by Laila Juma (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 5, Safar, 1424)
Washington increased pressure on Syria last month, immediately after the fall of the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. Although White House sources privately denied that there were any plans for further military action against other regimes in the region, contradicting defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had admitted ordering the US military to draw up plans for an invasion of Syria, there was a clear increase in political and diplomatic pressure.
On April 15, Rumsfeld said that US forces had cut off a pipeline through which Syria had been receiving over 150,000 barrels of oil a day from Iraq at discounted prices under a special arrangement reached with Saddam’s regime in 2000. Although Damascus denied that the pipeline had been operating, oil analysts confirmed that its oil exports had dropped by a similar amount, which will be a major economic blow to Bashar Al-Asad’s regime.
The move followed increased verbal attacks on Syria by US officials during the US invasion of Iraq. They accused Syria of providing military equipment to Baghdad, allowing Arab volunteers to enter Iraq from Syria to help the Iraqis, and of permitting Saddam Hussain to hide chemical weapons in Syria. They later also accused Syria of giving refuge to senior Ba’athist officials after the collapse of the Saddam regime.
By far the most dangerous accusation against Syria came from George W. Bush himself, who said on April 15 that "I think we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria." In an echo of the US’s strategy towards Iraq, the White House later summarily dismissed Syrian denials. Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said that Syria’s chemical-weapons programme was "well-corroborated", and branded Syria "a rogue state", warning that it needs to "seriously ponder the implications of its actions".
These accusations were made even though there is no reason that Syria should not have a weapons-programme, as it has not been forbidden from having one by the UN (as Iraq was), nor is it a signatory to international treaties banning chemical weapons. Like other states in the region, it refuses to sign such treaties unless Israel does. Israel is known to have a massive nuclear arsenal as well as other weapons of mass destruction.
Despite Syria’s denials, however, there is no doubt that the message got through to Damascus. It quickly acted to reassure the Americans that it had no intention of interfering with US plans for the reorganization of occupied Iraq, and even handed over some Iraqis who it said had been arrested in Syria.
That, however, is not the end of Syria’s problems. On April 16, pro-Israeli members of the US Congress said that they would re-submit the Syria Accountability Act when Congress reconvenes at the end of April. The Bill was first introduced in April last year, and gathered increasing support in subsequent months, thanks to the incessant activity of the zionist lobby. However, it was withdrawn later in the year, after president George W. Bush wrote to Congress requesting that they should not tie his hands at a time of delicate diplomacy with the Arab world over Iraq.
The bill proscribes the export to Syria of any arms or dual-use items, deprives American businesses investing in or dealing with Syria of government assistance, and forbids the implementation in Syria of programmes of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the US Trade and Development Agency. It also requires the US president to choose two or more items from a menu of sanctions that includes: prohibiting the export to Syria of American products other than food and medical supplies; banning US businesses from investing or operating in Syria; restricting Syrian diplomats from moving more than 25 miles away from Washington or the UN headquarters in New York; reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus; and blocking transactions on any property in which the Syrian government has an interest.
Several conditions are stipulated that Syria must meet to avoid these sanctions. These include: to stop providing "support for international terrorist groups" and not to "allow terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Hizbullah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command to maintain facilities in Syria"; to withdraw "all Syrian military, intelligence, and other security personnel from Lebanon"; to cease "the development and deployment of ballistic missiles and — the development and production of biological and chemical weapons"; and to stop its "violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 661," which makes it incumbent on states to prohibit the "import into their territories of all commodities and products originating in Iraq."
Although US government sources have indicated that they still do not wish to be tied down by a Congress Act on policy towards Syria, it is quite likely that some form of sanctions will be imposed on Syria in the near future, either via the Accountability Act or by the administration acting unilaterally, in order to pre-empt the passage of the Act. Economic sanctions would be particularly effective against Syria, as senior Ba’ath Party and government members — the so-called ‘Old Guard’ whom Bashar Al-Asad inherited when he came to power, and can ill-afford to alienate— also dominate the country’s economic system.
Unlike Iraq, where the US had major economic and geostrategic interests in invading and occupying the country, the only country interested in attacking Syria is Israel. Any American action against Syria will be at Israel’s behest. The unfortunate reality is that Syria has a very weak hand with which to try to resist US political pressure; Israel may well be telling Washington that its objectives can be achieved by political pressure alone, without the need for any substantial military engagement.