With George W. Bush stubbornly insisting that the US is making “progress” in the “central phase of the war on terror” in Iraq, pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans in Congress figure it is time for phase three. Some think tankers want to train Washington’s gunsights on Iran, but next week Congress will reconsider a measure targeting Syria.
The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, a reheated and amended legislative proposal proffered and then refrigerated in 2002, vows additional US sanctions to “hold Syria accountable for the serious international security problems it has caused in the Middle East.” According to its advance press, the bill enjoys widespread support in Congress. Should the Bush administration decide to thwart its passage, it may have to mount a more intensive effort than last year.
However, thwart it the administration should. To the injury of focusing on alleged Syrian sins abroad, the act adds the insult of silence about the Syrian regime’s comportment at home.
A few components of the Syria Accountability Act’s case against Damascus recall Washington’s conjuring up of the “mortal threat” accusation against Iraq. The 2003 version of the legislation quotes from a January CIA report that accuses Syria of stockpiling the nerve agent sarin and making clandestine contacts with Russia about a nuclear program. But in July, when ultra-hawkish Undersecretary of State John Bolton planned to tell Congress that Syria’s arsenal threatened regional stability, the CIA preemptively issued a 35-page rebuttal that compelled Bolton to stand down. Weapons? Maybe. Offensive threat? No. The act echoes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s lame accusation in March that Syrian-smuggled night-vision goggles were imperiling American troops in Iraq. Syria also imported Iraqi oil in violation of UN sanctions, say the Congressional accountability watchdogs, but they fail to note that US allies Jordan and Turkey did the same thing for years with nary a cross word from the State Department.
The main charges on Syria’s rap sheet, of course, concern “safe haven” for Palestinian militant groups, support for Hizballah and the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. The occupation of Lebanon, the bill reminds us, constitutes a continuous violation of UN Security Council Resolution 520 calling for “strict respect” of Lebanese sovereignty. Green lights from Damascus for Hizballah’s shelling of Israeli army positions in the Shebaa Farms ignore Israel’s fulfillment of UN Security Council Resolution 425, says the Syria Accountability Act. Few might really call the Syrian presence in Lebanon legal or argue that Syria’s playing of the “Lebanese card” against Israel is principled, but the US disregards both legality and principle when failing to demand an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands and from the Golan Heights. Whatever the UN may stipulate, until the US backs UN Security Council Resolution 242 more forcefully, its other invocations of international law will ring hollow. The persistence of Israeli occupation does far more to stoke Palestinian militancy than whether Hamas has an office in Damascus.
All this begs the question: to whom exactly has the Syrian regime been most unaccountable? The Syrian Accountability Act contains no mention of the stern nature of Syrian rule, the arbitrary imprisonment of journalists and human rights advocates or newspaper closures. Nor does it refer to the perennial delay in internal reform. Hence, despite its flavor of neo-conservative boldness, the bill serves up a bland and familiar message: as long as Arab governments acquiesce in American and, increasingly, Israeli strategic visions for the Middle East, Washington does not particularly care if they are democratic or not. In fact, given that a democratic Syria might be even less willing to drop support for Hizballah and Palestinian militants than the current regime, perhaps Washington would rather that Damascus not be the first domino to fall after the “liberation” of Iraq.
Some reports suggest the Bush administration is hoping that Congressional debate of the act alone will prod Damascus into confiscating the cell phones of Palestinian militants and inviting Bolton to peer underneath the rosebushes of Syrian chemical engineers. But the difficulties in Iraq and to a lesser degree the apparent collapse of the “road map” will likely keep Washington too busy to exert the requisite pressure.
Meanwhile, discussion of the Syria Accountability Act will elicit defensive nationalist reactions from the Syrians, as it already has from exiled opposition Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni. Most Syrians will resent being told to choose between an authoritarian regime and those of the regime’s avowed positions — such as the full return of occupied Syrian and Palestinian lands — that they actually applaud. Human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Syria will watch their tiny political space shrink even further in such a climate.
Should it pass into law, the Syrian Accountability Act can only tighten this Gordian knot, squeezing the pocketbooks of ordinary Syrians a little bit more for good measure. Is this what Congress and the Bush administration intend?