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Current political and ideological tensions in the Middle East have forced the United States to adjust its foreign policy decisions and isolate those countries which act contrary to US interests. These foreign policy decisions are not always based on feelings of insecurity, but are based upon domestic pressures brought about by media representations and domestic political lobbying. The relationship between the United States and Syria has gone from friendly to frigid in the past 5 years. One singular policy put into force by the United States federal government, known as the Syrian Accountability Act of 2003, has solidified that those relations will not only be in constant decline, they will be outright hostile. This paper will seek to explain the reasons why the United States decided to enact and implement the Syrian Accountability act focusing primarily on the domestic factors including both the media, the public and the Israel Lobby.
The following pages explore the debate that occurs over the issue of US Syrian relations and attempts to isolate and explain the reason for the decline in relations. This paper will also explore the debate that occurs between those who deny domestic factors play a role in foreign policy construction and those who believe that those actors have significant weight when it comes to influencing foreign policy makers. The hypothesis of the paper will be that domestic factors, including both the media and the Israel lobby, played a central role in the government's decision to enact the Syrian Accountability act and cut off all ties with the Syrian government. The Syrian Accountability Act, signed into law in 2003, cut off all meaningful diplomatic and economic relations with the country of Syria in order to coerce a change in policy from the Syria government. The United States did not enact this foreign policy due to feelings of insecurity or threats from Syria in particular, or the Middle East generally, but was pressured domestically by the public who were influenced by the media, the public and the Israel Lobby who were influential in congressional and presidential decision making.
This research project will be broken down in to three major parts, the first will be a discussion of all of the literature surrounding the media, public and Israel Lobby and their importance to the foreign policy agenda. The second will focus on the methodology and analysis of these particular groups. The methodology of this paper will be to isolate two particular events, the public and the Israel Lobby and determine their role in influencing the United States decision to isolate Syria by implementing the Syrian Accountability Act. The final section will provide conclusions, continuing concerns and any areas for further research regarding the project below. The United States Congress was not threatened by Syria, but instead was coerced into enacting the Syrian Accountability act by the media, the public and the Israel Lobby, all which are powerful factions with in foreign policy making.
The United States and Syria have had a very tenuous relationship, moving from warm to cold very quickly and without warning. The State Department of the United States added Syria to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism in 1979, after its expressed support of Hezbollah, a popular terrorist organization in southern Lebanon. Since then, Syrian terrorists have taken responsibility for committing acts of terrorism against many American targets including the 1983 bombing of US marine barracks in Beirut which left two hundred and forty-one Americans dead and the expressed support for Hamas in the destruction of Israel. After September 11, 2001, US Syrian relations turned 180 degrees when cooperation began over anti-terrorism policies. This included supporting United Nations resolutions condemning Iraq acquisition and development of weapons of mass destruction and providing the US with information important for the capture and imprisonment of terrorist organization officials working in and through out Syria. “Syria was one of the first countries to condemn the atrocious terrorist attacks of 9/11 and approached the U.S. with intelligence on al-Qaeda—which, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a letter addressed to Congress, was “actionable information” that “helped save American lives.” Soon after, Syria even joined the US in supporting action against Iraq's weapons program through the United Nations Security council. These series of events culminated in a period of relative peace between the United States and Syria. This peace would not last long. “Instead of rewarding Syria for cooperating, Bush and Congress punished the Damascus regime with the SAA and then deceitfully labeled the Act a tool to `strengthen the ability of the United States to conduct an effective foreign policy.”
Before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, it was speculated that Syria was involved in housing high level officials from the Iraqi government as a mechanism to restart its campaign of terrorism against not only Israel, but also the United States. “Even as America prepares for what appears to be an inevitable confrontation with Iraq, recent press reports indicate that the Syrians have been busy supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons. Syria also continued to serve as a conduit for illegal oil exports. Moreover, there is a direct pipeline from Iraq into Syria from which Iraq derives illicit profits in the billions of dollars.” Even despite their alleged support for Iraq, the United States still did not take action against Syria until it was proven that they a) supported terrorism and terrorist organizations and/or b) committed acts of violence against Israel.
Several reports given to the government and then the media indicated that Syria was party to many acts of terrorism after 2002. These reports included proof of direct and indirect support of Hamas, Hezbollah, and violent acts against Israel. “Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has allowed Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group under his patronage, to intensify its military activities along Israel's northern border. Working closely with Iran, Syria has facilitated the transfer of thousands of rockets and other weaponry to Hezbollah, boosting their arsenal and significantly improving their ability to carry out terror attacks against Israel. Of the seven state sponsors on the Administration's list, only Syria rivals Iran in its unabashed support for terrorism.” Those in the Israel Lobby speculated that this about face in relations was due not to actions committed by the United States, but purely based on Syria's hatred of Israel influence in the region. Since this period of time, Syria and the United States have not enjoyed a level of relations necessary to foster cooperation, trade or even bilateral negotiations.
