News Analysis

The recent passage in both houses of Congress of the “Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act” is but one facet of a relentless buildup of U.S. pressure on Damascus.

The Syrian Accountability Act, which is likely to be signed by President George W. Bush any day now, effectively brands Syria an outlaw. It accuses Damascus of supporting international terrorism and possessing or developing biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. It hints that nuclear weapons may be under development, too. It calls on Syria to adopt a U.S.-style democracy and to end its longstanding military presence in Lebanon.

Bush administration officials claim that Syria is hiding Iraqi Baathists and Iraq’s missing WMDs, and allowing “busloads of Syrian fighters” to pass into Iraq to fight U.S. and British forces. The source for many of these claims is the notoriously right-wing Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton.

The Senate version of the Accountability Act passed on Nov. 11 by an overwhelming margin, 89-4, mirroring the House vote in October of 398-4. When signed into law, Syria will be subject to a wide array of diplomatic and economic sanctions until it has proved to Washington’s satisfaction that it has changed. Iran is already suffering under a similar sanctions regime.

Since U.S. trade with Syria is relatively small – only about $150 million per year by some estimates – and since Syria receives no U.S. economic aid, the sanctions are less about economic coercion than about sending a political message. And in many ways the campaign against Syria is eerily reminiscent of the early stages of the U.S. buildup against Iraq.

Ian Williams, writing in the Nov. 19 edition of Middle East International, observes how “all the excuses for war on Iraq have been resurrected and applied to Syria.”

Why is Syria getting this treatment? While not posing any military threat to the U.S. (its military budget is quite small, about a third of the direct military aid that the U.S. gives to Israel), Syria’s government has historically charted an independent path, economically and politically. In today’s world, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East, such independence is unacceptable to Washington policymakers and Wall Street.

The bulk of Syria’s trade today is with Italy, Germany, France, and Turkey. Its trade with members of the European Union amounted to over $6 billion in 2002. Syria is planning to increase its cooperation with the EU and 12 of its Mediterranean neighbors in a long-term plan that is to take effect in 2010. This economic orientation angers U.S. corporations and banks which seek to dominate all Middle East markets.

Politically, Syria has also steered an independent course. For many years it had friendly relations with the former Soviet Union, from which it obtained much military equipment. It has been a staunch opponent of Israeli expansionism, and has long supported the Palestinian people in their quest for justice and self-determination. This has earned it the undivided enmity of successive Israeli governments, which have urged the U.S. to take punitive action against Damascus.

The U.S. government has found Israel to be a useful ally and its local gendarme in the oil-rich Middle East. Thus, when Israel sent fighter-bombers deep into Syrian territory in October and dropped bombs there – in violation of the United Nations charter and international law – the U.S. threatened to veto any UN condemnation of the attack. This fits into Washington’s campaign of intimidation and its pursuit of its own geopolitical aims.

Passage of the Syrian Accountability Act may have more time-sensitive motives for the Bush administration, too. Ian Williams writes: “There is a worrying seduction to its logic in an election year. Retreat from Iraq is unthinkable, but as in Vietnam, where the logic led to Cambodia and Laos to stop the supply lines, Syria is the perfect scapegoat for failure in Iraq, for the missing weapons, for the missing Baathist leaders, for the continuing attacks on U.S. troops, when we all know how glad Iraqis were to be liberated.”

Williams asks a haunting question: “How long will it be before American troops are being blown up daily in Damascus, too?”

The author can be reached at