Aiming at Syria?

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Syria may have voted for the United States resolution in the U.N. last week, but that doesn’t mean relations between Washington and Damascus are thawing. On the contrary.

While much of the media was busy with the news of Syria’s U.N. vote, the House’s passage of sanctions against Syria, in the form of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, didn’t make much of a ripple. But it should have. With Israeli and the American hostility towards Syria rising, many are wondering whether the rogue state is next on America’s terrorist targets.

The bill passed the house in a landslide 298-4 vote, and could be signed into law within weeks. It requires Syria to withdraw its 20,000 troops from Lebanon, end its support for terrorism and cease efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass, and then to President Bush’s, who has voiced his support.

Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in the House, called the act “a critical addition to America’s diplomatic arsenal in the war on terror,” and left nobody in doubt as to its meaning.

“Syria is a government at war with the values of the civilized world and a violent threat to free nations and free men everywhere,” DeLay said. “We’ll send a clear message to President Asad and his fellow travelers along the axis of evil: The United States will not tolerate terrorism, its perpetrators, or its sponsors. And our warnings are not to be ignored.”

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, immediately dismissed the vote calling it biased towards Israel.

“If we have to have ‘an accountability act’ in the region, they should call for an ‘Israel accountability act’ for the massacres and the terrorism committed daily against the Palestinian people and (Israel’s) refusal to apply international resolutions calling for its withdrawal from Arab territories.”

While such criticism of Israel is expected from the Lebanese leadership, the question remains whether the act undermines stability in the region. Imad Mustapha, the d’affaires at Washington’s Syrian Embassy, argues that such sanctions will not improve America’s reputation and only “damage U.S. standing in the Middle East.” And Minxin Pei, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees with Mustapha’s analysis.

“If there was ever a plan to recover lost moral authority in the region, there is no such plan now … Their approach is very tactical, not strategic.”

The editorial board of the Nation finds it hypocritical that the U.S. condems Syrian occupation while essentially condoning Israeli occupation.

“The Accountability Act simply ignores this, in a flagrant display of the double standards of US Middle East policy. How, in good faith, can we call for sanctions against Syria for its occupation of Lebanon while coddling Israel, whose incomparably more violent and brutal occupation remains the chief source of troubles in the Mideast — the principal reason we are not viewed as honest brokers? Moreover, while claiming to promote democracy in Syria, the act is more likely to strengthen the hand of the sclerotic Baathist old guard, which can now invoke the threat of an American war to suppress dissent, and hobble President Bashar Assad’s (admittedly inadequate) efforts to pursue reform. The intellectuals who participated in Syria’s short-lived ‘Damascus Spring’ two years ago will be further silenced by the act for fear of being associated with a policy that might have been devised in Tel Aviv.”

The House vote comes at a tense time for Syria, which is walking a fine diplomatic line these days. With Israel’s recent attacks on an abandoned terrorist training camp outside Damascus, many are concerned that Syria will become an ongoing target for the Sharon administration in their attempts to stop Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Last may Colin Powell told Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to shut down terrorist groups in operating in Syria. While Assad seems to have closed the offices of Hamas and the other militant groups, the AP reports that the groups have simply gone underground.

Last week, perhaps in an attempt to ease tensions with the U.S., Syria voted in favor of the security council resolution putting wider international support behind the reconstruction of Iraq. But while Syria clearly attempted to appease the U.S. with their vote, Israel warned of potential attacks against Syria.

Syria is in a fix. Khalil Al Anani of Beirut’s Dar Al Hayat explains that Syria’s leadership is stuck between the conflicting demands of an angry public and the international community.

“The fact is that the Syrian leadership is locked between two camps; the people’s pressure who want their leaders to take a decisive stance regarding the Israeli aggression, and the international and regional considerations that restrain the Syrian decision.

Syria has a limited number of choices, mainly because of three factors: the first is that it cannot really rely on regional support. The Arab world has not yet risen from the Iraqi catastrophe. Second, the Syrian leadership is realizes only too well that if it faces up to Tel Aviv, it would also be implicitly defying Washington, and this is really what limits the potential response. Third, there is an imbalance that cannot be dismissed between Syria and Israel, at both a military and strategic level, as well as at the level of political support.”

Some argue that recent events mark a new phase in the larger war on terror. With Israel and the U.S. closely allied, Farid al-Khazen a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, argues that Israel is trying to reposition itself in the region, presenting its attack on Syria as equivalent to the U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is a new phase, the beginning of a new phase of retaliation, because nothing can stop Israel from hitting Syrian targets or Palestinian targets in Syria…Since there is no military deterrence to Israel, Israel will use that new policy again if there is another attack against Israeli civilians,”

While Khazen describes this “new phase” between Israel, Syria and the U.S. a recent editorial in the Nation finds that attacking Syria has been in the works for quite some time.

“In a sense, it was. To properly understand the Syria Accountability Act, one has to go back to a 1996 document, ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,’ drafted by a team of advisers to Benjamin Netanyahu in his run for prime minister of Israel. The authors included current Bush advisers Richard Perle and Douglas Feith. ‘Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil,’ they wrote, calling for ‘striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper. ‘No wonder Perle was delighted by the Israeli strike. ‘It will help the peace process,’ he told the Washington Post, adding later that the United States itself might have to attack Syria.”


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