Holding Syria to Account?
Answering a question on the Syria Accountability Act during a news conference in New York last week, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated "The Bush Administration does not object to the Syria Accountability bill because we believe Syria has not been taken to account and because we believe Syria has to be taken to account." Coming in the wake of a series of official warnings to Damascus, this statement confirms that the ambivalent attitude of the US towards Syria, which characterized US-Syrian relations for the past few decades, has changed. This ambivalence stemmed from the belief, dating back to the Baghdad Pact in the 1950s, that Syria could decide the outcome of competing political initiatives in the Middle East, as well as help the US foster stability there.
In sharp contrast, Washington today is ready to take Syria to account. But the important question is to what extent Washington is ready to go to take Syria to account? Equally significant, does Washington have a political strategy for Syria in sync with its plan to reconstruct a democratic Iraq? The future of the Middle East and the fate of the US war on terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East peace process may well depend on how Washington and Damascus deal with each other.
The Syria Accountability act calls on Syria to "halt support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction" and holds Syria accountable for its role in the Middle East. Initially, the Bush administration had deep reservations about the act. In several letters to Congress dated May 2003, State Department officials said that while they supported the spirit of the act, they opposed its implementation today "in light of this [the] current fluid environment." Apparently, the Bush administration was giving Syria some time to mend its ways. But throughout the next few months, Syria did little to address US concerns.
In fact, Washington and Damascus are on a collision course over terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East peace process. While formally committed to combating terrorism (and did indeed prove helpful in intelligence cooperation on al-Qaeda), Syria's leadership insists on a distinction between acts of terror and legitimate resistance. The Syrians also oppose the American occupation of Iraq, believing that the United States seeks to impose a Pax Americana at Syria's expense.
As Syrian President Bashar Assad noted in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa, "we are a neighboring country of Iraq and the war will have direct effects on us … So taking Syrian interest into consideration, it is only natural for us to be against the war whose effects we are witnessing now … Targeting Syria has preceded the war, and this is why we knew that there will be threats after the war."
At the same time, Syria has been sidetracked in the peace process, the key agenda item in US-Syrian relations during the 1990s. Syria stood aloof from the "road map," which included no Syrian track. As the younger Assad recently said to the London-based daily Al-Hayat: "The road map was stillborn."
Washington's program of fighting terrorism in the Middle East, stabilizing Iraq, and ushering in peace between Israel and her neighbors now confronts Syria's insistence on having a say in all of these issues. Responding to a question over American pressure on Syria, the younger Assad stated, "We are neither a great power nor a weak country, we are not a country without cards or foundations. We are not a country that can be passed over with respect to the issues." President Bush's markedly supportive remarks following Israel's recent air strike deep into Syria, along with the White House's decision to let the Syria Accountability Act move forward in Congress, may have confirmed Syria's premonitions that Washington sanctioned Israel's attack in advance in an effort to widen the war on terrorism, with Syria as the next target. Obviously, Damascus fears that under the aegis of the "war on terrorism," the US and Israel may try to impose their hegemony over the region, and even remove Syria's Ba'athist regime. Believing it is fighting for its survival, Syria may abandon all its traditional restraint and thus trigger a regional conflict.
Similarly, Damascus is at fault for edging closer to a confrontation with the US. Damascus is approaching Washington's greatest issues of concern with a nonchalant, traditional way, which fails to fathom the implications of September 11 attacks for the American collective consciousness. The Syrian leadership has so far failed to gauge the depth of socio-political changes in the US following September 11. Believing that the right dose of cooperation may ballast US-Syrian relations, the Syrian leadership has ensconced itself in the effigy of its own traditions and rhetoric.
Damascus has been hedging its diplomacy with the US trying to reconcile incompatible policies. Its cooperation with Washington on Al-Qaeda has been markedly offset by charges that Damascus had supplied the now deposed Iraqi regime with military equipment and has allowed Jihadis to cross into Iraq to kill American soldiers, while harboring Palestinian terrorist organizations. Damascus denied all charges while at the same asserting that resistance was legitimate, especially against Israel, and that its long borders with Iraq were hard to control.