Perspective: The Middle East Institute May 16, 2002

The Syria Accountability Act: The Wrong Move
by Murhaf Jouejati

Politics in a democracy inevitably complicate statecraft. The tug-of-war between rival interest groups over the direction of legislation often distorts the rationality of foreign policy. In the United States, that struggle regarding Middle East policy reflects the imbalance of power between the contending groups. The powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington dwarfs the pro-Arab lobby, and other interest groups hesitate to confront the former. Still, the mammoth influence that the pro-Israel lobby commands in Congress has a deleterious effect on U.S. Middle East policy in that it systematically distorts its rationality. The "Syria Accountability Act of 2002" (H.R.4483 and S. 2215) is one case in point.

Introduced in the House on April 18, 2002 and in the Senate a few days later, the bill seeks to impose further economic and political sanctions against Syria for its continued occupation of Lebanon, development of ballistic missiles, and illegal importation of Iraqi oil. Even assuming that these allegations are accurate and that none of America's regional allies engage in similar misdeeds, the draft resolution would have been more credible if it were even-handed. Its sponsors - Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) in the House; Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in the Senate - could have called for, among other things, an end to Israel's occupation of Arab land and the opening up of its nuclear arsenal to international inspection. They could have also called for an end to illicit Turkish and Jordanian imports of Iraqi oil.

Still, the draft resolution would have made strategic sense had it held the promise of advancing U.S. interests in the region. It does not. U.S. pressure against Syria, far from altering Syria's behavior, will have an adverse effect. Evidence shows that when Syria feels external pressure, it runs in the other direction. The U.S.-Israel strategic alliance in the early 1980s pushed Damascus toward the Soviet embrace. The Turkish-Israeli alliance of 1996 drew Syria closer to Iraq. U.S. pressure will now send Syria further into the arms of Iran and Iraq.

Another problem with this proposed legislation is its bad timing. It coincides with unprecedented U.S.-Syrian cooperation in the fight against global terrorism. Syria's sharing of intelligence with the CIA following September 11 led to the arrest of several al-Qaeda members. More importantly, the quality of information that Syria supplied was such that, according to State Department official Richard Erdman, it "saved American lives." In light of this, it makes more political sense to reward Syria than to punish it.

Moreover, the draft resolution coincides with mounting Arab anger at America's perceived bias toward Israel. Sanctions against Syria will provide the 'Arab street' further evidence of that bias and subject pro-U.S. Arab regimes to more embarrassment. To be sure, Washington and Damascus hold divergent views on a host of issues. But the bottom line is that this legislative initiative is counterproductive. If it passes, Syria will hardly be in a position to assist the U.S. in key regional initiatives. Syria, for example, facilitated the release of American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. Syria's participation in the U.S.-led coalition of forces against Iraq helped legitimize U.S. action against that country during the Gulf War. Syria's acceptance of the U.S. invitation to the Madrid conference in the early 1990s paved the way to the Middle East peace process which, in turn, made possible the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan and the Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

In brief, the U.S. needs Syrian cooperation on regional issues, and this need is premised on the fact that Syria is, like it or not, a major player in the Middle East. As Henry Kissinger once remarked, "war [in the Middle East] is not possible without Egypt, and peace is not possible without Syria." Therefore, the wisdom of imposing sanctions against Syria is, to put it mildly, questionable. Far from altering Syria's external behavior, further sanctions against Syria will terminate Syria's cooperation in the war on terrorism, hamstring the administration's new Middle East peace initiative, force the Syrian government to adopt an anti-American stance, and embarrass pro-U.S. Arab regimes. While this proposed legislation might serve Israel's interests, it does not serve those of the U.S., whose priorities transcend the punishment of Syria. The U.S. needs Syrian cooperation to fight the war on terrorism, to promote Middle East peace, and to contain Iraq. It is therefore crucial for those legislators seeking to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East to oppose it.

Murhaf Jouejati is Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which does not take positions on policy issues.

 

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