Our New Friend Syria

American relations with Syria have been frosty, if not downright icy for decades.

American relations with Syria have been frosty, if not downright icy for decades. Starting with Syrian involvement in the 1976 Lebanese Civil War, the subsequent occupation of Lebanon and arming of Hezbollah – with attendant complicity in the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut; the 1982 destruction of Hama by Hafez Assad, killing an estimated 10-25,000 people; the UN finding of Syrian involvement in the car bomb murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others; al Qaeda and related insurgent organizations grouping in eastern Syria and infiltrating Iraq; and the open housing of Hamas and other terrorist groups in Damascus. Not to mention Syrian-North Korean cooperation on missiles and building a nuclear facility (since destroyed), and Syrian-Iranian economic, political and military relations including public approval by Bashar Assad of the “re-election” of Iranian President Ahmadinejad in June.

Now the thaw:

  • In February, the Obama Administration waived Syria Accountability Act provisions to approve the export of aircraft parts and repair services to Syria for civil aviation.
  • Twice during the spring, State Department and NSC officials visited Damascus, followed in June by a delegation from the U.S. Central Command.
  • The return of a U.S. Ambassador to Damascus was announced 24 June.
  • In July, according to Agence France Presse, Middle East “peace process” envoy George Mitchell told Assad he would work to speed up the process of obtaining exemptions to anti-Syrian sanctions. At the end of July, the United States announced a decision to ease sanctions on spare aircraft parts, information-technology products and telecommunications equipment.
  • A second delegation from Central Command arrived in August accompanied by an aide to Sen. Mitchell. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the talks are focused on Syria’s “ongoing efforts to help stabilize the situation in Iraq.”

But why?

  • Export waivers have always been available for products deemed important to the “welfare of the Syrian people.” But how does selling information technology to the Syrian government provide for the “welfare of the Syrian people”? It was telecommunications equipment – Nokia-Siemens “packet intercept technology” – that allowed the Iranian government to monitor and alter cell phone information from protesters after the fraudulent Iranian election. Where will this technology go?
  • The American ambassador was withdrawn over Syrian involvement in the Hariri murder. What evidence has emerged that changes our belief?
  • In the spring, a Defense Department spokesman said, “A significant aspect of the discussions has to do with border security and stemming the flow of fighters into Iraq.” What “ongoing efforts” in Syria account for the newly positive characterization of the conversation?

And by the way, while all this was going on, Japanese intelligence learned that Iran, Syria and North Korea secretly test-launched in southern Syria a new, jointly developed short-range ballistic missile. JINSA confirmed with a source in Japan both the test and the failure of the missile.

It is clear what Syria hopes to gain from the U.S. determination to “wean” Damascus away from Tehran. Less clear is what’s in it for us.