Shortly after September 11, 2001, President Bush promised the American people that his administration "will not only deal with those who dare attack America, we will deal with those who harbor them and feed them and house them." Thus was born a strategy that became a central tenet of the Global War on Terror: terrorist organizations of global reach and their state sponsors form a terror nexus that must be defeated concomitantly.
The state of Syria, however, has escaped serious penalty despite its demonstrable connections to numerous terrorist entities as well as its despotic use of occupied Lebanon for the purposes of abetting terror.
To begin, the State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002 notes that Syria is associated with no less than five terrorist organizations - all of whom are Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. They include: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) and Hizballah. In addition, the State Department's report acknowledges that Syria "continued to permit Iranian resupply, via Damascus, of Hizballah in Lebanon."
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad confirmed his country's support for Palestinian terror during a recent interview with the London daily Al-Hayat. Assad revealed, among other things, that "The Syrian position supports the [Palestinian] cause...We do not support one authority or another. We support the [Palestinian] cause, and our position is known and has not changed.... we will support the 'resistance' without shame."
The center of that "resistance" activity is based in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. On September 17, 2003, Lebanese Prime Minister General Michel Aoun advised the House Committee on International Relations that "One cannot rationally dissociate the Syrian regime from terrorism. Syria provides safe haven for a myriad of terrorist organizations, directs their operations, and uses occupied Lebanon as their main field of training and operation..."
Moreover, General Aoun had a warning for those in the State Department and elsewhere who may be lulled into believing that Syria is "with us" in the War on Terror. He told the Committee that "the suggestion heard in some circles that these regimes can be charged with the task of dismantling terrorist organizations is the height of naiveté and folly....Any perceived cooperation in the war on terrorism does not represent a strategic choice on the part of the Syrian regime to combat terrorism; it is only a tactical and temporary ploy to dodge responsibility for the central role that Syria has had in sponsoring terrorism during the last three decades. Let us not forget that Syria's proxies in Lebanon were responsible for attacks against the American embassy and the Marine compound costing hundreds of Lebanese and American lives."
Syrian behavior vis-à-vis Iraq is equally troubling. On 9 October 2003, Amb. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), held a press conference during which he acknowledged that "We have had foreign fighters and terrorists coming across particularly the border from Syria, which concerns us." In addition, Syrian officials "met with a delegation of the [Iraqi] tribes representing all the classes."
It is clear that Syrian support for terrorism is strategic, comprehensive and unapologetic. So what can be done to correct this problem and eliminate a regional and global threat? Enter the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 which was passed recently by the House of Representatives by a margin of 398-4. Following the vote, the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reaffirmed the bill's rationale: "[The Syrian government is] at war with the values of the civilized world and a violent threat to free nations and free men everywhere."
In particular, the bill brought to light the fact that even though Syria is an official state sponsor of terror, fewer sanctions apply to it than any other country similarly designated. In fact, it has been widely reported that Syria actually enjoys "normal relations" with the United States despite these obvious ties to terror. The recent vote is an attempt to correct these long standing imbalances and to hold Syria accountable for its actions. It also links the future of U.S.-Syrian relations to a free Lebanon.
Among the U.S. policies that the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act would make official include the following:
* "Syria will be held responsible for attacks committed by Hizballah and other terrorist groups with offices or other facilities in Syria, or bases in areas of Lebanon occupied by Syria;"
* "the United States shall impede Syria's ability to support acts of international terrorism and efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction;"
* "the Secretary of State will continue to list Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism until Syria ends its support for terrorism, including its support of Hizballah and other terrorist groups in Lebanon and its hosting of terrorist groups in Damascus, and comes into full compliance with United States law relating to terrorism and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 (September 28, 2001);"
* "efforts against Hizballah will be expanded given the recognition that Hizballah is equally or more capable than al Qaeda;"
* "the United States will not provide any assistance to Syria and will oppose multilateral assistance for Syria until Syria withdraws its armed forces from Lebanon, halts the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction and medium and long range surface to surface..."
(Assad may have been alluding to this last point when he warned an Al-Hayat reporter during the abovementioned interview that "[Syria] is not a superpower, but [it] is not a weak country either. We have cards; we are not a country that can be ignored").
In addition to the aforementioned policy prescriptions, the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act would also give the president several options with which he could mete out punishment for Syrian transgressions (i.e. to hold them accountable). These include economic as well as diplomatic sanctions.
With respect to Lebanon, the current bill does not go far enough. For example, one of the "findings" states that "Since 1990 the Senate and House of Representatives have passed seven bills and resolutions which call for the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from Lebanon." Yet Syrian troops remain in Lebanon. So it is doubtful that the "sense of Congress" -- which states that "the Government of Syria should immediately declare its commitment to completely withdraw its armed forces, including military, paramilitary, and security forces, from Lebanon, and set a firm timetable for such withdrawal" -- will lead to any concrete developments.
This bill is a step in the right direction, but unlike the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 - which made a "regime change" in Iraq the official policy of the U.S. government -- the current bill is likely to engender only superficial changes in Assad's behavior rather than actual reform. Without a definitive commitment to change the current Syrian regime (through all available means), there is little chance that the aforementioned sanctions will have a significant strategic effect. Remember, Saddam Hussein was operating under sanctions for years, yet the threat he posed continued. President Bush should sign this symbolic act, but it must also adopt a much more active strategy whose primary goal is the liberation of Lebanon and an end to the terrorist state of Syria.