Punishing Damascus

November 24, 2003

THE SYRIAN Accountability Act provides plenty of reasons for increasing sanctions against Damascus: its 20-year military presence in Lebanon, its support of Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists and its defiance of United Nations sanctions against Iraq. The Bush administration, which last year succeeded in stalling action on the bill, says now it doesn't oppose the measure.

The reason for the White House's turnaround rests with Syria's apparently lax assistance in the war on terrorism and refusal to confront Palestinian militants operating in Damascus. But it's hard to see what the United States will gain by slapping more sanctions on Syria and further isolating the government of Bashar Assad.

The Syrian Accountability Act, approved by Congress last week, will not further Mr. Bush's stated goal of pushing a new "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East." In fact, it will likely have the opposite effect.

Here's why: The measure identifies a list of actions Syria must take to forestall sanctions beyond those related to its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Those actions include ending support of international terrorist organizations, closing the Syrian offices of Palestinian militant groups, withdrawing its armed forces from Lebanon, and ceasing all nuclear and chemical weapons production programs.

Barring any Syrian action - an unlikely prospect - the new sanctions would halt defense-related exports to Syria and give the president the choice of imposing at least two more sanctions. The latter could imperil $275 million in annual exports to the country, educational exchanges and business investments. Ending those opportunities would deter the kinds of reforms Mr. Bush wants to see under the totalitarian regime.

Quiet diplomacy is the avenue to pursue. Robust involvement of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would give Syria a reason to respond to American overtures - the Syrians are awaiting return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In return, Damascus should expel Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants supporting suicide bombers in Israel.

Syria hasn't always displayed a disregard for American interests. In the first Persian Gulf war, Syria joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Syria helped forestall an al-Qaida attack in Bahrain and saved lives.

Since then, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has urged Damascus to increase its cooperation. But ultimatums don't play well in the Arab world, and that is how the Syrian Accountability Act will be received in a region where anti-Americanism runs deep and wide.

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