February 12, 2009 | Forbes.com
Commerce Department Waives Syria Sanctions
Is an olive branch to Damascus really in U.S. interests?
“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” This was President Obama's inaugural offer last month to troublesome tyrants around the world. Most attention has focused on the relevance of that offer to Iran, following Obama's campaign promise to talk without preconditions (an offer to which Tehran has now responded with, you guessed it, a list of conditions).
But let's spare a moment for Iran's terror-sponsoring neighbor and sidekick, Syria–where already the Obama administration is not only extending a hand, but has just waived sanctions to allow aircraft servicing.
News emerged this week that the U.S. Department of Commerce has just approved a license allowing Boeing to go ahead with major overhauls of two 747 jetliners belonging to Syria's state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines. The administration itself has been coy on the subject. In response to my query, a Commerce spokesman e-mailed a statement that such license requests are granted on a case-by-case basis, and Commerce cannot comment on specific instances.
More eagerly, Syria's state news agency hustled out an announcement on Tuesday, Feb. 10, saying that the “U.S. Trade Department agrees to provide spare parts for rehabilitating Syrian Airlines.”
Boeing spokesman Tim Neale confirmed to me by phone on Wednesday that while the request for a license had been pending since last summer, Commerce finally approved it on Feb. 2–which is to say, within the first two weeks of the Obama administration. The planes will be overhauled by a Saudi-based Boeing-Saudi joint venture, Alsalam Aircraft Co.
Bringing two commercial planes back up to speed may seem a minor matter, and Boeing's spokesman says that for the company's purposes, the only concern is aircraft safety. Except this aircraft repair looks like the leading edge of an Obama diplomatic overhaul involving a host of high-level appointments, envoys, concessions and complex calculations about trying to wean Syria away from Iran, engage Damascus in brokering yet more of the endless Middle East “peace process,” temper terrorism and generally create a new atmosphere of what Obama describes as “mutual respect” between Washington and Damascus. There is talk that Obama will soon be sending an ambassador to Syria to fill the spot left empty since George W. Bush pulled out the previous ambassador in 2005.
The dream scenario is that with the Bush presidency out of the way and Obama flashing a smile, Syria's President Bashar Assad will break off his romance with Tehran and partner with Washington in bringing peace to the region.
The realistic scenario is that Obama, hand extended to Damascus, is setting himself up for a sucker punch–potentially at great cost not only to America and Israel but to other democratic states and any democratic dissidents inside Syria who have not yet vanished into the care of Assad's secret police.
Actually, Obama's phrase about a fist–whether clenched or not–is too narrow a metaphor. Assad's government doesn't just have a fist. It has tentacles. They are barbed and venomous (just ask anyone who has run afoul of the Syrian secret police) and they are richly entwined with just about every deadly racket in the Middle East–from arms smuggling, to state support for an array of terrorist groups, to targeted political assassinations, to illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The problem here is not lack of zeal by American diplomats. Obama is proceeding down a road on which the U.S. during Bush's second term had already embarked–and not simply by way of pilgrimages to Damascus by the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (2007) and former President Jimmy Carter (2008). The Bush administration itself was increasingly extending a hand–for example by hosting Syria, among others, at 2007 talks in Annapolis.
The fundamental problem with Syria is the terror-based character of the Syrian regime. Assad runs a dynastic, tyrannical system, which has survived for decades not by making peace, but by making big trouble–punctuated by deals in which Syria practices its own variation on North Korea's rich repertoire of threats, talks and extortion.
Indeed, one under-reported aspect of Syria's current regime is its busy partnership not just with Iran, but with North Korea. Not only did Assad's government enlist the help of North Korea to build a secret, illicit plutonium factory on the Euphrates (the nearly completed nuclear reactor destroyed by an Israeli air strike in September 2007).
According to the 2004 Iraq Survey Group report of former CIA chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, from about 1999 until the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Syria served as the chief broker for weapons deals–including missile components and guidance systems–that Saddam was negotiating with North Korea. These deals not only ran through Syria, but through Syrian companies connected to relatives of President Assad.
We know about this Syrian-North Korean-Iraqi network thanks to documents and interviews procured in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. But Iraq's exposure to daylight was an exception not repeated among rogue states after Bush left the regime-change business in 2004. Are there other places where, in similar pattern, Syria has been peddling its cozy contacts with North Korea?
And that's just one set of Syrian tentacles. To list a few more of Syria's doings during almost nine years under the regime of Bashar Assad, with whom Obama proposes to break bread:
–Syria's government is suspected of involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a massive bomb that hit Hariri's motorcade, leaving a huge crater on a main road in Beirut. That was four years ago this week (A UN investigation has been grinding away for years now, with no justice yet in sight).
–Syria has remained involved in Lebanon since Assad's regime was officially forced out in 2005 under international pressure and facing massive street protests in Beirut. Since then, there have been a series of horrific murders of Lebanese who dared to speak out against Damascus, such as the December 2005 car bombing that killed one of Lebanon's leading democratic politicians, newspaper publisher Gebran Tueni.
–Syria has a policy, in tandem with Iran, of providing support, haven and training for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah (which in 2006 launched a brief war against Israel out of Lebanon, and is well on the way to taking over Lebanon and turning it into an Islamist state) and Hamas (which in 2007 seized power in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza). This is not some underground activity; Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, for instance, operates out of Damascus, where during the recent conflict in which Israel tried to shut down rocket attacks out of Gaza, Meshal, in Damascus, met with Iranian officials and gave interviews to the media.
–Syria has served as a prime base and conduit for terrorists who inflicted some of the worst carnage in Iraq.
–And, just this past week, stories have been flickering through the news of a Russian-owned, Cypriot-flagged cargo ship, the Monchegorsk, most recently reported to be moored in Cyprus. Bound for Syria, according to Thomson Reuters, the ship left Iran late last month. En route, it was boarded by the U.S. Navy, which reportedly found weapons aboard, took photos, but then–lacking authority to do anything more–let the ship sail on.
This list could roll on, but you get the idea. In extending a hand to Assad, Obama is reaching out to a regime which may well have some shared interests with the U.S.– including an interest in Boeing aircraft parts. Damascus has many more shared interests, however, with tyrannies and terrorists dedicated to the destruction of America's democratic way of life, which runs counter not only to what those tyrannies and terrorists do, but what they are. Obama might take a moment to recall the uses to which even commercial aircraft, in such hands, have been directed.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.