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As Internal Pressures Mount, Syria Braces for US Sanctions - 2004-03-25

Syria is on edge. U.S. troops occupy neighboring Iraq, and the U.S. Government continues to complain about Syria’s lack of cooperation in the war on terrorism. Any day now President Bush is expected to impose economic sanctions on Syria approved by the U.S. Congress. Internal pressures are mounting, including recent rioting by the country’s restive Kurds. And as elsewhere, Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise. Syria’s ambassador to the United States addressed these issues at a recent conference. VOA’s Ed Warner reports his comments and some other views of present-day Syria.

“You want to penalize us still more?” asked Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the United States, at a meeting held in Washington by the Council for the National Interest. His country has been penalized enough, he said, as a result of the wars with Israel. “We have part of our territory occupied by Israel,” he said. “The people who belong to those Golan Heights were forcibly expelled from their homes and from their farms. They are still refugees in Syria. But also we have 500,000 Palestinian refugees who were also forcibly expelled from their homelands. We have them in Syria.”

Now, said the ambassador, Syria faces economic sanctions approved by the U.S. Congress and according to reports, soon to be imposed by President Bush. The so-called Syria Accountability Act, which was strongly backed by the Israeli lobby in the United States, allows the President to choose among a variety of penalties such as banning U.S. exports to Syria or U.S. investment or freezing Syrian assets in the United States.

Ambassador Moustapha insisted Syria is no enemy of the United States. It admires America for its principles, if not its policies. “Amazingly enough, we do not disagree with the principles that the United States always repeats,” he said. “Everyone knows that the United States always advocates a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict. They advocate an independent Palestinian state. We still believe in Syria that the United States is the only feasible broker for a Middle East peace. It is the only broker with leverage.”

But it must be an honest broker, continued the ambassador, and not apply a double standard, one for Israel, another for the rest of the region. The proposed sanctions are not as damaging economically as they are politically for Syria and for the United States, which will be perceived as further bullying Muslim people.

Ambassador Moustapha cited members of Congress who say their public acts do not match their private thoughts. “When I meet with these people,” he said, “they are always very keen to tell me the following: ‘Please do understand that the reason we signed the Syria Accountability Act has everything to do with internal and domestic issues. It has nothing to do with our beliefs and viewpoints via-a-vis the Middle East conflict.’”

Citing this double standard, Stephen Zunes noted that Israel is permitted to have weapons of mass destruction – by far the largest quantity in the region – while Syria is not. The author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, Mr. Zunes said Syria has called for a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East similar to the nuclear free zones in Latin America and the South Pacific.

“This has been rejected by the government of Israel and by the government of the United States,” he said. “By imposing strict sanctions on Syria for failing to disarm unilaterally, the U.S. Government has rejected any kind of regional, law-based arms control regime and has gone on the record of supporting the idea that the United States can say which country has the authority to have what kind of weapons systems.”

There is a crucial difference between Israel and Syria, says Josh Block, spokesman for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Syria represses its people, tries to undermine its neighbors and supports terrorism. Obviously, a double standard applies.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes that “the Syria Accountability Act may have been framed by some of Israel’s best friends in Congress to rein in a threat to the Jewish state, but it is about to become a reality because of the threat that Syria poses to U.S. interests in the region. Syria has failed to meet any of the provisions under the act that might have averted punitive measures: a crackdown on Palestinian terrorist groups under Syrian control, a pullout from Lebanon, securing Syria’s border with Iraq.”

Syria is understandably worried about Iraq, says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein rattled the regime, leading to fears of more internal unrest and the possibility the United States might move on Syria next: “So I think the regime has tried in some ways to frustrate U.S. efforts in Iraq: not completely opening up the banking systems as far as Saddam’s assets that may have been moved into Syria, perhaps some movement of foreign fighters coming in through Syria, money for the resistance. I think the Syrian regime believes that if U.S. policy in Iraq is frustrated, if the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, if it’s unable to promote democracy in Iraq, that would make the U.S. not anxious to take similar steps against Syria’s regime.”

But Syria is careful not to go too far, says Mr. Katzman, who picked up mixed messages from Damascus. Enemies are within as well as without. There are growing pressures from both secularists and Islamists as Syrian President Bashar Assad tries to maintain stability and preserve the power of his Baath Party. So he has reasons not to antagonize America.

“Clearly, Sunni Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to Syria’s regime also,” he says, “and there has been some cooperation against that threat in terms of allowing interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects who may be in Syria. There have been some recent signs that Syria may be prepared to be somewhat more cooperative on Arab-Israeli issues, overtures toward maybe renewing peace talks on the Golan Heights and other outstanding issues as far as Israel is concerned.”

A major issue is Syria’s role in Lebanon and its support of anti-Israel Hezbollah in the southern part of the country. There is less of a Syrian military presence in Lebanon these days, says Mr. Katzman, but that could be misleading because there are more intelligence operatives behind the scenes. So there is no sign of any serious Syrian movement out of Lebanon.

But Mr. Katzman adds the Lebanese may prefer that to any possible renewal of the sectarian fighting that Syrian intervention suppressed:

“Lebanon would like to exercise greater sovereignty over its own affairs and not have to consult with Damascus that much,” he says. “But that said, there is a fear in Lebanon that without this influence, there could be a reverting to infighting and internal warfare that we saw in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. So I think Lebanon has mixed feelings about it. They basically acquiesced and learned to live with a certain amount of Syrian influence over their affairs.”

Whatever its defects, Syria’s current regime is a known quantity, say analysts. Should it be removed, a successor regime would be hard to predict and not necessarily an improvement, whether secular, military or Islamist. A full-fledged liberal democracy seems no more likely in Syria than anywhere else in the region. Regime change, say analysts, is always a chancy business.