Politics & Policy

Syria’s Weak Spot

Hitting Damascus where it hurts.

Make no mistake: The massive explosion that claimed the life of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut on February 14 was a direct challenge to President Bush’s Inaugural clarion call for democracy and freedom throughout the Middle East. And, though it may never be proved conclusively that Hariri’s murder was ordered by Damascus, the United States now faces a serious challenge: Working in concert with its allies abroad, the Bush administration must make clear to Damascus that it will no longer tolerate Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, its support of anti-democratic insurgents in Iraq, or its collusion with terror organizations like Hezbollah.

But, short of military force, what can the United States do to pressure, influence, and coerce the world’s remaining Baathist regime?

Thanks to the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act–a bill cosponsored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D., New York) and signed into law last year by President Bush–Washington already possesses an arsenal of punitive measures at its disposal. The White House has put some of these into practice, imposing provisions that bar Syrian aircraft from flying to the United States and prohibiting all U.S. exports to Syria aside from humanitarian supplies. Several supplemental measures, ranging from prohibitions on dual-use exports to smart sanctions against Syrian citizens linked to terrorism, are also in force.

These steps undoubtedly represent important symbolic gestures. Yet so far, such penalties have failed to curb Syria’s reckless behavior in Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond. Rather, as in the case of Libya, behavioral change in Damascus will come about only through a sustained U.S.-led effort designed to destabilize the one commodity that supplies the Syrian regime with most of its hard currency: oil.

Oil, after all, is the lynchpin of Syria’s fragile economy. The Syrian regime currently produces slightly more then 500,000 barrels per day, of which half is exported, primarily to a select group of European consumers. The revenue generated accounts for approximately 50 percent of Syria’s total export revenues–some $4 billion in 2004.

Prohibitions barring U.S.-based oil companies from operating in Syria, therefore, would cripple the regime’s principal economic engine. Without the American capital and petroleum technology required to sustain its declining oil production, Damascus will be hard pressed to finance purchases of Russian-made arms or its increasingly costly occupation of Lebanon.

There is certainly precedent for such a move. Over the last two years alone, two international energy giants, ConocoPhilips and TotalFinaElf, have pulled out of Syria in search of greener pastures for energy exploration and production. Giving other energy firms reason to follow suit would strike a serious blow against the Syrian regime’s capacity for regional troublemaking.

Moreover, international support for such a policy is growing. President Bush’s calls for the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon ahead of that country’s May parliamentary elections during his recent European tour found a receptive audience in European capitals. Moreover, French president Jacques Chirac’s February 22 declaration that France was ready to support U.N. sanctions against Syria has provided the U.S. with the diplomatic opening for an economic blockade designed to deprive Syria of its primary source of externally generated revenue.

If such economic pressure is not sufficient, however, less subtle options also exist. Hundreds of miles of cross-country pipelines that ship crude from the northeastern Syrian fields to aging refineries on the Mediterranean coast are vulnerable to sabotage. And a naval blockade of Syrian ports by U.S. or allied vessels could effectively terminate Syria’s crude export sales.

The resulting loss of revenue would have an immediate impact on Damascus, curtailing Syria’s capacity for rogue behavior. It would also send a clear signal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad: resisting the spread of democracy in the Middle East could have perilous consequences.

Paul Michael Wihbey is senior fellow in energy studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.


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