US to extend sanctions on Syria for another year

US extends sanctions on Syria for a further year. Times Square bomb suspect. Yemeni ship seized by Somali pirates. Greeks take to street in protest at latest package of austerity measures. All this and more in today's update.

On Monday, US President Barack Obama decided to extend sanctions on Syria for another year. Despite recognizing Syria’s partial efforts in curbing the infiltration of armed groups into Iraq, the American president justified his decision on the grounds that Syria’s “continuing support for terrorist organisations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programmes, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States”.

The main set of sanctions was imposed in 2004 by the Bush administration, under the name of the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), which bans the export of most products containing more than 10 percent US-assembled components to the Ba’thist Republic. In 2006, measures were enforced under the Patriot Act against the Commercial Bank of Syria. Subsequently, another sanction was tailored for blocking the access of certain Syrian citizens to the US financial system, because of their alleged association with ‘terrorist’ and ‘destabilizing’ activities. These measures cannot be modified without Congressional consent and opposition to any alleviation of the sanctions is particularly strong within the American legislative body. The set of restrictions has also affected the web, resulting in US-hosted websites’ denial of access to Syrian users (Google Chrome browser, for instance, is not available to Syrians), despite Hilary Clinton’s appeals in January for greater internet freedom around the world

In the background are Israeli allegations that Syria supplies scud missiles to Hezbollah. The White House deemed the accusations to be of sufficient weight to merit talks with both Lebanese and Syrian officials. Last week, Major-General Alberto Asarta Cuevas, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, affirmed that he had found no evidence of these weapons. Lebanon also refuted that such transfers were taking place.

The extension of the sanctions runs against expectations of a gradual appeasement between Syria and the US. These hopes were nurtured by the appointment of Robert Stephen Ford in February as the first American ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when Bush decided to cut diplomatic ties with Syria after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. In July 2009, the US special envoy in the middle east, George Mitchell promised individual exemptions from the sanctions, especially regarding technology and telecommunication products for civil aviation. At that time, another theme crucial to the US security agenda, the need of cooperation in monitoring the Syrian-Iraqi borders, was among the issues debated by Mitchell and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. This year, however, the summit hosted in Damascus bringing together Ahmadinejad and leader from Hezbollah and Hamas, was clearly perceived by the White House to be proof of the unreliability of Assad. Moreover, the US Senate has still to confirm Ford’s appointment in Damascus.

Assad’s National Progressive Front pointed the finger at destabilizing Israeli-American cooperation aimed at destabilising the region. The Ba’thist coalition also connected the scud missiles allegations with a line of previously failed plots against Syria.

The openSecurity verdict: The decision to maintain the tight sanction regime against Syria is in clear contradiction with the way paved by the restitution of diplomatic ties. The US is fully aware of the strategic weight of Damascus in the region. Alongside involving Syria in the peace process, it is necessary to gradually loosen “restrictions on humanitarian and public safety grounds”. Claiming that Syria is thwarting regional security by supporting so-called ‘terrorist’ groups is not going to gain support for American policies in the middle east. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are legitimate political actors with a large constituency and, at this stage, they cannot be excluded from the peace process without compromising the effectiveness of negotiations. The fact that the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal resides in Damascus is not a sufficient reason for endangering Syrian civil aviation, by preventing access to US technologies in the sector. Syria, along with the majority of the Arab and Muslim world, considers Hezbollah and Hamas as two legitimate resistance movements. As long as this is considered a sticking point in rapprochement with the US, no fruitful development is possible in the negotiations.

To achieve Syrian engagement favourable to US interests both in Iraq and Palestine, the White House, apart from softening the sanctions, should unswervingly urge Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. On the other hand, no compromise should affect the enquiry into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, where the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to return a verdict in defence of Lebanese sovereignty.

Times Square bomb suspect arrested

The US authorities have captured the principal suspect in the foiled car bomb placed in Times Square on 1 May. Faisal Shahzad, a 30 year-old American citizen originally from north-western Pakistan, was arrested on Monday night, a few minutes before boarding an Emirates flight to Islamabad at JFK New York International Airport. The police identified Shahzad, as the purchaser of the Nissan Pathfinder, which was found packed with explosives and defused. Shahzad is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday.

A law enforcement source revealed that Shahzad claimed to be a “lone wolf” without any connection to the Taliban that dominate his homeland. On Monday, however, the Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the planned attack, arguing that it was supposed to vindicate the killing of two al-Qaeda chiefs in Iraq and US meddling in Muslim countries. Although sceptical of the Taliban’s purported role, former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel advised to avoid excluding categorically their involvement.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik noted that no cooperation in the enquiries into the attack has been requested so far by the US, but he reaffirmed that Pakistan was willing to collaborate if it would be helpful in the ‘war on terror’.

The failed bombing is considered to be only the latest episode in a growing trend towards ‘home-grown’ terrorism in the US: more than a dozen American citizens have been accused of terrorist acts in the last two years. Among them is Major Nidal Hasan, a US-born army psychiatrist with Palestinian roots, responsible for attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.

Yemeni ship seized by Somali pirates

The Yemeni interior ministry reported that, in the last few days, a group of Somali pirates took control of a Yemeni cargo ship which was sailing from Mukalla to Aden, carrying goods and a crew of nine people. The boat was reportedly seen in the Qarta’a port of Northern Somalia. At the end of March 2010, a similar episode saw a Yemeni fishing vessel captured and a failed attempt to take control of a Yemeni oil tanker.

This is just the latest in a series of numerous attacks carried out by pirates across the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, the narrow strait through which passes approximately 7 percent of the world’s oil supply. Pirates have been buoyed by profits from the ransoms extorted to release the hostages.

Greek turmoil over debt crisis continues

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied on the streets of Athens on Tuesday in uproar at the austerity measures planned by the government to avoid a forced default on the national debt. The Socialist cabinet of Papandreou elaborated on Sunday a €30 billion plan for the next three years, aimed at making Greece eligible for the $110 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, which is indispensable if the country is to pay off its debt. The proposal implies curbing public sector salaries, pension cuts and an increase in VAT and taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and fuel. The bill is due to be voted on by Thursday.

The opposition of the Communist Party and the Coalition of the Radical Left is clear, but the conservative New Democracy maintains an ambiguous stance on the restrictive measures. New Democracy  is divided between the risk of disappointing some of its electors and the fear of being considered an ally of Papandreou. Meanwhile, public sector workers initiated a nationwide strike on Tuesday and the private sector union, the General Confederation of Greek Workers, will join them on Wednesday. Until now the protests have remained relatively peaceful.

Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, reported on Monday that parliamentary approval is expected by the end of the week in the EU. In Paris, the National Assembly voted in favour of its share in the Greek loan (€16.8 billion), thus becoming the second biggest European contributor after Germany (€22.4 billion). By contrast Slovakia conceded to Greece only €800 million, with Prime Minister Robert Fico arguing that they “don’t believe [...] the Greek parliament will be able to approve the restrictions adopted by the government”.

The Greek crisis has sparked a debate across Europe on the stability of the shared currency, accompanied by fears of further destabilisation across the EU.

About the author

Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who has been living between Egypt, Lebanon and Syria in recent years, and whose academic background is focused on the Middle East (MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, majoring in politics at SOAS).