Washington’s “Syria Accountability Act” threatens to turn war on terrorism against Damascus

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The world’s attention has been gripped for the past few weeks by US saber-rattling over Iraq. But this war mania has blinded much of the world to other developments in Washington’s open-ended drive to settle scores and “lead the world,” while pretending to fight a “war on terrorism.” One such development occurred last month with congressional hearings on the Syria Accountability Act. The hearings, which were originally to start on September 12, were postponed until September 18, so that they took place after president Bush’s speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

The bill was introduced on April 18 by four notoriously pro-Israel members of Congress. It enjoys considerable support in the US legislature. By early October the roster of its co-sponsors stood at 163 members in the House and 42 Senators in the Senate. It aims to impose further economic and political sanctions on Syria, as a form of punishment for the support it lends to anti-Israel resistance movements, the deployment of its troops in parts of Lebanon, its improving ties with Iraq, and its alleged stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The bill proscribes the export to Syria of any arms or dual-use items, deprives American businesses investing in or dealing with Syria of government assistance, and forbids the implementation in Syria of programmes of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the US Trade and Development Agency. It also requires the US president to choose two or more items from a menu of sanctions that includes: prohibiting the export to Syria of American products other than food and medical supplies; banning US businesses from investing or operating in Syria; restricting Syrian diplomats from moving more than 25 miles away from Washington or the UN headquarters in New York; reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus; and blocking transactions on any property in which the Syrian government has any interest.

Several conditions are stipulated that Syria must meet to avoid these sanctions. These include: to stop providing “support for international terrorist groups” and not to “allow terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Hizballah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine é General Command to maintain facilities in Syria”; to withdraw “all Syrian military, intelligence, and other security personnel from Lebanon”; to cease “the development and deployment of ballistic missiles and é the development and production of biological and chemical weapons”; and to stop its “violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 661,” which makes it incumbent on states to prohibit “import into their territories of all commodities and products originating in Iraq.”

The text of the bill reeks of the now all-too-familiar American double standards. The fuss the bill makes about Syrian WMD contrasts sharply with Washington’s silence over Israeli WMD programmes, nuclear, biological or chemical. Then there is the demand that Syria respect UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq é a reference to alleged Syrian imports of Iraqi oil outside the UN “oil-for-food” programme. Again, this contrasts sharply with Washington’s silence over illicit imports of Iraqi oil to Turkey and Jordan, two key US allies.

Invited to testify at the hearings, which were held in three different panels, were congressional and government figures, representatives of some American-Lebanese organizations, Matthew A Levitt (a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a rabidly pro-Israel thinktank), and William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

In his testimony David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, called on legislators not to “move forward on this bill at this time,” adding that the bill would “limit our options and restrict our ability to deal with a difficult and dangerous regional situation at a particularly critical time.” Satterfield was echoing the position of the White House. In a letter addressed to Representative Robert Wexler, and dated September 3, Bush argued that “the imposition of penalties on Syria, as included in the Syria Accountability Act, is going to limit greatly our options and restrict our possibilities in dealing with a very complex and dangerous situation.” The letter was in response to an earlier letter addressed to Bush by Wexler on the alleged dangers of the improving Syrian-Iraqi relations.

However, a word of caution ought to be said against reading too much into Bush’s opposition to the Act. A careful examination of the position of the White House reveals that it is born of political expediency rather than genuine disagreement with the Act’s provisions. In some respects, the White House opposition reflects the age-old tug-of-war between the US executive and legislative branches over the making and conduct of foreign policy. The White House is clearly concerned that the Act would curtail its foreign-policy options. The emphasis of Bush’s officials on “timing” and America’s ability to deal with a “dangerous situation” indicates their desire to avoid provoking Syria while Washington is preparing for a strike on Iraq.

In some ways Washington’s insistence on tightening the noose around Syria is perplexing, especially given Damascus’s full cooperation in the pursuit of al-Qa’ida. American officials, including secretary of state Colin Powell, have credited Syria with preventing attacks on American forces in the Persian Gulf. Syrian authorities have arrested many alleged al-Qa’ida operatives who fled to Syria after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In his testimony Satterfield said: “the president has taken note of Syria’s cooperation in our struggle against al-Qa’ida. Syria’s cooperation in this regard has been substantial and has saved American lives.”

