Syria's reaction to the renewal of sanctions by the US was subdued, demonstrating that Damascus does not wish to escalate tensions with Washington, notes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
President Barack Obama announced last week that US sanctions against Syria since 2004 will be renewed for one more year, once again accusing Damascus of supporting "terrorist groups" and seeking to possess missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Obama described Syria's actions and policies as "an extraordinary and continued threat on the national security, foreign policy and economy of the US". The only positive statement Obama made was when he noted that Damascus "achieved some progress in suppressing the network of foreign fighters who carry out suicide bombs in Iraq."
Renewing sanctions means a continuation of the Syria Accountability Act which Congress passed in 2003, including economic sanctions on Syria; prohibiting exports which contain more than 10 per cent US- made components; boycotting a number of Syrian officials and state-owned financial and military institutions because Damascus is accused of destabilising security in Iraq and Lebanon and supports "terrorist movements" in the region. The Syrian regime also stands accused of participating in programmes of banned weapons, in cooperation with Iran and North Korea.
Washington's decision to renew sanctions against Syria coincided with claims by Israel and the US that Syria has delivered advanced and long-range missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon. It also came days before the US Congress holds confirmation hearings on a new ambassador to Damascus, after a five- year absence.
Syria's reaction to the renewed sanctions was unusual -- delayed and calm. Two days after Washington's announcement, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Moqdad played down Washington's decision, saying that the US administration "has lost its credibility" because it is unable to keep its promises to Syria. Al-Moqdad did not elaborate further. He described the announcement as "no surprise to the Syrian people", adding that "what is discussed behind closed doors is entirely different from what is said in the media." The Syrian official asserted that Syria's foreign relations with the US should not be hostage to only one issue: "We do not want our economic ties with the US to dictate our relationship, because we have opportunities with other countries around the world."
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim waited three days before asking the US to "implement the measures which were agreed upon between the two sides", especially that "bilateral relations are now beyond political dialogue, but at the stage of implementing commitments." Al-Muallim added that "Damascus has kept its side of the bargain towards Washington," without elaborating on the promises made by the US.
Syria's official media published a number of articles criticising the renewal of sanctions, but did not attack the US as it had done in the past five years when relations between Damascus and Washington soured. The state-owned Al-Thawra newspaper stated that Syria "was not surprised but disappointed by the renewal of sanctions," describing US policies as "blatantly hostile" to Syria. The newspaper reminded Obama that Israel is the country in the region which possesses WMDs, stating that Washington's manoeuvres in the region "not only target Iran, but the stability and security of the entire region".
Other Syrian reactions remained within this realm. According to Syrian sources close to the regime, Syria's leadership does not want to escalate tensions with the US or enter a confrontation with Washington in the coming phase. Damascus believes that the renewal is not an expression of the US administration's position, but rather a routine administrative measure.
It is nothing new for Syria to play down the importance of renewing sanctions. When the Syria Accountability Act was issued six years ago, Syria's leadership did not react or show any interest. To the contrary, Syrian officials and the state media minimised the significance of the legislation, mocking the sanctions and their potential effects. At the time, Damascus declared that there was no military cooperation between the two countries and trade amounts to a miserly $150 million. At the same time, Syria does not receive any US economic aid or assistance.
Two years later, however, Syria admitted that the sanctions were "harsh" and that "the country is under pressure which is the severest it has witnessed since the 16th century," according to then Syrian foreign minister Farouk Al-Sahre.
"There are several conflicting schools of thought within the US administration," Emad Fawzi Al-Shoeibi, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Damascus, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The weaker force is the one calling for a more realistic policy towards Syria." Al-Shoeibi continued that "US officials informed Syria that Obama cannot repeal the sanctions, but can void their power. This, however, has not happened which causes Syria to believe that the current US administration talks more than it acts." He asserted that these sanctions "are meaningless and renewing them sends a negative message, not about Syria but about the feebleness of the US administration."
According to French diplomatic sources, renewing sanctions against Syria "was expected" and "a routine administrative procedure". "It would have been a surprise if they were not renewed," stated the source, adding that Israel's claim that Syria has delivered weapons to Hizbullah is of concern to Washington, which has now become more focussed on what is taking place on the Syria-Lebanon border.
Sources in the Council of the European Union asserted that Europe's policies towards Syria are different from Washington's and the EU has "noted" the American decision. The source is convinced that the issue "does not affect the dialogue which began between Damascus and Washington."
Earlier this week, Republican members in the Senate put a hold on the appointment of Robert Ford as the next US ambassador to Damascus. They said they doubt the need to send an ambassador to Syria, five years after former US President George W Bush decided to recall the American ambassador in reaction to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February, 2005.
Obama tentatively agreed last February to appoint Ford as ambassador to Damascus, after the post remained vacant for five years but tensions between the two sides over the past two months. A few weeks ago, the US Department of Defence accused Syria of giving Hizbullah long-range Scud missiles. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of igniting a war in the region. Syria is also a regional ally of Iran, and indirect talks between Syria and Israel have ground to a halt.
For its part, Syria has to some extent altered its actions and policies towards regional issues in order to reap some gains, such as improving relations with the US and ending its isolation. But it seems that Syria's leadership chose a wrong strategy in dealing with Washington, appearing to be unphased and unconcerned while making partial compromises. Preventing fighters from crossing its border into Iraq and furnishing some intelligence about terrorists is not enough for Washington.
No doubt, American demands on Syria have not yet been met. These include Syria's relationship with the incoming government in Iraq; the demarcation of the border with Lebanon; halting support of Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas and Jihad; and relaunching indirect negotiations with Israel. Most importantly, Damascus needs to dismantle the Syria-Iran alliance or at least weaken it. In short, Washington is trying to minimise any leverage which Syria has. In turn, Damascus is resisting these attempts and manoeuvring in order not to lose its influence.