- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Yesterday, President Bush imposed economic sanctions against Syria. The long-expected penalties are necessary, both in terms of well-merited punishment and in pushing the autocratic regime toward needed reforms.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his nation are clearly in violation of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which Mr. Bush signed last December. Syria has assisted terrorists by allowing them easy passage across its borders into Iraq to attack coalition soldiers and civilians. About 20,000 Syrian troops are still in Lebanon. The nation is thought to be developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and may have accepted Iraq’s prior to the Coalition invasion.

The president was authorized to impose six possible punishments against Syria, ranging from the reduction of U.S. diplomatic contacts to the freezing of Syrian assets. He chose a mixture of sanctions, which included establishing a ban on all U.S. exports to Syria except for emergency medicine; restricting relationships between U.S. banks and Syria; and freezing assets of Syrian subjects and entities involved in terrorism and the procurement of WMD.

The sanctions may not, in and of themselves, cause significant change. U.S.-Syrian trade amounts to only about $300 million annually. Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri said that the nation had sufficient economic independence to resist “all foreign pressures.”

That may be the case, but Mr. Assad is being squeezed both externally and internally. Syria will not be able to cushion the effect of U.S. sanctions with increased European trade. Negotiations to that end broke down last month over Syria’s failure to renounce chemical weapons. Syria’s state-run industries are shaky. It has a young population (with a median age under 20), and its economy is growing only little faster than its population (both at about 2.5 percent annually), far too slow to keep up with the numbers of young people trying to enter the workforce. To those demographic and economic pressures are being added political ones. Calls for reform — particularly among the long-repressed Syrian Kurds — are continuing to grow in volume.

At some point, those forces may be enough to force Mr. Assad to re-evaluate the aid and succor he provides to terrorist groups and the easy passage into Iraq he gives foreign fighters. In an interview with the Cairo-based newspaper Al-Ahram International, Mr. Bush said that the administration has made “reasonable requests” of Mr. Assad, but “he hasn’t heeded them.”

Instead of those penalties, Mr. Assad could have chosen reform and the promise and prosperity that comes with it. Last month, Mr. Bush recognized Libya’s renunciation of terrorism and repudiation of WMD by lifting the strictures of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which applied to Libya. Increased investment and trade already have begun to flow to the shores of Tripoli.

The choice — penalties or prosperity — is still Mr. Assad’s. In the future, perhaps after November 2, Syria may face more than America’s sanctions.

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