Syria’s cooperation in this regard has indeed been substantial. Since the September 11 attacks, many reports have shed light on the extent of the steps taken by Syria to break the global reach of al-Qa’ida. In November Syrian authorities were reported to have arrested four Syrian citizens and a number of foreigners allegedly affiliated with al-Qa’ida in the town of Deir al-Zor. Syria is also believed to have allowed FBI agents to visit Aleppo and question individuals who knew Muhammad Atta, alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, during his stay in the city in the mid-1990s. Syria has also shared information with US agencies on people and organizations believed to maintain links with al-Qa’ida. Foremost among these are Muhammad Haidar Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen who is believed to be a senior al-Qa’ida operative, and Mamun Darkazanli, a fugitive Syrian businessman who is believed to have been a key financial liaison between Atta’s Hamburg cell and al-Qa’ida.

No wonder, then, that Syrian officials are puzzled by America’s ingratitude. Syria’s frustration with the US’s indifference to its cooperation in the American effort to quash al-Qa’ida showed when Bashar al-Asad, Syria’s president, publicly threatened: “If they [the Americans] continue to call Syria a terrorist nation, I will talk about it,” referring to Damascus’s cooperation in targeting al-Qa’ida. There remain fundamental differences between Damascus and Washington in defining, and perceiving, “terrorism”. Syria draws a distinction between anti-Israel groups, such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are national liberation movements in the eyes of Damascus, and al-Qa’ida, which it regards as a terrorist group; Washington sees no such difference. For American policy-makers, all these groups are terrorist groups.

The obsession of the bill with Syria’s links to anti-Israel groups brings to the fore the role played by the pro-Israel lobby in pushing for the bill. This is not lost on Syrian officials. For instance, Syria’s official news agency, the Syrian Arab News Agency, quoted the country’s information minister, ‘Adnan ‘Umran, as saying that the bill “was brought about with instructions from Israel to be carried out by the Zionist lobby in the United States to serve its interests.”

The bill also shows the growing influence that other US domestic lobbies have had since September 2001 on the process of foreign policy-making, under the pretexts of “democracy” and “nation-building.” Such antiseptic terminology has been increasingly used to cloak Washington’s latter-day version of world colonisation that seeks to remake the world in its own image.

American-Lebanese organizations lobbying in support of the bill are supporters of al-Tayyar al-‘Aouni (the ‘Aounist Current), named after General Michel ‘Aoun, the former commander of the Lebanese army whose unsuccessful attempt to become the sole ruler of the country in 1989-90 led to the last, and perhaps bloodiest, chapter of the Lebanese civil war. These organizations include the US Committee for a Free Lebanon, the Council of Lebanese-American Organizations, and the Coalition of American-Lebanese Organizations. Regardless of whether or not congress votes to pass the bill into law, its introduction will inevitably affect the balance of power within the Lebanese Christian opposition, which resents the fading political dominance of the Christian community in the country since the civil war. With the exception of the ‘Aounists and other fringe elements, the Lebanese Christian opposition is largely in favour of reforming the Lebanese-Syrian special relationship, instead of cutting it off altogether. The passage of the bill is going to radicalize the Christian opposition in Lebanon, with far-reaching consequences for the political architecture of the country and the region. This fits nicely with the Bush national security doctrine, which seeks to reshape the political architecture of the entire Middle East and of the Muslim world at large.

For now, even if the bill becomes law, Washington will continue to send mixed signals to Damascus. Bush can always use a waiver clause in the bill to waive certain penalties if he “determines that it is in the national security of the United States to do so.” This will allow Washington to blow hot and cold to influence Syria’s political behaviour. But if Washington has its way with Iraq, the Syria Accountability Act could be a way to widen the “war on terrorism” to include Syria, thus bludgeoning Damascus into following America’s line.

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