Jewish World Review May 13, 2003 / 11 Iyar, 5763

Sending Syria a signal

By Daniel Pipes and Gary Gambill | Following an intensive three-hour meeting with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad recently, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced some good news: the Syrian president had made "some closures" of terrorist offices openly operating in Damascus. But just the next day, Powell switched to the future tense in discussing these closures: "I welcome what [Assad] said he was going to do."

What happened?

Powell again and again insisted that Assad not just mouth the right words but really shutter the offices of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. "It's performance that we'll be looking at in the days and weeks and months ahead." Powell had warned Assad of "consequences" should he ignore the U.S. demands. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld further reiterated this message: "words are one thing, actions are another."

But Assad flaunted these warnings. "We are still talking" about what to do, he informed Newsweek, adding that his closing the offices would be "related" to re-gaining control over the Golan Heights from Israel (a distant prospect, at best).

The terrorist groups themselves brazenly announced operations as usual, if a touch more discreet. In Beirut, Hamas asserted its office in Syria was open. Representatives of Islamic Jihad boasted that "This is just talk" and "Nothing has changed." "We heard nothing of that," stated a Popular Front official. "No change has occurred in our situation," added a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Several Syrian spokesmen further amplified their government's attitude. Imad Fawzi Al-Shu'aybi, an analyst, airily dismissed the whole subject of terrorist offices. "I think that talking about these organizations, such as Hezbollah, is symbolic." He actually lectured the Americans that if they were serious about democracy, they would leave these offices open.

Likewise, Mahdi Dakhlallah, editor of the government-run daily newspaper Al-Baath, scorned Powell's message (the U.S. government "does not have many tools to pressure us") and creatively interpreted the secretary's visit to signify that Washington considers Syria "a party to conduct dialogue with and not to threaten or employ pressure on." He also understood from it that "the role of the Pentagon will diminish in favor of the State Department" (i.e., a softer approach toward Syria will prevail).

Adding a touch of levity, the president of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce and Industry claimed that if Washington imposed economic sanctions on his homeland, Syrians "could rely on other countries, especially Malaysia" to take up the slack.

With terrorist offices open and his regime insouciant, Assad shows a risky contempt for the administration that just overthrew his Baathist neighbor to the east. In fact, there is a reason for this apparent madness - his experience in early 2001 with Secretary Powell.

That's when the chief U.S. diplomat visited Damascus to complain about Syrian purchases of Iraqi oil in violation of the UN sanctions, winning what the State Department spokesman called a "direct commitment" from Assad to desist. But the illegal oil imports continued and even increased. In reaction, Washington not only did not penalize the Syrians but it soon dropped the entire subject.

To compensate for this mistake, the Bush administration now needs to communicate to Syrian leaders its seriousness of purpose. Fortunately, it has a powerful tool at hand - the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. This legislation, introduced by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), mandates economic sanctions against Syria should Damascus not end its:

  • support for terrorism;

  • occupation of Lebanon; and

  • possession and continued development of weapons of mass destruction.

Should the Assad regime continue these policies, the Engel bill contains provisions such as banning U.S. exports to Syria and prohibiting U.S. businesses from operating there. Introduced just a month ago, it already has eighty-five co-sponsors in the House; and Rep. Engel tells us that he is confident it will pass - unless the administration actively lobbies against it.

Secretary Powell has acknowledged using the bill to pressure the Syrians to make improvements, so logically he should now want to see it enacted into law. It offers him exactly the right mechanism to convince Assad & Co. that they need to make fast, deep, and lasting changes.

Or else the squeeze will begin.

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JWR contributor Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Militant Islam Reaches America. Gary Gambill edits its journal, the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Daniel Pipes