Axis or Not

May 19, 2004
By Nir Boms

As news of the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nicholas Berg’s beheading dominates the headlines, American media have all but ignored one of the most significant developments since President Bush’s now-famous 2002 “axis of evil” statement: the presidential signature on sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

In accordance with the Syria Accountability Act, President Bush imposed sanctions on Syria for “supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.”

The White House said the sanctions include banning U.S. exports (except for food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting Syrian aircraft from flying to and from the United States, freezing certain Syrian assets and cutting off relations with a Syrian bank due to money laundering concerns.

In his formal order, issued on Tuesday, May 11th, 2004, Bush argued that Syria’s actions “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” Top Syrian officials not surprisingly, quickly dismissed Bush’s harsh accusation.  

“The principle of imposing sanctions on Syria is a joke,” parliament speaker Mahmud al-Abrash told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Amman on Wednesday, adding that “We are not in an elementary school for the teacher to come and impose sanctions on an undisciplined student.” In addition, Syria’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Naji Otri, called the sanctions “unjust and unjustified” and the work of the “Zionist lobby.”

Syria’s case against the sanctions is based on its claims of being a partner in the war against  terrorism and, in fact, a victim of it. Since September 11th, Syria argues, it has provided assistance to the U.S. by sharing valuable information on Al-Qaeda operatives, cracking down on terrorist networks in the country and helping secure the Iraqi border. In addition, Syria would like to see itself – much like Jordan and Saudi Arabia – as an Al-Qaeda victim in light of the recent attack that took place in Damascus at the end of April. That episode, an apparent terrorist attack on an empty UN building, led to a swift investigation and the discovery of a terrorist hideout where police found weapons and explosives. Still, the incident remains an unresolved and somewhat bizarre mystery.  Some have suggested that the Syrian government, itself, staged the attack.

Syria’s claim of being a constructive partner in the war against terrorism deserves some serious attention in light of a series of inconsistencies between Syrian statements and realities on the ground. “In Syria, in spite of all the allegations made against it, we have a democratic government that fights terrorism,” stated Fayssal Mekdad, Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, in a May 11th interview. He also affirmed Syria’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and stressed that “The people [in Syria] have the right to express themselves and say their wishes (1)“. Yet, the facts on the ground pose some questions regarding Syria’s “assistance” in the war against terrorism, its commitment to non-proliferation and its stated “democratic nature.”

Weapons of Mass Destruction

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Syria began developing an offensive chemical warfare program in the early 1970s and reportedly received its first chemical weapons from Egypt before the 1973 October War. Then, according to the CIA, Syria mounted its own chemical warfare program in the mid-1980s. Syria’s efforts in this regard have been conducted at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques in Damascus. In 1990, the DIA reported that Syria had developed the nerve agent Sarin for use in 500kg aerial bombs and Scud B missile warheads. And in 1993, the DIA reported that Syria had developed aerial bombs and missile warheads for chemical agents and that there were two known chemical weapon depots: The Khan Abu Shamat Depot and the Furqlus Depo.

The latest CIA report on WMD says that “Syria continued to seek chemical weapon related expertise from foreign sources this year [2003].” The report added: “it is highly probable that Syria also continued to develop an offensive biological weapon capability.” Undersecretary of State, John Bolton, noted that “Syria has been developing toxic nerve warheads such as VX and that the chemical warheads contain the chemical agent Sarin.” David Kay, who led a U.S. weapons search team in Iraq until January of this year, stated in an interview to the UK Telegraph that interrogations of former Iraqi officials revealed that “a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMDs program.” Following the recent chemical terrorist attack that was prevented in Jordan, King Abdullah revealed that vehicles reportedly containing chemical weapons and poison gas that were part of a deadly al-Qaida bomb plot came from Syria (2).

While consistently denying that Syria possesses WMD, President Bashar Assad ambiguously acknowledged their existence in a January 6 interview with London based Daily Telegraph stating that unless Israel abandoned its nuclear arsenal, he would not agree to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

Smuggling to and from Iraq

Syria’s “seal” on its border with Iraq resulted in hundreds of militants with Syrian passports being arrested by the coalition forces in Iraq. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez claimed that foreign fighters penetrate Iraq primarily by using the Syrian border. Because Syria does not require visas for Arabs, the Syrian border has been the main route into Iraq for foreign fighters, many of whom are currently fighting against U.S forces in Fallujah. In an interview that was aired on Al Jazeera on April 28 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that attacks against U.S led troops in Iraq were legitimate “resistance” against foreign occupation (3).  The Los Angeles Times reported on December 30, 2003, that a private Syrian trading company, the SES International Corp, had at least 50 contracts to supply tens of millions of dollars worth of arms and equipment to the Iraqi military prior to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. The company is headed by a cousin of Bashar Assad and is controlled by other members of Assad’s Baath Party and Alawite clan. While Western intelligence reports claimed that senior Syrian officials were involved in illicit transfers, Iraqi documents prove that the Syrian government assisted SES in importing at least one shipment destined for Iraq’s military (4).

