“Losing Traction against Syria,” by David Schenker

Losing Traction against Syria
By David Schenker
September 21, 2007

The September 6 Israeli bombing of a presumed North Korean-supplied nuclear weapons facility in Syria highlights the ongoing policy challenge posed by Damascus. More than three years after President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SAA), Syria continues to support terrorism, destabilize Iraq, meddle in Lebanon, and develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile systems. This week's headlines tell the story: on September 19, yet another anti-Syrian parliamentarian was assassinated in Lebanon; the same day, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that a July 2007 chemical weapons accident in Syria — involving mustard gas and VX and sarin nerve agents — killed fifteen Syrian officers and dozens of Iranian engineers.

To date, Syria has proven largely impervious to U.S. sanctions, and Washington's efforts to forge international consensus on isolating Damascus have not gained traction. Although the regime seemed isolated after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the trend has recently shifted toward diplomatic and economic engagement. If such engagement continues, Syria may avoid accountability for both the Hariri assassination and Western demands to alter its behavior.

Diplomatic Engagement
Over the past year, a stream of foreign officials has flocked to Damascus for meetings with President Bashar al-Asad. The most recent — and significant — visit was by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who spent three days in the Syrian capital in August. The trip was a stunning development: in May, al-Maliki's own national security advisor complained to ABC News that Syria continued to harbor and support insurgents responsible for killing Americans and Iraqis. And just months before that, U.S. Central Command revealed that Iraqi insurgents had established a terrorist training camp on Syrian soil.

Given Syria's demonstrated commitment to destabilizing Iraq, it is not surprising that al-Maliki's meetings were unproductive. Nevertheless, the visit held symbolic importance. The trip — the first by an Iraqi prime minister to Syria in thirty years — was the capstone in a series of recent diplomatic engagements: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip in April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's May interlude with the Syrian foreign minister in Sharm al-Sheikh, and French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran's July talks.

Unsuccessful U.S. Financial Measures
Washington has had little success using financial sanctions to pressure Syria. This is partly due to the unsubstantial trade between the two countries. As a charter member of the State Department's terrorism sponsors list, Syria has been subject to bilateral trade constraints since 1979. In 2004, pursuant to the SAA, Washington implemented additional economic measures. These steps were largely symbolic, however, as they did not affect food and telecommunications equipment, the primary U.S. commodities purchased by Syria.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce indicate that from October 2006 through March 2007, bilateral trade between the countries actually increased threefold from the same period a year earlier ($116 million to $361 million). While total bilateral trade fell from $478 million in 2005 to $438 million in 2006 due to a decrease in Syrian oil exports to the United States, American exports to Syria actually increased by $69 million during the same period.

From the U.S. perspective, the implementation of Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act in March 2006, which imposed sanctions on the Commercial Bank of Syria, was a more effective measure. This action forced U.S. financial institutions to sever accounts with the Syrian bank. Although these sanctions were an irritant, Damascus anticipated them and cushioned the blow: one month earlier, it switched all state foreign currency transactions from dollars to euros.

Heavy Middle Eastern Investment
Efforts to change Syrian policies have been stymied by burgeoning foreign investment in Syria, a development that has been a life raft for the regime. The leading investor is Tehran, whose investment agreements are said to be worth approximately $3 billion (it remains to be seen how much of this will actually materialize).

Persian Gulf states have made large investments as well. For example, Noor Financial Investment, a Kuwaiti firm, has entered into an oil refinery deal in Syria worth $1.5 billion. Another Kuwaiti firm, the Aref Group, is funding a $2 billion project to develop a new business district in Damascus. Several companies from Dubai are also bullish on Syria, including the al-Futtaim Group, which is slated to develop a $1 billion resort complex west of the capital. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will soon open banks in Damascus. Perhaps the only U.S. Gulf ally largely absent from this investment surge is Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with Syria deteriorated following the assassination of Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi national.

Europe and China Jump In
Europe is an important part of the failed policy to financially pressure Syria. The European Union (EU) continues to deal economically with Syria despite objections from France stemming from the Hariri incident. Although these objections stalled Syrian membership in the EU Economic Association, the union nevertheless provides significant economic and development assistance to the Asad regime through fourteen separate projects. In April 2007, Germany pledged $95 million in development aid to Syria over two years. Berlin dispatched Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul to Damascus in August to disburse $46 million.

