Feature: America's Syria problem

US is looking for ways to pressure Assad to seal border with Iraq.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli did not mince words last week as he lashed out against the Syrian regime. He called Syria under President Bashar Assad a "troublemaker," accused the country of being a "destabilizing element" in the region and described Syrian attempts to close the border with Iraq as a mere "dog-and-pony show" organized by the authorities in Damascus. Ereli's attack on Syria came after a week of harsh rhetoric from Washington aimed at the Syrian president. The first to set the tone was American ambassador in Iraq, Zalmai Khalilzad, who, while speaking to reporters at the State Department, warned Syria that "our patience is running out," blaming Damascus for turning itself into a hub for international terrorists seeking to enter Iraq. Then came President Bush, who declared that "the Syrian government is going to be more and more isolated." Finally, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added her voice to the chorus, saying that in the past the Syrian government has shown that it is capable of closing its borders so it is time to stop what she called "the game" of allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq and carry out terror attacks against Americans and Iraqis. That week of American pressure culminated in a meeting with Arab and European leaders to deal with the "Syrian problem." The purpose of this meeting was not to reach an agreement on a course of action concerning Syria, but rather to raise awareness about the issue and increase the pressure against Assad. This wasn't the way Syria expected to see the week unfold. The Syrian leader planned to use the UN General Assembly as a backdrop for showing the world the new face of Syria. Assad was supposed to come to New York with his wife and an entourage of Syrian officials. He had planned a full-blown charm campaign with high-profile media events, photo-ops and even personal interviews. But, as time went by and the US grew less and less patient toward Syria, Assad understood that it wasn't the best of times for such a show. In fact, he decided to avoid the General Assembly altogether. When asked last week about the possibility of using military force against Syria, Ambassador Khalilzad said, "all options are on the table." A closer look, however, shows that the American "table" is rather bare, and the options scarce. The use of military force in order to overthrow the Assad regime is practically out of the question. The US has had its share of forceful regime changes for one administration and lacks the will, the force and the public support to initiate such a move. Though there is the option to use limited military force such as a small-scale operation along the border, crossing into Syrian territory if necessary but this is also seen in Washington as an unlikely course of action. Any military action, no matter how limited, would serve more as a signal to Damascus than as an actual threat. As such, it is way too risky at this stage of the conflict. Another option, also highly unlikely, is for the US to take an active role in changing the regime in Syria, by supporting and encouraging opposition groups. This would be considered very risky, since it involves an element of active subversion that would not be accepted easily by the American public. It is also unclear if there are opposition groups in Syria who are ready at this juncture to step up to the plate. In addition, there is always the danger that the departure of Bashar Assad would bring back to power the old guard which was loyal to his father, Hafez al-Assad. Sanctions would appear to be the only remaining option, but this isn't so easy to implement. The US all but exhausted this avenue with the Syria Accountability Act and with those that derive from Syria being on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism. In 2004, the US exported $213 million worth of goods mainly food products and machinery to Syria; imports from Syria reached $267 million, most of it in oil products. Such small amounts, which are expected to be even lower this year, do not provide the US with much economic leverage on Syria. It is true that the law provides Bush with the option to impose stricter sanctions, but these, too, would have an effect that was mainly symbolic. Dr. Scott Lasensky from the US Institute for Peace, who researched the issue of the use of American sanctions in the Middle East, says that though in the case of Syria, sanctions are a limited tool, they mustn't be ignored. "The effect of sanctions is not measured only in instrumental terms. Sanctions can also be used to send out a message, as was done with the US sanctions against Syria last year. These sanctions made Bashar Assad understand that the US is serious," he says. The only way to make Damascus really feel the sanctions in its economic and military establishments would be for the US to persuade European nations to join a global sanction effort against Syria. If countries in Western and Central Europe limit their trade relations with Syria, this might have a stronger effect. THE US is only in the preliminary stages of engaging Europe on the Syrian issue and has not yet raised the option of sanctions. One diplomatic source in Washington said last week that the American administration still believes that strong international pressure, without actual sanctions, might be enough to force Assad to change his ways on some, if not all, of the issues. There are good reasons for this belief. After the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri, Syria proved to be vulnerable to international pressure and agreed to withdraw all forces from Lebanon following joint US and French diplomatic efforts. This month, once again, the authorities in Damascus caved in and declared they would fully cooperate with the special UN investigator of the Harriri assassination, after international pressure was increased. But even if the assumption that Syria is susceptible to outside influence and is willing to make concessions when needed is true, it is still a difficult road for the US, mainly because no one knows how Damascus will respond to the pressure. The US has a whole spectrum of demands from Syria, beginning with the most important issue: the porous border between Syria and Iraq that has become the main entry place for anti-American insurgency in the country. This is a daily problem for the US and Iraqi commanders on the ground one that threatens not only the lives of Americans and Iraqis, but also crumbles the support of the public in the new Iraqi democracy. But while this is the most pressing issue on the US-Syrian agenda, it is by no means the only one. There is also the question of the possible involvement of Syria in the Harriri assassination a question that will be dealt with next month when the formal report is published; the issue of Syrian compliance with UN resolution 1559 (focusing on the question of whether all Syrian intelligence personnel left Lebanon); and, of course, the issue of Syrian support of the Hizbullah and the harboring of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. So, even if Assad decides to take a positive move and give in to the international pressure, he has a variety of options to choose from. A European diplomatic source in Washington said last week that there are no real differences between Europe and the US on the issue of Syria. Europe, too, wants the border with Iraq closed; it, too, wants to find out who killed Harriri; and it, too, is interested in curbing the attacks of Hizbullah against Israel. The only discrepancy is in the priorities. While the US sees as its top priority getting the Iraqi border problem solved, for the Europeans, particularly the French, the most burning issue is completing the Harriri murder investigation and bringing those involved to justice. For now, the US is willing to use any issue in order to pressure Syria, and if the issue of Syrian involvement in the Harriri assassination is the one that can gain the most international support, so be it. According to the American strategy, the most important goal is to maintain pressure on the Assad regime, no matter what the reason behind the pressure. If Assad feels the world is united against him, he will look for ways to ease the pressure. Then the US hopes he might choose to close his border with Iraq to get the US off his back, at least for a while. The problems Israel is having with Syria are not a major issue on the US agenda at this time. The fact that the Northern border of Israel is relatively quiet provides the administration with the possibility to put the issue of the Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad on a lower priority rung. There is no intention of giving up on these issues, but in American eyes, they can wait for the later stages. The main goal right now is to get the border closed.