Support of Terrorist Networks

Despite a promise by Assad to U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to close the offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “There are matters about the continuing harboring of Palestinian rejectionist groups, whose public relations outfits may have been shut down, but the operations haven’t been shut down (5).” The CIA has determined that Syria has maintained the operational arms of Islamic terrorist groups in Damascus. Officials claim that much of the funding for attacks by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah either stemmed from or were transferred through Syria. At the same, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “While al Qaeda and like minded groups remain at the forefront of the war on terror, other groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, warrant equal vigilance due to their ongoing capability to launch terrorist attacks within the United States (6).

On February 5, 2004, Syria reportedly resumed smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas members based in Lebanon. The Jerusalem Post quoted Powell as saying, “Syria cannot be serious about wanting a better relationship with Israel, the United States or anyone else as long as it serves as any kind of transshipment point for weapons that are going to terrorists of the king who killed innocent people (7).” Syria smuggled shipments of weapons and classified equipment aboard several Syrian cargo planes – ostensibly under the guise of humanitarian aid to the earthquake victims in the Iranian city of Bam – that was unloaded in the Damascus airport, where it was then transported by trucks to Hezbollah in Lebanon (8). Often the military equipment is disguised as diplomatic mail to the Iranian embassy in Syria and is loaded on trucks which travel on the highway from Syria to Beirut (9). Some figures indicate that as many as 10,000 missiles have been delivered by the Syrians to Hezbollah.

Despite the Syrian government’s cutting the electricity and phone lines of Palestinian groups that are on the State Department’s list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in March, it allows them to remain in Syria using generators and cell phones. The 2003 State Department’s Patterns of Global terrorism report states that a number of terrorist groups continue to operate from Syria, “although they have lowered their public profile.” In January 2004, charges were filed in a military court in Samaria accusing Sheikh Bassam Saadi of being a member of Islamic Jihad’s senior leadership since 1995 and transferring funds from Islamic Jihad’s headquarters in Damascus to finance Islamic Jihad’s military wing in Jenin, the families of suicide bombers and the purchase of arms. Senior members of Islamic Jihad, along with Sa’adi, transferred money from Damascus to bank accounts in the territories opened by their wives. In December 2003, Syrian officials arrested six Arabs carrying 23.5 million dollars with links to al Qaeda. U.S. investigators were not granted access to them. A senior U.S. official said that Washington may not even have been notified by Damascus of the arrests. On February 25, 2004, Israeli forces launched a raid on a bank in Ramallah and netted more than 6.7 million U.S. dollars sent by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah to fund attacks (10).

Human Rights

Syria’s human rights record remains extremely poor according to human rights groups and democracy activists. The State Department has stated that “the (Syrian) Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights…The Government uses its vast powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition…significantly restricts freedom of speech and of the press (11).” Amnesty International reports that the state of emergency has led to “thousands of suspected political opponents to be held, tortured and kept incommunicado without trial or charge, sometimes for over two decades (12).”

Just last month, Aktham Naissa, founder and chairman of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, was accused of spreading misinformation detrimental to the Syrian government and was arrested in the northern port city of Latakia. His group issued a report in April accusing the Syrian authorities of arresting more than a 1,000 Kurds and torturing many of them. In the report, he said that two Kurds died under torture. After a week of incommunicado detention at an unknown location, Naisse, who suffers from an irregular heartbeat, kidney ailment, and cerebral stroke, was taken to Tishrin Hospital. Nevertheless, Amnesty International stated that Naissa remains in solitary confinement in the Sednaya prison (13).

Likewise, Syrian authorities prevented Haitham Malih, a lawyer and human rights activist, from boarding a flight from Syria to the United Arab Emirates in February. His Human Rights Association in Syria attributed the ban on his travel to a speech that he made in the German parliament in December 2003 concerning the conditions of human rights in Syria under the state of emergency that has been in place since the Baa’th Party’s ascension to power in 1963. Malih also participated in hearings before the Bundestag’s human rights committee (14)


* * *

Clearly, the decision to enact sanctions on Syria is far from being arbitrary or unjustified. It is based on sad realities that reveal Syria’s role as a destabilizing actor in the Middle East during a crucial time in the region. Consistent with the stated protocol of the War on Terror on the one hand, and with the Bush administration’s democratization efforts on the other, the sanctions imposed have sent a clear policy signal to Damascus and the region indicating that state sponsorship of terrorism will not be tolerated.

If Syria is displeased with this decision or if it would like to explore rapprochement with the West, it should back up its words with actions.

Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance.



[1] WorldNetDaily exclusive interview with Fayssal Mekdad, May 11th, 2004.

[2] NewsMax report, April 17th.

[3] Chicago Tribune April 29, 2004.

[4] Guardian 12/30/2003; Washington Times, 04/17/2004.

[5] CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February of 2004.

[6] Middle East Newsline, CIA: Syria maintains insurgency operations.

[7] Jerusalem Newswire, February 1st, 2004.

[8] BBC Monitoring Middle East Jan 8 2004.

[9] Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot Jan 9 2004.

[10] Associated Press April 11, 2004.

[11] Country Report, Department of State, 2001, 2002, 2003.

[12] Reuters, May 8.

[13] Baltimore Sun, May 7th.

[14] Aljazeera, February 11th, 2004.

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