The United States should endeavor to isolate Syria

I still want to believe that when Congress voted to give President Bush his Iraq use-of-force authorization, that this was guided by a shared hope, slim or solid, of a Middle East that firmly operates within the realm of political modernity.

But as this potential hope has morphed into Congress’s increasing fatalism over the prospects of peace in Iraq and war with Iran, Syria has taken steps to snuff out the region’s prospects for political renaissance.

The congressional Middle East portfolio, if not the overall foreign policy agenda, has been largely monopolized by the legislative push-and-pull surrounding Iraq and Iran. Even as lawmakers have been operating inside this narrowed scope, Syria has continued its under-the-radar quest to become the most roguish of rogue nations.

Damascus has recently been at the center of several disconcerting allegations, including: creating a potential nuclear weapons program in collaboration with North Korean scientists, shipping weapons into Lebanon in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution and interfering in a Lebanese political stalemate that spells their greatest threat to peace since the end of a 15-year civil war.

While bipartisan sanctions measures on Syria have stalled, the House overwhelmingly passed an Iran sanctions bill; a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization emerged from the Senate; and both chambers have persistently wrangled over Iraq war funding and troop withdrawal. The bills include a House measure, The Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, which would enhance current sanctions, and a Senate bill intended to stymie Syrian efforts at a nuclear weapon (showcasing the Senate odd couple of Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) as original cosponsors). Except for congressional resolutions denouncing the Syrian regime, no measures have been passed which would significantly quell Damascus’s carcinogenic influence.

And with the 2008 races ensuring that only safe measures would ever meet the congressional floor, the next couple of months offer the best chance of passing sanctions legislation.

Existing sanctions are, sadly, proving insufficient. The Syria Accountability Act, which was signed into law in 2003, allows a large portion of the $200 million in U.S.-to-Syria exports to be untouched due to waivers, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Sanctions measures, however, are only a product of much-needed realizations from Congress’s end: that Syria presents just as much of a threat to regional and global security as Iran, if not more so; and that we need to commit to a policy of isolation in order to produce diplomatic gains.

The mere potential of a Syrian nuclear weapons program would exponentially increase the prospect of military conflict with Israel while ensuring that both Egypt and Jordan would pursue their own nuclear weapons capability.

Syria’s brand of violent, dictatorial and destabilizing politics demands that allegations of nuclear ambition be assessed with utter seriousness.

Though skeptics (many hinging their views on a general distrust in the Bush administration) have pointed to Syria’s cash-strapped economy and lack of resources, these actually lend toward sanctions to ensure that this remains the case.

Yet more importantly, the status quo also represents an inappropriate response to Syria’s historic role in the region.

In spite of occasional and calculated contributions, their body of work has all but destroyed the Middle East’s best hope for constitutional democracy and secular progressivism in Lebanon — notably through its widely accepted involvement in the assassination of several politicians in order to perpetuate Lebanon’s fiefdom as a strategic buffer with Israel — while threatening regional conflict through the use of proxies.

The timing for a Syria isolation policy has never been more ideal than now, as both the White House and Congress have an opportunity to exploit a quiet, emerging divide between Syria and the trio of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

With the grouping reportedly angered and fearful over Syrian relations with Iran and Hezbollah, an attempt to isolate Damascus from Arab League members may be the world’s best hope at producing diplomatic breakthroughs, particularly given that the Syrian regime is more a construct of strategy than ideology.

With congressional Democrats likely fearful of exposing another divide on a complex international matter, a broadly supported, hard-line approach to Syria allows the party to cut a strong profile to balance its Iraq stance. If nothing else, lawmakers from both parties who call for a more diplomatic approach must realize that these arguments have exceeded the limits of their credibility.

For all of the disagreement between the doves, the hawks and the in-betweens, they clearly share a desire for a new, more stable Middle East. Syria has been a central reason for why the region’s political clock has been encased in amber for several decades, and if our foreign policy does not reflect this, then our fatalism will extend beyond the issues of Iraq and Iran.

David Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill.