Sunday, May 23, 2004

Will the US be Able to Islolate Syria?

The US hopes to strangle Syria economically and isolate it politically in order to force Asad to changes his ways. For the neo-conservatives in the Defense Department and Vice-President's office, regime change is the intended outcome. Can the US succeed? Or is this just another domestically driven policy that has no hope of producing the desired outcomes? So far, Syria has done a good job of wiggling out of the US head lock. In part, this is due to Bashar's deft handling of regional diplomacy and his effective charm offensive. He is much better than his father at handling the press and his neighbors. But most importantly, the US is failing because its policy doesn't make any sense. Only Israel prays for its success, as well as a number of powerful lobbying groups in Washington - groups that cobbled together the policy in the first place and have been its driving force in congress. None of Syria's neighbors believe Bashar is the problem; rather, they believe he is the solution: key to stability in the region and economic progress. They want to see him succeed, not fail. That is why the US will gain nothing from its confrontation with Asad. It may win a few tactical victories, but it will lose the war.

The clearest sign that this policy is dead in the water is that it has won zero support in Syria itself - the one true test for success. The groups that stand to benefit the most from regime change in Syria: the Muslim Brotherhood or "Islamic Current," have rejected it. They are the likely successors to Bashar should the state crumble. All their leaders have condemned it. (See my previous entry on the Muslim Brothers.) The civil society groups and Communist Party have also condemned the sactions, as have Christian leaders.

Even Syria's longest-held political prisoner, who spent a total of 19 years behind bars, said America had no right to impose unilateral sanctions. ``If you would like to stop the terrorism - not only the terrorism of (Osama) bin Laden - it has to be done through an international organization,'' Riad al-Turk said.
Among Syria's neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the GCC both denounced the sanctions, saying they should be applied to Israel and not Syria. The 22-member Arab League said Wednesday the embargo would harden Arab opinion against the United States. In a statement, the organization said the sanctions would ``add to the sour feelings in the region and will raise more questions among Arab people'' about U.S. plans for the region. The Lebanese - supposed beneficiaries of the US drive to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon - also denounced it. President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon said the sanctions were ``wrong in content and timing'' and were influenced by Israel. His foreign minister, Jean Obeid, said the sanctions will harm America's image in the region.

Much more importantly, Turkey has rejected them outright and moved rapidly to sign an historic free trade agreement with Syria. Vice President Khaddam and Bashar have been working on the Turks for some time. The break through came in January, when Bashar visited Istanbul - the first time a Syrian president has done so since Alexandretta (Hatay) was annexed by Turkey in 1938. "We have moved together from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust," Bashar said. "We must create stability from a regional atmosphere of instability."

The visit signified to many Syrians and Turks that Syria had finally given up claims to the lost province. Turkey has repaid Syria by stiffing the US on its Syria policy. The neocons have always insisted that Turkey and Jordan, working in concert with Israel will be the main regional actors in their plan to strangle Syria (see below). Their utopian dreams don't take into account that Turkey and Syria both opposed the US occupation of Iraq, fear the creation of a Kurdish state and turmoil in the region, and both need each other's trade. Last year, Turkey imported 413 million U.S. dollars of mainly oil and cotton from Syria while it exported 407 million U.S. dollars of goods to Syria. When borders are opened this could expand rapidly. Before the 91 Gulf War, Iraq was the main conduit for the burgeoning trade between Turkey and the Gulf. Syria is now set to compete for this through-traffic. Its much improved road system and expanding hotel and restaurant network should haul in the Hajji traffic too. It is also worth noting that Turkey recently put the kibosh on several military contracts with Israel. "This decision comes in the framework of the new Turkish policy which rejects the strategic military cooperation with Israel," Turkish officials said. Nevertheless, "Ankara's strategic relationship with Jerusalem is perceived as essential to fulfilling its demanding security agenda," writes Ilan Berman in the Middle East Forum. It is also crucial for Turkey's access to US arms. The Erdogan government seems to be reevluating its overall strategic relations with Israel and perhaps the US, which opens up new possibilities for Syria in its effort to break out of isolation.