The Syrian Accountability Act
After such time as relations between Syria and the United States hit an all time low, the US government decided to enact a comprehensive retaliatory policy against Syria, known formally as the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SAA) of 2003. The SAA limited trade and negotiations between the two countries until such time as the United States deemed that Syria in compliance of US findings. Introduced on April 12th 2003, Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) submitted a bill to Congress calling for the United States to take action against Syria for crimes committed against Israel and for Syria's support of terrorism. The proposed findings included; a) accusations of Syrian violation of United Nations Resolution 1373 which mandated that countries ``refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts,'' also noting that internationally recognized terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Liberation Army houses training camps in Syria b) accusations that Syria violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 520, which mandates that states must not violate the sovereignty of another state, the United States pointed to Lebanon as the primary recipient of this violation and c) Syria has continued to attack Israeli forces and targets despite cease fires mandated by the United Nations.
The Syrian Accountability Act included recommendations for comprehensive sanctions on the Syrian government and sanctions on all companies that continued to trade with Syria inside and outside of the US. The United States at this point in time was more than tired of Syria's influence in Lebanon, its support of terrorism and its calls for violent action against Israel. On December 12, 2003 the SAA was signed into law by the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Upon implementation, defense of the act was rooted in the explanation that it was a punishment for past Syrian actions, but was also spun as a coercive measure for ending Syria's future support of terrorism, violence against Israel and violations of Lebanese sovereignty. When the act was signed into law the United States was not being threatened in any way by Syria, yet the United States chose to implement the Syrian Accountability Act in order to preserve US interests in Israel and in the broader Middle East. This led to feeling among the international community that the act was useless and in the opposite direction than US foreign policy should be taking. “Another problem with this proposed legislation is its bad timing. It coincides with unprecedented U.S.-Syrian cooperation in the fight against global terrorism. Syria's sharing of intelligence with the CIA following September 11 led to the arrest of several al-Qaeda members. More importantly, the quality of information that Syria supplied was such that, according to State Department official Richard Erdman, it “saved American lives.” In light of this, it makes more political sense to reward Syria than to punish it.”
There were many effects that the Syrian Accountability Act had on the United States and Syria. First it solidified the US as a state only interested in hard-line policies in the Middle East. If the war in Iraq was not enough, the US' image in the Middle East was tarnished even further by enacting hard-line policies against Syria instead of engaging in direct negotiations. External to the Middle East, many countries felt that the United States was justified in its actions to condemn Syria because of Syria's violations of United Nations resolution. And there was the on going problem of Lebanon which had become a thorn in the side of human rights activists everywhere. Many international actors were torn between praising the US for its condemnation of a human rights violator and scolding the US for its use of hard-line tactics.
Syria barely felt the blow economically from the sanctions and instead saw them as a signal that the United States was acting in a hostile manner. “Syria has little to lose economically from the sanctions since annual trade with the US is less than $300 million. But some entrepreneurs hope to free themselves from the outdated state heavy economy and thus bemoan such policies that vitiate progress toward opening the society and economy.” The Syrian Accountability Act signaled to the public and the government that the West only knew how to enact hard-line policies and had no interest in engagement strategies. “Still, the draft resolution would have made strategic sense had it held the promise of advancing U.S. interests in the region. It does not. U.S. pressure against Syria, far from altering Syria's behavior, will have an adverse effect. Evidence shows that when Syria feels external pressure, it runs in the other direction.” This rallied support for the Syrian government, and further inflamed tensions between Syria and Israel.
Domestically, the Syrian Accountability Act garnered great public support because the United States was dealing with another rogue state that needed to end its tyrannical policies. Later, public support waned when the war in Iraq was seen as a failure, causing the public to dislike all US policy in the Middle East, spilling over to the SAA. This did not cause the government to pull out of the act; there was still strong support for the act coming from the Israel Lobby, prolonging the sanctions even to this day.
The largest effect that the SAA has had on the United States, though, was the immediate decrease in imports and exports going to and from Syria as a result of the sanctions on the country. Imports from Syria in early 2003 was over 79 million US dollars, by December of 2003, imports had dropped to only 3.9 million US dollars. This was due to the increased sanctions and overall decline in relations between the US and Syria.