Syria's Opposition to American Interests in the Middle East

Immediately after September 11th, segments of the American foreign policy establishment hoped to include Syria, given its brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the anti-terror coalition against Al-Qaeda.

Immediately after September 11th, segments of the American foreign policy establishment hoped to include Syria, given its brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the anti-terror coalition against Al-Qaeda.  Indeed, for a time, it did appear that Damascus might have provided some useful information to American intelligence that prevented an Al-Qaeda attack in the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, in the last year, it has become abundantly clear that Syria is acting in numerous ways that are completely detrimental to American national interests in the Middle East.  It is thus time that illusions about Syria's intentions are put to rest.  

Syria's support for myriad terrorist groups, its chemical weapons programs, the promotion of anti-Americanism in its state-run media and its facilitation of foreign fighters into Iraq to attack American servicemen are all diametrically opposed to Washington's interests for stability in both Iraq and in Israel.  Syrian nationals, it should be noted, currently constitute the largest number of foreign fighters held in coalition custody in Iraq and are a threat to both the lives of American servicemen and to American success in nation building. 

The revelations of espionage at Guantanamo Bay only bolster the case against Damascus.  The detained Islamic chaplain accusing of breaching security, Yousef Yee, studied Islam in Syria in the 1990s, while Ahmad Al-Halabi, the Syrian-born airman charged with espionage, has been accused of failing to report unauthorized contacts with the Syrian Embassy and of planning to pass military secrets to Syria or to a group operating out of Syria.  This has prompted Washington to investigate whether Syria is actively involved in espionage against the United States.

Syria's support for Palestinian terrorist organizations and for Hezbollah is completely antithetical to American policy. Damascus realizes that a continuation of Israeli-Palestinian violence and the lack of a viable peace process will further anti-American sentiment in the region, particularly when a terrorist attack leads to an Israeli retaliatory strike.  Islamic Jihad, the most violent and implacably anti-Zionist of the Palestinian militias, directs Palestinian attacks from Damascus and deliberately hampers any effort toward a two-state solution.  It is for this reason that, following the suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad on October 4, the Israeli military retaliated against a terrorist training base in Syria.  Hezbollah's continual provocations against northern Israel, on the other hand, serve to perpetuate a constant state of potential crisis in the Levant.

The most serious allegations, however, concern Syria's biological and chemical weapons programs.  Testifying before the House International Relations Committee last month, Undersecretary of State John Bolton cited Damascus's stockpile of sarin gas and its research and development of VX nerve gas.  He likewise cited the belief that Syria is developing an offensive biological weapons capability.  Bolton also mentioned Syria's draft program on cooperation on civil nuclear power with Russia and its development, with North Korean help, of the Scud D missile.

Given the failure of arms inspectors to find Iraqi WMD, however, Washington would be well advised not to make Syrian unconventional weapons programs, as worrisome as they are, as large an issue as its aforementioned support for international terrorism, its possible role in espionage and its continued violation of Lebanese sovereignty.  In the form of the Syrian Accountability Act, the United States has a major diplomatic resource at its disposal to rebuke Damascus for its continual thwarting of American national interests.  This bipartisan piece of legislation seeks to place sanctions on Damascus for its rogue behavior and is supported by numerous Lebanese-American organizations.

The passage of the Syria Accountability Act, which is already gaining support in Congress and is no longer being actively opposed by the White House, could demonstrate that Washington need not rely solely on military force to foster change in the Middle East.  Given the fact that anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon is only increasing, Washington could use the passage of this legislation to demonstrate to the Lebanese population of all ethnic and sectarian groups that the United States is serious about fostering change not merely through the barrel of a gun.  This would serve to counter the oft-reported claim that Washington's primary reason for the occupation of Iraq is to control the country's oil.

Given Syria's numerous actions that are directly opposed to American national interests in the Middle East, it is no longer plausible to believe that Syria remains a potential ally in the war on terror and that secular Ba'athism is inherently opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.  Given Syria's support for Palestinian terrorist organizations, weapons ties with North Korea, facilitation of foreign fighters into Iraq and possible espionage against the United States, no one should seriously continue to view Damascus as a troublesome, but errant, "ally." 

Sanctions might make Syria reconsider its behavior.  They might actually persuade Damascus that it has far too much to lose by its continual anti-American activities and by its perpetuation of Israeli-Palestinian violence.  Indeed, given the miserable state of the Syrian economy and the fact that Syria, apart from Iran, really has no friends in the region, the United States has a great deal to gain from flexing its diplomatic muscle against Damascus and in persuading fellow NATO member states that they should reconsider their own relations with Syria.