Syria and Accountability

by Michael Rubin

While in Damascus for the last few days, I picked up a copy of Syria Today, the country’s main English-language magazine. This month’s issue features an interview with Charles Hunter, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, and the article should be Exhibit A on why U.S. public diplomacy is lousy and why the State Department needs more congressional oversight, not less.

Hunter was asked, “Why, during a period of rapprochement, did the U.S. president and Congress renew sanctions on Syria?” and “What needs to happen for the sanctions to be lifted?”

He explained:

Sanctions are complicated and difficult to explain in brief. There is the Syrian Accountability Act which was passed by Congress. The administration cannot rescind or otherwise change this act independently. While we hope that in time the conditions will change, it is the administration’s view that the two specific orders that need annual renewal remain relevant because there has been insufficient change in the original conditions under which the orders were created.

Anyway, focusing on the sanctions doesn’t capture the scope of change in the US approach to Syria and the change in the bilateral relationship. There has been an evolution. From the beginning of the Obama presidency, there has been a different way of talking about Syria. When Under Secretary William Burns was in Syria in February 2010, he stressed the importance of mutual respect, finding common ground and working jointly on issues.

Moreover, the US has removed its objections to Syria joining the World Trade Organization.  For a number of years, we have heard concerns about the safety of civil aviation in Syria.  As a result, this year we have accepted requests [for export licenses] for spare engine parts that will allow for the overhaul of the whole Syrian air fleet…

Actually, sanctions are neither complicated nor difficult to explain. Congress passed the Syrian Accountability Act in 2003 because of Syrian interference in Lebanon, its development of WMD, and its efforts to destabilize Iraq violently.

Hunter may resent any punitive actions toward Syria because it makes his job more difficult, or because he thinks the Assad regime is sincere in its claims to desire peace. I don’t know; I’ve never met the man. But refusing to explain why Congress passed the law is wrongheaded.  It leaves unchallenged Syrian propaganda and fails to inform the Syrian public that it is their government’s behavior that is the problem, not that of the United States.

It’s time for Congress to ask Hunter and the U.S. embassy in Damascus what they have done to explain U.S. positions not only to the Syrian regime but also to the Syrian public — and the world that exists beyond the embassy gates.