Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense
of Democracies and at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance.
against Syria are justified...
[Nir Boms] 5/21/04
As news of
the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nicholas Berg’s
beheading dominates the headlines, American media have all but
ignored one of the most significant developments since President
Bush’s now-famous 2002 “axis of evil” statement:
the presidential signature on sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s
regime in Syria.
with the Syria Accountability Act, President Bush imposed sanctions
on Syria for "supporting terrorism, continuing
its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction
and missile programs, and undermining United States and international
efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction
The White House said the sanctions include banning U.S. exports
(except for food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting Syrian aircraft
from flying to and from the United States, freezing certain Syrian
assets and cutting off relations with a Syrian bank due to money
In his formal
order, issued on Tuesday, May 11th, 2004, Bush argued that
Syria’s actions “constitute an unusual
and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy,
and economy of the United States.” Top Syrian officials
not surprisingly, quickly dismissed Bush’s harsh accusation.
“The principle of imposing sanctions on Syria is a joke,” parliament
speaker Mahmud al-Abrash told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Amman
on Wednesday, adding that “We are not in an elementary
school for the teacher to come and impose sanctions on an undisciplined
student.” In addition, Syria’s Prime Minister, Mohammed
Naji Otri, called the sanctions “unjust and unjustified” and
the work of the “Zionist lobby.”
Syria’s case against the sanctions is based on its claims
of being a partner in the war against terrorism and, in fact,
a victim of it. Since September 11th, Syria argues, it has provided
assistance to the U.S. by sharing valuable information on Al-Qaeda
operatives, cracking down on terrorist networks in the country
and helping secure the Iraqi border. In addition, Syria would
like to see itself – much like Jordan and Saudi Arabia – as
an Al-Qaeda victim in light of the recent attack that took place
in Damascus at the end of April. That episode, an apparent terrorist
attack on an empty UN building, led to a swift investigation
and the discovery of a terrorist hideout where police found weapons
and explosives. Still, the incident remains an unresolved and
somewhat bizarre mystery. Some have suggested that the Syrian
government, itself, staged the attack.
Syria’s claim of being a constructive partner in the war
against terrorism deserves some serious attention in light of
a series of inconsistencies between Syrian statements and realities
on the ground. “In Syria, in spite of all the allegations
made against it, we have a democratic government that fights
terrorism,” stated Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's Ambassador to
the United Nations, in a May 11th interview. He also affirmed
Syria’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and
stressed that “The people [in Syria] have the right to
express themselves and say their wishes (1)”. Yet, the
facts on the ground pose some questions regarding Syria’s “assistance” in
the war against terrorism, its commitment to non-proliferation
and its stated “democratic nature.”
Weapons of Mass Destruction
According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Syria
began developing an offensive chemical warfare program in the
early 1970s and reportedly received its first chemical weapons
from Egypt before the 1973 October War. Then, according to the
CIA, Syria mounted its own chemical warfare program in the mid-1980s.
Syria's efforts in this regard have been conducted at the Centre
d'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques in Damascus. In 1990,
the DIA reported that Syria had developed the nerve agent Sarin
for use in 500kg aerial bombs and Scud B missile warheads. And
in 1993, the DIA reported that Syria had developed aerial bombs
and missile warheads for chemical agents and that there were
two known chemical weapon depots: The Khan Abu Shamat Depot and
the Furqlus Depo.
CIA report on WMD says that “Syria continued
to seek chemical weapon related expertise from foreign sources
this year .” The report added: “it is highly
probable that Syria also continued to develop an offensive biological
weapon capability.” Undersecretary of State, John Bolton,
noted that “Syria has been developing toxic nerve warheads
such as VX and that the chemical warheads contain the chemical
agent Sarin.” David Kay, who led a U.S. weapons search
team in Iraq until January of this year, stated in an interview
to the UK Telegraph that interrogations of former Iraqi officials
revealed that “a lot of material went to Syria before the
war, including some components of Saddam’s WMDs program.” Following
the recent chemical terrorist attack that was prevented in Jordan,
King Abdullah revealed that vehicles reportedly containing chemical
weapons and poison gas that were part of a deadly al-Qaida bomb
plot came from Syria (2).
While consistently denying that Syria possesses WMD, President
Bashar Assad ambiguously acknowledged their existence in a January
6 interview with London based Daily Telegraph stating that unless
Israel abandoned its nuclear arsenal, he would not agree to destroy
Syrian chemical weapons.
Smuggling to and from Iraq
Syria’s “seal” on its border with Iraq resulted
in hundreds of militants with Syrian passports being arrested
by the coalition forces in Iraq. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez
claimed that foreign fighters penetrate Iraq primarily by using
the Syrian border. Because Syria does not require visas for Arabs,
the Syrian border has been the main route into Iraq for foreign
fighters, many of whom are currently fighting against U.S forces
in Fallujah. In an interview that was aired on Al Jazeera on
April 28 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that attacks
against U.S led troops in Iraq were legitimate “resistance” against
foreign occupation (3). The Los Angeles Times reported on December
30, 2003, that a private Syrian trading company, the SES International
Corp, had at least 50 contracts to supply tens of millions of
dollars worth of arms and equipment to the Iraqi military prior
to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. The company is headed by a
cousin of Bashar Assad and is controlled by other members of
Assad’s Baath Party and Alawite clan. While Western intelligence
reports claimed that senior Syrian officials were involved in
illicit transfers, Iraqi documents prove that the Syrian government
assisted SES in importing at least one shipment destined for
Iraq’s military (4).
