Axis or Not

As news of the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nicholas Berg's beheading dominates the headlines, American media have all but ignored one of the most significant developments since President Bush's now-famous 2002 "axis of evil" statement.

As news of the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nicholas Berg's beheading dominates the headlines, American media have all but ignored one of the most significant developments since President Bush's now-famous 2002 "axis of evil" statement: the presidential signature on sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

In accordance with the Syria Accountability Act, President Bush imposed sanctions on Syria for "supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq."

The White House said the sanctions include banning U.S. exports (except for food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting Syrian aircraft from flying to and from the United States, freezing certain Syrian assets and cutting off relations with a Syrian bank due to money laundering concerns.

In his formal order, issued on Tuesday, May 11th, 2004, Bush argued that Syria's actions "constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States." Top Syrian officials not surprisingly, quickly dismissed Bush's harsh accusation.  

"The principle of imposing sanctions on Syria is a joke," parliament speaker Mahmud al-Abrash told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Amman on Wednesday, adding that "We are not in an elementary school for the teacher to come and impose sanctions on an undisciplined student." In addition, Syria's Prime Minister, Mohammed Naji Otri, called the sanctions "unjust and unjustified" and the work of the "Zionist lobby."

Syria's case against the sanctions is based on its claims of being a partner in the war against terrorism and, in fact, a victim of it. Since September 11th, Syria argues, it has provided assistance to the U.S. by sharing valuable information on Al-Qaeda operatives, cracking down on terrorist networks in the country and helping secure the Iraqi border. In addition, Syria would like to see itself - much like Jordan and Saudi Arabia - as an Al-Qaeda victim in light of the recent attack that took place in Damascus at the end of April. That episode, an apparent terrorist attack on an empty UN building, led to a swift investigation and the discovery of a terrorist hideout where police found weapons and explosives. Still, the incident remains an unresolved and somewhat bizarre mystery.  Some have suggested that the Syrian government, itself, staged the attack.

Syria's claim of being a constructive partner in the war against terrorism deserves some serious attention in light of a series of inconsistencies between Syrian statements and realities on the ground. "In Syria, in spite of all the allegations made against it, we have a democratic government that fights terrorism," stated Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations, in a May 11th interview. He also affirmed Syria's commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and stressed that "The people [in Syria] have the right to express themselves and say their wishes (1)". Yet, the facts on the ground pose some questions regarding Syria's "assistance" in the war against terrorism, its commitment to non-proliferation and its stated "democratic nature."

Weapons of Mass Destruction

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Syria began developing an offensive chemical warfare program in the early 1970s and reportedly received its first chemical weapons from Egypt before the 1973 October War. Then, according to the CIA, Syria mounted its own chemical warfare program in the mid-1980s. Syria's efforts in this regard have been conducted at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques in Damascus. In 1990, the DIA reported that Syria had developed the nerve agent Sarin for use in 500kg aerial bombs and Scud B missile warheads. And in 1993, the DIA reported that Syria had developed aerial bombs and missile warheads for chemical agents and that there were two known chemical weapon depots: The Khan Abu Shamat Depot and the Furqlus Depo.

The latest CIA report on WMD says that "Syria continued to seek chemical weapon related expertise from foreign sources this year [2003]." The report added: "it is highly probable that Syria also continued to develop an offensive biological weapon capability." Undersecretary of State, John Bolton, noted that "Syria has been developing toxic nerve warheads such as VX and that the chemical warheads contain the chemical agent Sarin." David Kay, who led a U.S. weapons search team in Iraq until January of this year, stated in an interview to the UK Telegraph that interrogations of former Iraqi officials revealed that "a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMDs program." Following the recent chemical terrorist attack that was prevented in Jordan, King Abdullah revealed that vehicles reportedly containing chemical weapons and poison gas that were part of a deadly al-Qaida bomb plot came from Syria (2).

While consistently denying that Syria possesses WMD, President Bashar Assad ambiguously acknowledged their existence in a January 6 interview with London based Daily Telegraph stating that unless Israel abandoned its nuclear arsenal, he would not agree to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

Smuggling to and from Iraq