The EU traditionally has been Syria's leading trade partner and accounted for 60 percent of all Syrian exports in 2003. Recognizing the vulnerability of this relationship, Damascus has worked hard to diversify and reduce its reliance on Europe by forging economic agreements with new partners such as China. Between 2005 and 2006, Syrian bilateral trade with China increased 55 percent to $1.4 billion. And by 2006, the percentage of Syrian exports to the EU had declined to 42 percent, reducing the West's ability to use economics as a lever.

The Syrian economy is growing — despite a 6.5 percent decline in oil production, its overall growth rate this past year was a respectable 5 percent. "Barring policy missteps or a deterioration in the regional environment," a recent International Monetary Fund report predicted, "the near-term outlook . . . looks favorable." Based on this assessment, Syria is not under economic duress. The picture is not all rosy, however: Syrian oil revenues are in serious decline, Damascus still has not attained membership in the EU Economic Association, and the $1.3 billion boon to the economy brought by the estimated one million Iraqi refugees will likely evaporate as these unemployed visitors burn through their savings.

As information begins to emerge about the extent of North Korean-Syrian ties, Washington will have another opportunity to focus the international community on the continuing dangers posed by the Asad regime. The UN's Hariri tribunal will add to the pressure on the regime, but that alone will not suffice. To stem Syria's reacceptance into the international community, Washington needs to convince its European and Arab — particularly Gulf — allies to freeze their engagement with Damascus. It should also exclude Syria from the Arab-Israeli peace conference scheduled to take place this November.

With Israeli-Syrian tensions rising and the pro-Western Lebanese government on a precipice, renewed political and economic pressure on Damascus is vital. In the absence of effective measures, the Asad regime will continue to undermine Washington's hopes for the region.

David Schenker is a senior fellow in Arab politics at The Washington Institute. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

Comments (59)

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51. Georges said:

There will certainly be a civil war in Lebanon. This will repeat itself as long as the country is left to these immature Lebanese brats. If there was ever a case for a country NOT to be fit to rule itself, it is Lebanon. We know the cycle pretty well now. Every couple of decades, the various Lebanese factions throw a violent tantrum against each other, costing a few hundred thousand lives. As they jockey for political and military power, each faction allies itself with a chosen external regional power, raising the stakes for everyone. Then, when the human and political costs of the war become too high, the world steps in to end it. Then, the irresponsible Lebanese rack up billions of debt to rebuild their country and turn it into a brothel for the Gulf Arabs (their single major industry). Just when it’s time to pay up, it’s time for another war. http://www.youpolls.com/details.asp?pid-569

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September 22nd, 2007, 11:02 pm


52. Alex said:


You are right, I am far from being a military expert. I only read publicly available reports and studies.

For example

Jane’s reports that, “It was reported in early 1998 that Israeli intelligence experts had estimated that there were between
24 and 36 ‘Scud’ launchers at most Syrian missile sites – far more launchers than previously estimated.” Traditionally,
armies deploying Scuds stock about 10 missiles per launcher. The higher number of Syrian launchers suggests a ratio
closer to 2 missiles per launcher – this would enable Syria to launch a large first-wave strike before launchers were

As for the “thousands” well … it is known that Syria has at least hundreds of the modified SCUDs, but Jane’s report does not have any info past year 1999.

And according to this week’s info, Syria is still actively cooperating with the Koreans and Iranians to expand its SSM stock. While the nuclear part is a joke, the missiles cooperation is not a secret … with all the satellite pictures Israel has.

But what I know, is that most Syrians and Israelis do not expect to go to war… it is all pre-peace talks maneuvering.

And as IDAF explained … this US administration does not take YES for an answer form Syria. That I can tell you with more certainty than my figure of millions of Syrian missiles : )

finally, you noticed a threat in what I said?! .. it was not a threat at all. Take for example Oslo … at the time, Clinton and Assad were friends. Assad assured Clinton that he will not fight Oslo … but it will fail by itself because it is not good enough.

It failed because it was not good enough.

Assad did not vote on behalf of the Palestinians who elected Hamas

Assad is not telling Michel Aoun what to do …

Assad is not producing more Lebanese Shiite babies … they are now the largest group in Lebanon.

Assad is not leading and directing all the armed Iraqis who are killing US troops and killing each other …

A failed policy will automatically lead to failure.

Remember President Bush Sr.’s famous reply to questions about why he did not do this or that? …”wouldn’t be prudent”

Syria is criticized for being too prudent … but, slow progress is better than war.

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September 22nd, 2007, 11:21 pm


53. IsraeliGuy said:

IDAF, you’re right.
I do lack some basic knowledge on US/Saudi relationship and its impact on Syria/US relation.

