- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

The State Department confirmed this week that the Obama administration will ease trade restrictions against Syria. This policy takes engagement too far, too soon.

Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell informed Syrian President Bashar Assad that the United States will help Syria obtain spare aircraft parts, information-technology systems and telecommunications equipment that had been limited under the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

The State Department said it would “process all eligible applications for export licenses to Syria as quickly as possible.” The process is already under way. In February, the U.S. government approved the export of aircraft parts to refurbish two 747s operated by Syrian Arab Airlines.

The State Department’s line is that the president will use his waiver authority for products “deemed important to the welfare of the Syrian people.” The law actually says the president can issue waivers “if the president determines that it is in the national security interest of the United States to do so.” This is a significant discrepancy since the president is not qualified to judge the Syrian people’s welfare but is responsible for U.S. national security.

The Syria Accountability Act requires the president to report to Congress the reason for these waivers and how they advance this country’s national security interests. A case can be made for a strategic opening to Syria. Indeed, the Bush administration attempted to court Damascus and was rebuffed. But we wonder what good deeds Syria has done to merit this level of consideration.

The other side of the ledger is heavy with iniquity. Section Two of the act lists 34 findings related to Syria’s international misbehavior, including support for terror groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs, production of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

The only nod to Syria was that it had not undertaken to acquire or produce nuclear weapons. But in 2007 it was revealed that Syria cooperated with Iran and North Korea in operating an illegal nuclear facility probably related to the Iranian atomic weapons program. Israel destroyed the facility in 2007. Also, since the law was passed, Syria has served as the primary transit route, headquarters and safe haven for al Qaeda operations in Iraq.

It was the sense of Congress in 2003 that Syria should immediately stop its support for terrorism and for insurgents in Iraq, halt development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, enter into “serious unconditional bilateral negotiations” with Israel, and withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon. Of these demands, Syria has only removed its forces from Lebanon, and that was four years ago. Syria must do more to demonstrate good faith.

Washington is pressing for Damascus to meet with representatives from U.S. Central Command to discuss al Qaeda’s support pipeline that runs through Syria to Iraq. More than 90 percent of foreign suicide bombers in Iraq arrived via Syria, and recently the network has surged. Syria should be forthcoming in helping the United States shut down this critical terrorist support system, particularly given the olive branch extended by the Obama administration.

We await proof that rapprochement with Syria is possible, but it is up to Damascus to provide it.

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