been based since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. "The Lebanese civil war has been over for well over a decade and it seems to me - this is our strong view - that it's time for Lebanese forces to take charge of their entire country and Syrian forces to move themselves back to Syria," he said. Maybe a few ever-hopeful Lebanese Christians will be impressed by this last threat, but Syria will not be. Lebanon has been extremely calm during its recent election cycle and everyone is absorbed in the next round and the President question. Almost every Lebanese official, including the Maronite Patriarch, denounced the May sanctions and Lebanese Sovereignty Act as irresponsible and unhelpful. Washington cynically uses the Lebanon card in every hand it plays in Syria as if it were some mighty trump. The Lebanese must be getting tired of being yoyos.

Syria has responded, not by smacking the mat and crying uncle, but with its customary defient growl followed by soothing reasurances. Sham press reports that the Ministry of Information Counselor Ahmad al-Hajj Ali responded to Armitage, saying that the hawks and neocons in Washington are again prevailing over the more reasonable, who advocate cooperation. And who is really behind this recent announcement? The Zionist lobby. It is all part of America's continuing plan to impose its hegemony over the region.

Two factors are responsible for the US return to the language of enmity and attack, al-Hajj Ali says: first is the degradation of America's position in Iraq, which is making it panic; second is Bush's campaign. He suggests Damascus has been trying to cooperate with both Washington and Baghdad, but Washington hawks are insensible to Syrian efforts and driven by motives that have little or nothing to do with Syrian realities.

The fact that chaos in Iraq is not in Syria's interest has only been driven home by the flood of refugees pouring into Syria from Iraq. The New York Times reports this morning that the United Nations high commissioner for refugees says Christians are now fleeing the country in record numbers. 20% of Iraqi refugees are now Christian rather than the 5% they were at the onset of the war - their actual portion of the Iraqi population as a whole. Some 4,000 families have so far filed for refugee status in Syria. Many more can be expected to follow. Over 250,000 Iraqis are estimated to have come into Syria this summer. Most probably plan to return, but if the security situation continues to deteriorate in Iraq, one must ask how many will be foolish enough to brave the banditry and fanaticism that is spreading in Iraq.

So far Syria has been very welcoming. As one Christian said recently:

"We are safe here, and so we feel free," Mr. Nuaman said of his new home in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. "The Syrians are brothers to us. There is no discrimination here. That is the truth, and not a compliment."

How long Syria can continue to issue Iraqis visas freely is anyone's guess. At the onset of the war, Syria set up a number of refugee camps on the border in order to contain the expected flood of frightened Iraqis. When the deluge didn't materialize, Damascus let down its guard and began permitting Iraqis to flow into the country on the assumption that they would return after spending money in Damascus. Now it is becoming clear that many will not return. The poorer families are getting stuck in Syria. Wealthy ones travel on to Lebanon and beyond. If the situation in Iraq continues to get worse, as it has every indication of doing, Syria will be the main destination for its poor huddled masses. Not only for Iraq's Christian and Sunni population, who can find relatives and comfort in Syria, but also for the Shi'a, who will not dare to flee south into the Gulf countries, or, if they don' t speak Farsi as few do, will head for Syria and Lebanon, the two fellow Arab countries that won't treat Shi'a like dirt. (See my earlier article on the flight of Iraqi Christians into Syria.)


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