Support of Terrorist Networks
promise by Assad to U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell,
the offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus,
CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee
that “There are matters about the continuing harboring
of Palestinian rejectionist groups, whose public relations outfits
may have been shut down, but the operations haven’t been
shut down (5).” The CIA has determined that Syria has maintained
the operational arms of Islamic terrorist groups in Damascus.
Officials claim that much of the funding for attacks by Hamas,
Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah either stemmed from or were transferred
through Syria. At the same, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “While
al Qaeda and like minded groups remain at the forefront of the
war on terror, other groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic
Jihad, warrant equal vigilance due to their ongoing capability
to launch terrorist attacks within the United States (6).
5, 2004, Syria reportedly resumed smuggling weapons to Hezbollah
Hamas members based in Lebanon. The Jerusalem
Post quoted Powell as saying, “Syria cannot be serious
about wanting a better relationship with Israel, the United States
or anyone else as long as it serves as any kind of transshipment
point for weapons that are going to terrorists of the king who
killed innocent people (7).” Syria smuggled shipments of
weapons and classified equipment aboard several Syrian cargo
planes – ostensibly under the guise of humanitarian aid
to the earthquake victims in the Iranian city of Bam – that
was unloaded in the Damascus airport, where it was then transported
by trucks to Hezbollah in Lebanon (8). Often the military equipment
is disguised as diplomatic mail to the Iranian embassy in Syria
and is loaded on trucks which travel on the highway from Syria
to Beirut (9). Some figures indicate that as many as 10,000 missiles
have been delivered by the Syrians to Hezbollah.
Syrian government’s cutting the electricity
and phone lines of Palestinian groups that are on the State Department’s
list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in March,
it allows them to remain in Syria using generators and cell phones.
The 2003 State Department’s Patterns of Global terrorism
report states that a number of terrorist groups continue to operate
from Syria, “although they have lowered their public profile.” In
January 2004, charges were filed in a military court in Samaria
accusing Sheikh Bassam Saadi of being a member of Islamic Jihad’s
senior leadership since 1995 and transferring funds from Islamic
Jihad’s headquarters in Damascus to finance Islamic Jihad’s
military wing in Jenin, the families of suicide bombers and the
purchase of arms. Senior members of Islamic Jihad, along with
Sa’adi, transferred money from Damascus to bank accounts
in the territories opened by their wives. In December 2003, Syrian
officials arrested six Arabs carrying 23.5 million dollars with
links to al Qaeda. U.S. investigators were not granted access
to them. A senior U.S. official said that Washington may not
even have been notified by Damascus of the arrests. On February
25, 2004, Israeli forces launched a raid on a bank in Ramallah
and netted more than 6.7 million U.S. dollars sent by Syria,
Iran and Hezbollah to fund attacks (10).
Syria’s human rights record remains extremely poor according
to human rights groups and democracy activists. The State Department
has stated that “the (Syrian) Government continues to restrict
or deny fundamental rights…The Government uses its vast
powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition...significantly
restricts freedom of speech and of the press (11).” Amnesty
International reports that the state of emergency has led to “thousands
of suspected political opponents to be held, tortured and kept
incommunicado without trial or charge, sometimes for over two
Just last month, Aktham Naissa, founder and chairman of the
Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human
Rights in Syria, was accused of spreading misinformation detrimental
to the Syrian government and was arrested in the northern port
city of Latakia. His group issued a report in April accusing
the Syrian authorities of arresting more than a 1,000 Kurds and
torturing many of them. In the report, he said that two Kurds
died under torture. After a week of incommunicado detention at
an unknown location, Naisse, who suffers from an irregular heartbeat,
kidney ailment, and cerebral stroke, was taken to Tishrin Hospital.
Nevertheless, Amnesty International stated that Naissa remains
in solitary confinement in the Sednaya prison (13).
Syrian authorities prevented Haitham Malih, a lawyer and human
from boarding a flight from Syria
to the United Arab Emirates in February. His Human Rights Association
in Syria attributed the ban on his travel to a speech that he
made in the German parliament in December 2003 concerning the
conditions of human rights in Syria under the state of emergency
that has been in place since the Baa’th Party’s ascension
to power in 1963. Malih also participated in hearings before
the Bundestag’s human rights committee (14).
the decision to enact sanctions on Syria is far from being
unjustified. It is based on sad realities
that reveal Syria’s role as a destabilizing actor in the
Middle East during a crucial time in the region. Consistent with
the stated protocol of the War on Terror on the one hand, and
with the Bush administration’s democratization efforts
on the other, the sanctions imposed have sent a clear policy
signal to Damascus and the region indicating that state sponsorship
of terrorism will not be tolerated.
If Syria is displeased with this decision or if it would like
to explore rapprochement with the West, it should back up its
words with actions. CRO
Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense
of Democracies and at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance.
The National Interest
exclusive interview with Fayssal Mekdad, May 11th, 2004.
 NewsMax report, April 17th.
 Chicago Tribune April 29, 2004.
 Guardian 12/30/2003; Washington Times, 04/17/2004.
 CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence
Committee on February of 2004.
 Middle East Newsline, CIA: Syria maintains insurgency operations.
 Jerusalem Newswire, February 1st, 2004.
 BBC Monitoring Middle East Jan 8 2004.
 Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot Jan 9 2004.
 Associated Press April 11, 2004.
 Country Report, Department of State, 2001, 2002, 2003.
 Reuters, May 8.
 Baltimore Sun, May 7th.
 Aljazeera, February 11th, 2004