Stephen Zunes : Syria
Official Washington has been rife with condemnation at the decision by the governments of Russia and China to veto an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution condemning the ongoing repression in Syria and calling for a halt to violence on all sides; unfettered access for Arab League monitors; and “a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs.”
As the Syrian regime continues to slaughter unarmed civilians, the major powers at the United Nations continue to put their narrow geopolitical agenda ahead of international humanitarian law. Just as France shields Morocco from accountability for its ongoing occupation and repression in Western Sahara and just as the United States shields Israel from having to live up to its obligations under international humanitarian law, Russia and China have used their permanent seats on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian regime from accountability for its savage repression against its own citizens.
The Syrian pro-democracy struggle has been both an enormous tragedy and a powerful inspiration. Indeed, as someone who has studied mass nonviolent civil insurrections in dozens of countries in recent decades, I know of no people who have demonstrated such courage and tenacity in the face of such savage repression as have the people of Syria these past 10 months.
A raid by U.S. forces into Syria last month was not only a major breach of international law, but has resulted in serious diplomatic repercussions which will likely harm U.S. strategic interests in the region. On October 25, four U.S. Army helicopters entered Syrian airspace from Iraq, firing upon laborers at the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal; two of the helicopters landed and eight commandoes reportedly stormed a building. By the time it was over, eight people had been killed, at least seven of whom were civilians, including three children.
While Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s willingness to meet with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallim during last week’s conference on Iraq is a welcome sign, most signals coming out of Washington in recent months are far more ominous. Indeed, the strident opposition by the Bush administration of the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic members of Congress to Syria last month is not just another indication of the administration’s pathological opposition to engaging in dialogue with governments it doesn’t like. It may be a sign that the Bush administration is considering military action against Syria, either directly or through its proxy Israel.
Even as American officials reluctantly agreed last month to include Syrian representatives in multiparty talks on Iraqi security issues, the Bush administration continues to block Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria over its security concerns. In 2003, President Bashar al-Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel where they had left off three years earlier, but Israel, backed by the Bush administration, refused. Assad eventually agreed to reenter peace negotiations without preconditions, but even these overtures were rejected….
The U.S. has long considered Syria the most intractable of Israel’s front-line neighbors due to its autocratic government, links to terrorists, and virulent anti-Israel posture. However, a variety of factors—both international and domestic—have led this one-time rejectionist government to pursue a peace agreement with its long-time enemy. Syria’s less belligerent stance toward Israel is not as much a result of greater American influence in this former Soviet client-state as it is a reflection of the more pragmatic drift of Arab parties that has been evolving since the mid-1970s.
On October 15, the U.S. House of Representatives, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which imposes strict sanctions against the Syrian government. (A similar bill was introduced earlier this year in the Senate and is pending.)
Recent statements by top Bush administration officials have accused the Syrian government of aiding senior Iraqi officials to escape, possessing chemical weapons, and committing “hostile acts” against the U.S. by allegedly supplying military equipment, such as night-vision goggles, to the Iraqis. On April 10th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress, “The Syrians are behaving badly. They need to be reminded of that, and if they continue, then we need to think about what our policy is with respect to a country that harbors terrorists or harbors war criminals, or was in recent times shipping things to Iraq.” People should keep in mind the following points in response to administration claims:
For the past three decades, the United States has taken the primary facilitating role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, marginalizing the Russians, the European Union, and the United Nations. Washington has therefore had to balance its narrow strategic and economic interests in this important region with its efforts to appear as an honest broker. This often contradictory role has at times been problematic, as is evident in the U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel, an important pro-Western ally, and Syria, whose government has traditionally identified with a radical strain of Arab nationalism.