Jordan has been more circumspect in denouncing American plans. All the same, King Abdullah has been working closely with Syria to connect their electricity networks. It’s part of a larger scheme to link Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. They have also started to build the Wahdah Dam on the River Yarmuk in northern Jordan, which will reduce Jordan's water deficit by 10% and boost Syria's electricity supply.

Iraq will be the big question mark. US sanctions will reportedly cost Syria $300 Million in trade, but much of this will just be diverted through Lebanon. The real cost to the sanctions is trade with Iraq and most importantly oil. The US closed the 500-mile oil pipeline running from the Kirkuk oil fields in northern Iraq to the Syrian port of Baniyas. The pipeline, if fully repaired, can handle up to 800,000 barrels per day. Bashar had also signed important railroad, electicity and trade agreements with Iraq shortly before the US invasion. Now much of that is on hold. All the same, delegations of Iraqi government officials have been beating their way to Damascus in the hope of reviving this trade. Once the US turns over sovereignty to Iraq, much of this trade will resume.

One cannot brush off US sanctions as meaningless however. Andrew Tabler writes in the Daily Star that Bush's "application of penalties under two additional pieces of legislation indicated, as well, that the United States has much more in store for Syria in the months ahead."
Bush declared that Syria's alleged support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and support for activities that aim to undermine US efforts in Iraq constituted "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States." The declared danger to the US permits American presidents to select from a number of legislative measures that would have considerable teeth against Syria.

So far, the most significant involves the use of Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act concerning money laundering. Bush has instructed the Treasury Department to issue a 30-day "notice of proposed rulemaking" to determine if the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, the country's largest bank, will be considered a money-laundering institution. This measure is likely to have a sweeping effect on international business with Syria, and will complicate the procedures of foreign companies operating under US dollar-denominated contracts with the Syrian government.
Europe is Syria's main trading partner and the US has failed to gain EU backing for its sanctions. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU's share of Syrian exports grew from 30% to around 60% according to the IMF. In terms of bilateral assistance, Japan, Germany and France provide the bulk of Syria's grants and loans. In 2000, these three countries provided $97.3 million dollars in bilateral assistance to Syria. The EU has favored cajoling Syria towards reform through 'critical and constructive engagement'. It has been adamantly opposed to regime change and refuses to join in US sanctions. This makes them practically useless.

While the US was preparing to impose sanctions on Syria, Damascus was negotiating with the EU for special trade privileges under what is known as an "association agreement". But just as the details were being finalized there was a last-minute hitch. At the behest of Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, the EU decided that partners in its association agreements must denounce weapons of mass destruction. This, the EU said, would become a standard clause in all such agreements - but the timing suggests it was inserted specially for Syria and was due to US pressure. Interestingly, though, the "standard" clause about denouncing weapons of mass destruction will not be applied to countries that already have association agreements with the EU: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia ... and Israel.

If Syria hopes to really undermine US pressure, it must get the accord signed, and soon. The accord is important to Syria because it will reduce Syrian import tariffs and remove duties on many exports to Europe. It also would open up Syria to foreign financial companies, possibly boosting prospects for investment in the country. If the signing is delayed much longer, the EU's 10 new members may block the agreement in order to boost their own EU trade. It has also been rumored that Foreign Minister Faruq al-Sharaa has opposed the deal so far because it will ring the death knell for Syria's struggling state industries and socialist economy. All the more reason why the US should be supporting it and not sticking their wrench in the gears of Syrian reform.

Brian Whitaker of the Guardian explains in "Suspicious sanctions," just how cynical and hypocritical the politics behind the application of US sanctions have been. He writes:
"American sanctions are at odds with EU policy, which favoured cajoling Syria towards reform through 'critical and constructive engagement'. This was one area where the British prime minister, Tony Blair, did not diverge from his European colleagues: Blair was developing quite a good rapport with President Bashar al-Assad, who had studied in London and had a British-born wife. In the run-up to war with Iraq, the congressional plans for sanctions against Syria were quietly shelved - only to re-emerge in April last year.

