Misreading the Sanctions Message

Special to The Daily Star

And so it finally happened. American sanctions against Syria are now official. Though everybody knows that America’s bark here was worse than its bite and that the sanctions have no real teeth, they do come both as a warning and as a potential prelude for a more serious assault on Syria’s regime and, perhaps, sovereignty. But, are the authorities in Damascus aware of this? More importantly, can they adapt?

Judging from the official reactions so far of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, one is unable to tell whether the outrage expressed conceals a true understanding of how serious the situation is. But in a country such as Syria, at a time when the decision-making process is hopelessly flawed, if not nonexistent, official reactions do not, and cannot, tell the whole story.

The truth of the matter is that Syrian officials don’t know what to do or how to respond to the new situation. The America that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center continues to be an enigma to the Syrian regime, where decision-makers were never known to possess a deep understanding of American domestic politics to begin with.

As such, Syria did not benefit from the bilateral security cooperation that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to forge a tactical alliance with American policymakers – no matter how tentative Instead, the Syrian regime ended up making one miscalculation after another, culminating in an ill-advised public stance vis-a-vis the US-led invasion of Iraq. Damascus, for all intents and purposes, painted itself into a corner and begged the US to confirm its position there. The sanctions, then, came as a natural by-product of domestic Syrian politics, not only American internal politics.

When the domestic political scene in a country is in disarray, its foreign policy is bound to reflect that, especially in moments of crisis. Therefore, and in order for the Syrian regime to respond more effectively and clearly to the various foreign policy challenges it is currently facing (the ongoing showdown with the US being a major one indeed), it needs to set its own affairs in order first. This can only be done by introducing a new decision-making process within the ruling elite, and a new and flexible mechanism allowing for the gradual expansion of this process, coupled with some kind of overture to Syrian civil society leaders and opposition figures at home and abroad. The entire notion of “crackdown” should also be abolished. There is no more room for this mentality.

There are signs that certain elements within the Syrian government are beginning to think along these lines. But vision and leadership seem to be sorely lacking. This does not augur well for the immediate future.

Meanwhile, the anti-Syria lobby in Washington is gaining momentum and becoming increasingly bold in its tactics. Indeed, we are already looking at the possibility of another anti-Syrian act being passed by the US Congress – the Syria and Lebanon Liberation Act of 2004 (SALLA) – perhaps within the next few months. It was introduced to make up for the perceived shortcomings of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. The new act could allow for the punishment of non-American companies that deal with Syria, and could even pave the way for more direct interference in internal Syrian affairs.

If the act passes and is signed into law by a future US president, whether George W. Bush or John Kerry, it could amount to a virtual economic blockade of Syria.

Those who believe that the troubles the Americans are facing in Iraq will make them less willing to adopt a bellicose stance against Syria could not be more wrong. When nations like the Unites States find themselves in a bind, they tend to become more uncompromising, at least in the short term.

Some can argue that the same rule applies for states like Syria. The difference is that the US can afford setbacks – it will not collapse or implode as a consequence. It did not collapse after Vietnam, and it definitely will not collapse after Iraq, no matter what the result of the conflict there. Countries such as Syria, on the other hand, cannot afford major foreign policy setbacks, which might indeed provoke domestic implosions. Therefore, the onus for change, notwithstanding such issues as legitimacy, morality and legality, is on Middle Eastern leaders.

Having been targeted by the US through the Syria Accountability Act, and perhaps in the near future by SALLA, Syria is in a unique position to regain its former stature in the Middle East by taking the lead in bringing about necessary change.

But again, vision and leadership skills seem to be sorely lacking. This is, unfortunately, the final summation of decades of authoritarianism. As a result, and in the absence of proper advisers and capable decision-makers, opportunities for change seem destined to be wasted as the leaders of Syria and other countries in the region struggle desperately to get a grip on the emerging situation, but end up falling back on the same old gripes they have been voicing for so long.