I probably offered this opinion based on what I know (for years) from the Israeli/Syrian track, where they always sit, wait, threaten and complain in an endless cycle.

I accept this remark.

Still, I believe there are ways to adapt.
How come Egypt and Jordan managed to build good relationships with the US?

Alex, please don’t quote from Jane’s.
They’re the liars who broke out the story about the Iranian/Syrian chemical plant explosion.

Please don’t tell me that you actually believe that…. 😉

“But what I know, is that most Syrians and Israelis do not expect to go to war… it is all pre-peace talks maneuvering.”

Most Israelis don’t expect to go to war over the latest incident in Syria – that’s true, but as I said, once Iran will be attacked, Assad will not be allowed to sit in the living room and watch the war on TV, while eating popcorn.

He’s Iran’s ally and he and Nassrallah will have to deliver the goods.
Iran didn’t invest all the money in Syria for the goodness of their heart.

Last thing: Check out your ‘SYRIA’S OCCUPIED GOLAN HEIGHTS’ blog post – I posted a long comment there 🙂

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September 22nd, 2007, 11:40 pm


54. Joshua said:

Refresh your Syria Comment and go to the top for an interesting story!!

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September 22nd, 2007, 11:47 pm


55. Alex said:


Are you adapting my tactics?

Even I do not have the energy to post comments as long as your last comment! 🙂

Thanks. I really appreciate the time you took to read everythig and to write. I will read it tomorrow morning and answer you.

In the mean time, try reading the article by Rime Allaf. It is very powerful … not very accomodating though 🙂

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September 23rd, 2007, 1:25 am


56. IsraeliGuy said:

Thanks Alex.
I will read Rime Allaf’s article.

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September 23rd, 2007, 2:42 am


57. Lysander said:

Israeli Guy, You place too much emphasis on intel and an airstrike against Iran. I don’t doubt you can bomb some important sites, but you can’t stop a nuclear Iran, if Iran truly wishes to nuke up. Osirak didn’t stop Iraq’s program, it only drove it underground and turned it into an obsession for Saddam. If he didn’t invade Kuwait, he’d have nukes by now.

I can’t find the link now but a former Mossad chief was asked how to stop Iran from going nuclear. “how do we stop the tides” was his answer.

A massive U.S. U.S. attack going far beyond Iran’s nuclear program might do it, but I really don’t think it will happen; the military’s heart just isn’t in it.

The reason Israel didn’t strike at Lebanon’s power and water facilities is that it wouldn’t have helped you any. Hizbullah wasn’t hiding in the Beirut power plant. Certainly the U.S. didn’t want Seniora’s government to fall (and neither does Israel, knowing who will take his place) but they can’t be said to be tying your hands when they were urging you to attack Syria.

Regarding war with Syria, I doubt Israel will strike civilian targets as it did in Lebanon. You are too vulnerable to retaliation. Same is true for Syria, of course. Beyond that, I have no idea how a war would turn out. Hope I never find out.

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September 23rd, 2007, 6:52 am


58. ausamaa said:

Why would Israel want to open the “Nukes” issue door? To encourage the neo-cons to do something before they depart fropm the scene? Not a very sound reason to redirect attention on Syria after thinking that they have an open and shut case with Iran on that front. The US or Israel could not manage to push each other to do something about Iran, so what is this now?

The whole thing stincks royaly.

My guess, it is all a diversion for the benifit of Moderate Arabs and the the Israeli internal front. Israel needs “proof” that it can still make things happen around here. And it needs it badly. Moderate Arabs need a “new” cause to rally around (Iran is too close and dangerous perhaps), and throwing mud and impiguity at Syria’s posdition seems appropriate now more than ever with the way things are developing on the ground in Palestine, newly-revived-Baathi-Iraq, and Lebanon.

Psyops (if not a cover up for a grand Israeli fuck up) I would say again..

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September 23rd, 2007, 10:54 pm


59. gaetane said:

hey guys,
I need to work on the Syrian embargo and as you seemto know many things about il you may could help me!
I need to know wht are exactly the restrictions: it is for planes: if 10% of the aircraft is US made, it can not be sold, is hat true? But is it in term of high value, of part number, or of the sell value?
Where can I find exacty the list of what is allowed or not?What can we do interm of license to make some products be accepted?
wht is the general feeling bout the embargo? Is it gonna leave soon or not?
What has changed since the early 90s?
I would be very gratefu if you could help me
( I am french, that is why my english is quite bad and I am sorry about that!)

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October 4th, 2007, 7:46 am


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