Just when the cloud over US-Syrian relations was beginning to clear, Congress finally forced President Bush into a corner this month to sign the Syrian Accountability Act of 2003, a bill does little to safeguard Americans at home and only incites more hatred abroad. Although President Bush was initially opposed to the bill, Congress gave him little choice to veto, citing that Syria needs to end its occupation of Lebanon and halt its development of WMD. But fears of Syria comprising another chord to the axis of evil, may be overstated. In fact, according to Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Syria has been a major partner in the war against terrorism since 9/11.
“It is true that the cooperation the Syrians have provided on al-Qaida have saved American lives,” he said. "And that’s a fact.”
Not only is the Syrian Accountability Act bad foreign policy, to many experts it does not make sense economically. The legislation will only hurt U.S. oil firms like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhilips that European competitors are more than eager to replace. No wonder then why news of the sanctions prompted Imad Moustapha, the Syrian charge d’affaires in Washington, to describe the bill as “ridiculous”. Furthermore, the sanctions will allow Syria to bar the nearly 60 U.S. diplomats in their country at a time where their presence could not be more needed.
“The sanctions have no practical effect whatsoever,” Moustapha said. “The Russians, the Dutch, the British and the French are already contacting us about possible replacement of American contracts.”
Even amidst a long hard slog in Iraq, it seems that Congress has yet to learn its lesson from two Gulf Wars that have cost over $100 million in taxpayer money and nearly 1,000 American lives combined and counting. Considering that twelve years of sanctions in Iraq, which had little affect on Saddam and did not stop the present conflict from happening anyway, it is curious to think why we would brandish the sword of sanctions at Syria. According to a 2002 report issued by a Human Rights Committee in conjunction with Save the Children UK, sanctions have proven time and again to be false model for arms control. As the report suggests, the sanctions card invariably strengthens the hand of the other side, by increasing its economic role and its symbolic appeal as well as cause undue suffering to innocent civilians.
“Such an approach holds Iraq’s humanitarian suffering hostage to international power politics, the hidden play of commercial interests, and the goal of regime change,” the report states. “It is now clear that comprehensive economic sanctions in Iraq have hurt large numbers of innocent civilians not only by limiting the availability of food and medicines, but also by disrupting the whole economy, impoverishing Iraqi citizens and depriving them of essential income, and reducing the national capacity of water treatment, electrical systems and other infrastructure critical for health and life. People in Iraq have died in large numbers. Rather, they hit the weakest and most vulnerable members of Iraqi society, those with the least ability to influence decisions and who are least able to compete for scarce resources.”
In the conclusion of her book, “Sanctioning Saddam,” Sarah Brown writes that economic sanctions on countries like Iraq and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia have proven to give rise to smuggling and trafficking, corruption in government, and deterioration of infrastructure, all the problems that coalition forces today are struggling to repair. Furthermore, sanctions whittle down a professional middle class that are the only ones who can possibly have an impact on the status quo.
“When sanctions are imposed on authoritarian states whose citizens have no opportunity to alter government policies, they may be doubly victimized by economic decline and the absence of opportunities for economic change,” she says. “In reverse, states get more control and decide which workers to hire and which goods to subsidize.”
Although the sanctions on Syria are less severe and will only impact a trade of $300 million a year, the message to the Middle East is one of antagonism and hostility. During a time, when America could benefit from having more friends in the region, statements such as the one made by Representative Ileana Lehtinen of Florida who said that “Syria is on the wrong side of history and now it is time for it to suffer the consequences,” only add to the obscurity on the war on terrorism. While President Bush still holds the right to waive penalties as he sees fit, he should bear in mind that although war maybe kind, sanctions are always cruel and in years past highly ineffective.