Anti-Syria sanctions typical of America’s approach to Middle East

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The US has imposed economic sanctions on Syria, on the pretext that Damascus supports terrorism and is keen to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD). After signing the order imposing the sanctions on May 11, president Bush said that Syria’s WMD programmes and its undermining of the US’s Iraq policy have turned it into an "extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and the economy of the US." Damascus, which is not even strong enough to chase Israel’s troops out of the Syrian territory that they have been occupying since 1967, poses no threat to "the world’s only superpower". And given president Bashar al-Asad’s interest in suppressing Islamic activism, Damascus cannot creditably be accused of supporting terrorism in the American sense.

The US government wants Syria to end its support for Hizbullah, stop backing Palestinian Islamic groups such as Hamas, withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and cooperate fully with the US occupation of Iraq. And although Syria offered strong assistance to Washington after the September 2001 incidents, since then the US government has been censuring Damascus for its support of anti-Israel Islamic groups, accusing it of not preventing "foreign insurgents" from crossing the long Iraq-Syria border. The US expects Syria to support every aspect of its programme in the Middle East. While, for instance, it demands that Damascus withdraw its troops from Lebanon, it ignores Israel’s occupation of Lebanese territory and itself continues to occupy Iraq. Indeed, after removing Saddam Hussein from power, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials actually said that Syria could be the next target of US military attack, and that Syria would face additional sanctions unless it acceded to the US’s demands.

The sanctions cover all US exports except food, medicines, commercial-jet spare parts and communications equipment. They also include a ban on flights between Syria and the US, and empower the US Treasury to freeze the assets of Syrian organisations and nationals allegedly involved in terrorist activities, WMDs and the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon. Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act, which provided for wider sanctions, last December, but he prefers not to impose all of them. The White House, however, has said that he will consider additional sanctions unless Syria acts on the demands made on it.

Israel has no doubt that the sanctions have been imposed to force Damascus to end its support for anti-Israel Islamic groups and to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, as government sources confirmed in Hebrew radio interviews after the sanctions were announced. They expressed the hope that Syria would decide to end its support for "Palestinian terrorists". They added that "Syria is almost the only country in the rejectionist camp that still supports terrorism –” with even Yemen talking of peace, Libya giving up its WMD, [and] Iran agreeing to put its nuclear reactors under international supervision." Syria is the most dangerous state there, they added.

Israel believes that the trading links are too limited to give the sanctions any financial significance, drawing the conclusion that they are political and diplomatic in nature. Its confidence that the US, UN and the EU are fundamentally on its side is indicated by the escalation of war crimes in the Ghazzah Strip. Amnesty International estimates that the Israeli army has destroyed 90 buildings there, making 3,000 Palestinians homeless, since the beginning of the intifada. The AI report described the demolitions as "war crimes", but within days of its publication more demolitions had made another 3,000 Palestinians homeless. The demolitions, moreover, are still going on. The ‘international community’ is content to watch, making useless condemnations but taking no action.

The US government’s apparent confidence that the imposition of sanctions on Syria will generate platitudes but no action has also been justified. The response of the EU to the announcement said it all. A spokesman for Chris Patten, the senior commissioner, said: "It is clear we share the same objectives as the US on human rights, terrorism, democracy and WMD. But we do not share the same tactical approach." Britain said that it shares the US’s concerns, but wants "critical and constructive engagement" after Syria’s protest against the sanctions. The "constructive engagement" is a reference to the trade-agreement negotiations in which Damascus and Brussels have been engaged since last year, which have been stalled by Britain and Germany to the extent that EU diplomats accuse London and Berlin of pursuing an American agenda. The two demand a clearer commitment from Syria to denounce WMD.

But other EU members share with Britain and Germany the cynicism that has inspired their approach. The EU as a whole decided last year to make renunciation of WMD a "standard feature of its trade and aid agreements" with "third world" countries, thereby backing the US programme of disarmament aimed at countries and governments that are opposed to Israeli or American agendas. When Syria protested that the same condition does not apply to the EU’s agreement with Israel, despite Israel’s possession of WMD, it was totally ignored.

Even more feeble than the response of the EU is that of the Arab countries, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The EU is, after all, a strong supporter of Israel and wants to see countries such as Syria deprived of effective arms, to prevent them from ever posing a serious threat to Israel or to US-European agendas in the Muslim world. Members of the OIC and the Arab League, on the other hand, have a clear interest in coming to Syria’s aid against the sanctions.

But they have taken no steps to help, despite Syrian officials’ confident-seeming speeches to the effect that Arab countries would help Syria to stave off the effects of the sanctions. Many of them are, in any case, cooperating (like Syria) with the US-led "war on terrorism" (read war on Islamic resurgence). Dynastic and military rulers, such as those of Syria, Egypt, the Gulf states and Pakistan, know full well that such resurgence, if it prevails, will mean the end of their rule. Washington knows this, and so knows that it can dictate to Asad and others with impunity, as it thinks that it can do in most things.

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