Signal to Syria: Straighten Up
After a recent intensive three-hour meeting with Syria's President Bashar Assad, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced some good news: Assad had made "some closures" of terrorist offices openly operating in Damascus. But the next day, Powell switched to the future tense in discussing these closures: "I welcome what [Assad] said he was going to do."
Powell again and again insisted that Assad not just mouth the right words but really shutter the offices of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command: "It's performance that we'll be looking at in the days and weeks and months ahead." Powell had warned Assad of "consequences" should he ignore the U.S. demands. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated this message: "Words are one thing, actions are another."
But Assad flaunted these warnings. "We are still talking" about what to do, he told Newsweek, adding that his closing the offices would be "related" to regaining control over the Golan Heights from Israel (a distant prospect, at best).
The terrorist groups themselves brazenly announced operations as usual, if a touch more discreet. In Beirut, Hamas asserted its office in Syria was open. Representatives of Islamic Jihad boasted, "This is just talk" and "Nothing has changed."
"We heard nothing of that," said one Popular Front official. "No change has occurred in our situation," added a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Several Syrian spokesmen further amplified this attitude. Imad Fawzi Al-Shu‘aybi, an analyst, airily dismissed the whole subject of terrorist offices. "I think that talking about these organizations, such as Hezbollah, is symbolic." He even lectured the Americans that if they were serious about democracy, they'd leave these offices open.
Likewise, Mahdi Dakhlallah, editor of the government-run daily paper Al-Baath, scorned Powell's message (the U.S. government "does not have many tools to pressure us") and creatively interpreted the secretary's visit to signify that Washington considers Syria "a party to conduct dialogue with and not to threaten or employ pressure on." He also understood from it that "the role of the Pentagon will diminish in favor of the State Department" (i.e., a softer approach toward Syria will prevail).
Adding a touch of levity, the president of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce and Industry claimed that if Washington imposed economic sanctions on his homeland, Syrians "could rely on other countries, especially Malaysia," to take up the slack.
With terrorist offices open and his regime insouciant, Assad shows a risky contempt for the administration that just overthrew his Baathist neighbor to the east. In fact, there is a reason for this apparent madness – his experience in early 2001.
That's when Powell visited Damascus to complain about Syrian purchases of Iraqi oil in violation of U.N. sanctions, winning what the State Department spokesman called a "direct commitment" from Assad to desist. But the illegal imports continued and even grew. In reaction, Washington not only didn't penalize the Syrians, but soon dropped the entire subject.
To compensate for this mistake, the administration now needs to communicate to Syrian leaders its seriousness of purpose. Fortunately, it has a powerful tool at hand: the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. Introduced by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), this mandates economic sanctions should Syria not end its:
support for terrorism;
occupation of Lebanon; and
possession and continued development of weapons of mass destruction.
Should the Assad regime continue these policies, the Engel bill would (among other provisions) ban most U.S. exports to Syria and bar U.S. businesses from operating there. Introduced just a month ago, it already has 85 co-sponsors in the House. Engel tells us he is confident it will pass - unless the administration actively lobbies against it.
Powell has acknowledged using the bill to pressure Syria to make improvements, so logically he should now want to see it enacted into law. It offers him exactly the right mechanism to convince Assad & Co. that they need to make fast, deep, and lasting changes.
Or else the squeeze will begin.