On June 25, Hamas terrorists tunneled into Israel and kidnapped 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, who was manning a border post. While executed from Gaza, the operation was planned in Damascus. In response to the Syrian connection, Israeli warplane buzzed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's summer palace.
Assad was unfazed. On July 3, he criticized "Israeli aggression" and rebuffed U.S. appeals to shut down Palestinian terror offices in Syria. A week later, Khalid Mashaal, head of Hamas' exiled leadership in Damascus, accused Israel of "violating international law."
That terrorists operate openly in Damascus is no surprise. According to the 2005 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, the Syrian government hosts Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other terrorist groups. Damascus serves as the main "transshipment point" in Hezbollah's supply chain.
Assad may act with impunity because he perceives U.S. strategy to be scattershot. In September 2002, for example, then-Deputy Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield lauded the Syrian leader for counter-terror cooperation. In April 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the regime to "review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity." Yet, the very next month, when Powell visited Syria to praise the regime's commitment to close the offices of Palestinian rejectionist groups, Syrian officials vowed to keep them open.
In December 2003, Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act, banning dual use items and requiring Bush to apply a minimum of two out of six possible sanctions. An executive order and Patriot Act provision required U.S. financial institutions to sever accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria and freeze the U.S. assets of designated Syrians and state entities financing terrorism. Bush's choice of sanctions, though, was more symbolic than effective. He prohibited direct commercial flights between the U.S. and Syria, although none currently exist. He chose to ban all exports, excluding food and medicine, to Syria, but such trade amounted to only $214 million in 2003.
Rather than ratchet up the pressure, the White House mitigated it. Bush could have downgraded U.S.-Syrian diplomatic ties--one of the six sanction choices. Instead, he appointed an ambassador to Damascus that same month, filling a four month vacancy. Assad equated the trappings of full diplomatic relations with normalcy.
Instead of altering his behavior, Assad continued it. Iranian arms and money still flow westward through the Damascus airport into Lebanon. Many Jihadists make the same airport a transit stop on their journey eastward into Iraq. Mashaal calls the city home.
In August 2004, with U.S. lawmakers demanding cooperation on Iraq, Bush dispatched a congressional delegation to Damascus. Again, the dialogue proved futile.
In the midst of last year's Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Bush administration ratcheted up its criticism of Syria. During a May 20, 2005, Baghdad visit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that Syria is "clearly out of line with where the region is going." Assad ignored her. In September 2005, he urged terrorists groups to "close ranks and continue the struggle."
On October 25, 2005, President Bush declared, "Syria is destabilizing Lebanon, permitting terrorists to use its territory to reach Iraq, and giving safe harbor to Palestinian terror groups." But although the Syrian government acceded to U.N. calls for it to end its military occupation of Lebanon, Assad continues to defy U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559's other provision--the disarmament of Hezbollah.
As the Syrian regime thumbs its nose at the White House, a State Department official recently said that few levers exist for influencing Syria. But the U.S. can tighten the noose by sending the Syrian regime unequivocal messages.
Absent a cogent strategy, Assad's antics will continue. Sending his regime mixed messages will not only undermine the efficacy of the Syria Accountability Act, but also U.S. national security.
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