The Magazine

Assad State of Affairs

Syria's dictatorship survives to fight another day.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By DAVID SCHENKER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In practice, since 2005, the administration's moves against Syria have been largely unilateral: terrorist designations of Syrian officials, for example, and provision of financial support to Syrian reformers. The administration did implement Patriot Act Section 311 sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, requiring U.S. banks to cease dealings with the Syrian bank. While these are arguably the most severe sanctions ever leveled against the Syrians, most unilateral actions have had only a marginal effect.

Indeed, in the three years since the administration chose to ratchet up pressure, Syrian behavior on key issues has seen only incremental change.

On Iraq, Syria reinforced its border and modified visa-entry procedures, making jihadi transit a little more difficult. Yet, according to administration officials, insurgent leaders continue to reside in Syrian safe havens orchestrating operations in Iraq.

On Lebanon, despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops, Damascus remains a significant player and is suspected of involvement in several post-Hariri political murders. Syria continues to support Palestinian terrorist organizations, and arms shipments from Tehran to Hezbollah via Damascus transit Syria unmolested.

After years of threats and condemnations, what has Washington really accomplished with regard to Damascus? Precious little. Syria continues to undermine several strategic U.S. goals in the region, particularly in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. What's more, in the process, Syria is damaging U.S. credibility in the region.

A few examples provide clarity: In 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Damascus to win assurances that Syria would stop illegally importing oil from Iraq. Powell declared victory, but one year later illegal oil imports were up by 50,000 barrels per day. The affronts continued in 2003, when the Syrian government authorized buses to transport military-aged males to Iraq (departing from Damascus Fair Grounds) to fight U.S. forces.

More recently, U.S. credibility has been undercut by Syria's blatant obstruction of the U.N. investigation into Hariri's death. Indeed, on the day the second report was issued, Gibran Tueni--a prominent Lebanese journalist, member of parliament, and leading critic of Syria--was assassinated, also probably by the Syrians.

Finally, there is the issue of Syria's stance on Washington's Middle East democracy-promotion agenda. In the face of the February 2006 U.S. pledge to provide $5 million to Syrian reformers, Syria has embarked on a crackdown against civil society, arresting dozens of reformers. One individual of whom the regime has made an example is Kamal Labwani. Labwani was arrested in November 2005 following his return from Washington, where he had met with senior administration officials responsible for democracy promotion. President Bush mentioned Labwani in a speech after his arrest. Four months later, Labwani was charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. Implementation of this sentence hangs in the balance.

U.S. inaction on all of these fronts has given Damascus the distinct impression that Washington lacks firmness of purpose. In turn, this has given the Syrians a new lease on life in Lebanon and has rejuvenated the regime's dealings with Palestinian terrorists. If Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most recent visit to Damascus (in January) is any indication, it also appears to have been a catalyst for a reinvigorated relationship with Iran. Judging from the recent Syrian crackdown on internal democratic opposition, Assad also remains undeterred by U.S. efforts to support reformers in his backyard.

Most troubling, though, is that aside from some cosmetic changes, Syria continues to lend support to the Iraqi insurgency. Objectively, it would seem that Syria has run the U.S. table.

Despite the administration's rhetorical campaign against Syria, Washington is in no rush to up the ante with Damascus. Which is just fine with the Assads, who have been playing for time for three decades. The sad reality is that with just over 900 days to go and attention focused on Iran, Iraq, and Hamas, the clock is running out for the Bush administration's Syria policy. Of course, this is how Assad planned it. Hunkered down in Damascus, the Baathist regime intends to wait out yet another president. Regrettably, if the past five years are any guide, it will succeed.

David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to 2006 he was the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs adviser in the office of the secretary of defense.