This time, despite the Bush administration's misgivings, Congress was almost unanimous in approving the Syria Accountability Act: only four Senators and eight members of the House of Representatives opposed it. Such was the unanimity that leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties agreed not to let any witnesses give evidence against the sanctions plan in the House international relations committee.

The attitude of Congress seems to have had little or nothing to do with the merits - or otherwise - of the case for sanctions, but a lot to do with the re-election prospects of its members. For American politicians there is no mileage in being sensible about Syria, and much to lose.

The Accountability Act's main complaints against Syria are that it supports terrorism, is occupying Lebanon and is developing weapons of mass destruction. The trouble with this is that it appears - especially in the Arab world - highly discriminatory.

The Act simplistically treats Syria as one of the 'evildoers' that President Bush often talks about and ignores the all-important political background. It is basically using the issues of terrorism, Lebanese sovereignty and weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to further Israel's regional agenda.

Despite official denials, Syria is widely believed to have chemical weapons and possibly an embryonic biological weapons programme, though this does not place the country in breach of any international treaties or security council resolutions. In any case it is small beer compared with the 200-or-so nuclear weapons that neighbouring Israel is believed to possess.

Given that Israeli forces have been occupying a significant stretch of Syrian territory (the Golan Heights) for the past 27 years, it is not difficult to see why Syria might want some form of deterrent. But by addressing the question of Syrian weapons while ignoring Israeli arms, the US only damages its credibility in the region.

Syria, meanwhile, says it favours dismantling all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East region but this must include Israeli nuclear warheads - a not unreasonable way to proceed.

The terrorism issue is also closely tied to the conflict with Israel. Syria - unlike Libya in its wilder days - does not give generalised support to terrorism and, indeed, strongly opposes al-Qaida and related groups. It does allow various militant Palestinian groups to have a presence in Syria, which it says is for political (non-military) activities. Together with Iran, Syria also exercises considerable influence over Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Rightly or wrongly, it regards these as legitimate groups resisting Israeli occupation of Arab lands. Essentially, Damascus views them as levers towards its main foreign policy goal - the return of the Golan Heights - and Syrian officials maintain that once that has been achieved and there is peace with Israel, there will be no reason to continue supporting such groups.

Syria's "occupation" of Lebanon, according to the Accountability Act, is a breach of UN security council resolution 502, which dates back to 1982 and the Lebanese civil war.

A look at resolution 502 shows that it refers to - and condemns - Israel by name but makes no mention of Syria. The historical context of the resolution is that, in September 1982, following the assassination of the Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, Israeli forces in Lebanon advanced to new positions in West Beirut.

Resolution 502 demanded an immediate pull-back of Israeli forces to their previous positions, as a first step towards a complete withdrawal from Lebanon. (In the event, Israeli forces remained in Lebanon for a further 18 years but faced no American sanctions as a consequence.)

How, then, can Syria be in breach of this resolution? The answer lies in clause four, in which the UN - without naming anyone - "calls again for the strict respect for Lebanon's sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence under the sole and exclusive authority of the Lebanese government through the Lebanese army throughout Lebanon".

Syrian troops were in Lebanon at the time, having originally entered as part of an Arab League peacekeeping force, so the resolution can be interpreted as referring to them. It is debatable, though, whether the 20,000-or-so Syrian troops in Lebanon today are "occupying" the country as the Accountability Act claims.

The Syrian presence in Lebanon differs, for example, from the US-led occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in that it was legitimised (technically, at least) at the end of the civil war by a series of agreements with the Lebanese government. Although these were signed under some duress, since the Lebanese government didn't have much choice in the matter at the time, it can be argued that the Syrian forces did help to provide much-needed stability in the aftermath of the civil war, even if they have now outstayed their welcome.

Fully restoring Lebanon's sovereignty is certainly a good idea in principle, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the issue is being stirred up for other reasons. If members of Congress are so concerned about sovereignty, then what about Israel's partial occupation of Syria or, indeed, the American-led occupation of Iraq?

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