Syria celebrates too soon on sanctions

The Obama administration has announced it is easing the processing of certain export licenses to Syria, within the framework of sanctions in effect since the previous administration. Syrian spokesmen were quick to hail this as the crack that would open the floodgates and terminate the sanctions regime altogether. However, subsequent moves by the administration and a strong reaction from Congress suggested, once again, that Syrian triumphalism was badly misplaced.

Although the administration’s move was described in the media as “lifting some sanctions” on Syria, Washington was operating within the legal parameters of the existing sanctions, which allow the issuing of export licenses on certain items, such as spare parts for airplanes to ensure aviation safety. However, this did not include giving Syria the right to purchase or lease new aircraft, which the Syrian Air fleet badly needs.

And yet the Syrians couldn’t contain themselves. Imad Shoueibi, who often reflects the views of the Syrian regime, declared (Arabic) that American sanctions on Syria were all but over, and that President Barack Obama had emptied them of their substance. The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, echoed Shoueibi when he told UPI that the Syrians were banking on Obama’s using his administrative authority to override Congress and suspend key articles in the sanctions law.

Mustapha’s optimism may have been understandable, as he needs to prove his usefulness to President Bashar al-Assad in light of the Obama administration’s cautious pace with Damascus. However, the Syrians were in for yet another disappointment when shortly thereafter, Obama renewed an executive order sanctioning Assad’s cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, and another major regime figure, Muhammad Nassif Khayrbek. The executive order addressed Syrian behavior in Lebanon, and the renewal letter signaled that the United States was still waiting for much more from Syria on that front, including ending arms smuggling to Hezbollah, border demarcation and control, and the full implementation of Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, all things Syria doesn’t want to hear about.

The Syrians are desperately trying to make Iraq the central – indeed the only – avenue for cooperation with American demands. In other words, in return for a belated tightening of control over the Syrian-Iraqi border, Syria now wants Washington to make concessions to improve the bilateral relationship. This is typical of the Syrian bait-and-switch tactic: Sell expired goods in return for significant dispensations from the other side, while Damascus retains its blackmailing capability down the road.

However, Syria is weak and has limited regional assets. This was articulated by an American academic, Joshua Landis, who often echoes Syrian thinking as well, when he explained that “Syria will have to hand over much of its foreign policy bag of tricks simply to purchase normal relations with the West.” The impediment to real change in the Syrian regime’s behavior in a manner that would satisfy American decision-makers is structural and systemic. Syria cannot abandon its support for violence and subversion, or its alliance with Iran, because those are the only tools allowing it to bolster its relevance above its political weight.

This raises serious questions about any meaningful horizon for the Obama administration’s engagement policy. The US Congress might agree. Several congressional representatives, particularly the Democrats among them, reacted negatively to reports that the administration intended to ease the processing of export licenses to Syria – not even their actual lifting. The State Department had to quickly explain that nothing had changed in the sanctions law. In other words, the mere mention of the issue caused an uproar. Many in Washington are waiting for tangible steps from Assad, which have not been, and likely will not be, forthcoming. Ironically, the Syrians’ premature celebration may have made it less likely that the US will soon give them what they want.

In the past the Syrians ridiculed the sanctions as toothless, merely “gumming on the perimeters” of Syria’s economy, as Landis put it. Now they are crying for them to be lifted, signaling that the sanctions are effective after all. The Assad regime is now waiting to see how the administration will handle the executive order targeting Rami Makhlouf, another of Bashar al-Assad’s cousins, due for renewal in February. At this time, nothing suggests it won’t be renewed.

The Obama administration would be well advised to continue leveraging sanctions to obtain concrete, meaningful and irreversible Syrian steps that are in line with American interests. Meanwhile, Assad will continue to do his best to fool the US into selling the house for little or nothing. The administration would do well to continue giving the Syrians a taste of their own medicine. After all, it is Syria that needs the US, not the other way around, notwithstanding Syrian efforts to suggest the contrary.

Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.