Facing US sanctions, Syria responds with olive branch

Thursday, Syria supported a US-backed Security Council resolution on postwar Iraq, which passed unanimously.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Syrian-US relations have hit an all-time low with the House of Representatives passing a bill that calls for sweeping sanctions against Damascus.

The one-sided 398-4 vote Wednesday came as no surprise, given the depth of mistrust between the two countries. But analysts say that sanctions will have little economic effect on Damascus, are unlikely to herald significant changes in Syrian policy, and could backfire on US interests in Iraq.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad struck a defiant pose Thursday, describing the Bush administration as a group of "fanatics" and warmongers.

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But Syria offered an olive branch Thursday by backing a US-proposed United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at securing broader international backing for the reconstruction of Iraq. US diplomats had expected Syria to abstain from the vote at best. The resolution passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, the House's Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act calls on Damascus to drop its backing of militant anti-Israel groups, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon's Hizbullah organization; cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction; and withdraw its forces from neighboring Lebanon. The bill, the latest version of which was drawn up in April, also calls on Syria to end its illegal trade in oil and weapons with Iraq - demands that have become redundant since the downfall of Hussein's regime.

Still, Washington accuses Damascus of not doing enough to block volunteer fighters from entering Iraq. On Tuesday, US troops clashed with a group who had allegedly infiltrated Iraq from Syria. Some of the infiltrators were killed in the battle, and a US military helicopter was forced to land after being hit by small-arms fire. US officials also have reportedly demanded the return of some $3 billion in stolen assets deposited in Syrian banks by the former Iraqi president, a charge Damascus denies.

"Diplomacy with the Syrian regime has failed miserably," Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen (R) of Fla., chair of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee. "It's time to reinforce our words with concrete, tangible, and punitive measures."

While grappling with heightened American diplomatic pressure, Damascus also has had to contend with military pressure from Israel. On Oct. 5, Israeli aircraft struck an alleged Palestinian training camp nine miles outside the capital, the first attack by Israel on Syrian territory in 30 years. Although neither Syria nor Israel appear to favor war, there is a concern that a miscalculation by either side could have potentially devastating consequences.

Analysts say that it is in the nature of the Syrian regime to react slowly to new developments, and it has not fully appreciated that the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq have changed the dynamics in the Mideast.

"The Syrians have taken time to understand or be willing to understand that the rules of the game have fundamentally changed," says Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "After 9/11, the Americans are not offering anything to anyone."

The White House says that Syria has been too sluggish in satisfying US demands and recently signaled it would drop its previous opposition to the Syria Accountability Act. US officials say that the bill is expected to progress swiftly through the Senate and could be signed by President Bush within weeks. "There is a momentum. It won't take long," says an American official.

But there are doubts in the Bush administration that the act will have much effect on Damascus, which is one of the reasons why the White House opposed the bill in the past. The economic impact of sanctions on Syria would be negligible. The volume of trade between Syria and the US is a paltry $150 million a year. Syria receives no US foreign aid. In fact, the biggest potential losers will be American companies contracted by Syria earlier this year to explore for oil.

Furthermore, Syria's influence extends beyond Lebanon and militant Palestinian groups. It also wields significant influence in neighboring Iraq and has recently hosted Iraqi Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni tribal leaders. Nabil Sukkar, a former economist with the World Bank, who runs a think tank in Damascus, says that the Syria Accountability Act ultimately will backfire on the US, and its ramifications could last years.

"The Americans are going to lose a major regional player. They are going to lose Syria as a partner in establishing peace in the region," he says. "It's very easy to bring in sanctions, but not so easy to have them withdrawn."

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