ArDO: Yes we want Lebanon to be the Switzerland of the East and Beirut the Paris of the East


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Cause of sovereignty makes for strange bedfellows

13 May 2004 


In an effort to pressure  Syria,  Arab expatriates partner up with  Washington's pro- Israel elite ....But critics wonder whether other ulterior motives have influenced their selection of political allies

Robert Tuttle

Special to The Daily Star

WASHINGTON: The United States' decision to impose economic sanctions on Syria, in accordance with the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, has been criticized by many in America's Arab and Lebanese communities.

But for a number of Lebanese and Arab expatriates, the act's enforcement is seen as a major victory in a long-running effort to link America's "war on terror" with their own efforts to end Syria's presence in Lebanon, and ultimately change the nature of the Syrian government.  

Tony Haddad, president of the Washington-based Lebanese American Council for Democracy (LACD); Ziad  K. Abdelnour, president of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL); and Farid N. Ghadry, president of the newly formed Ref! orm Party of Syria, have been arguing for sanctions against Syria for several years.  

The men's efforts have been fraught with controversy. All three have formed close working alliances with many of Washington's most pro-Israeli lawmakers, academics and think-tanks - exposing them to accusations that they are stooges for Washington's powerful pro-Israel lobby. They counter that they are simply working with like-minded individuals and organizations on a common objective: sovereignty, independence and democracy for both Lebanon and Syria.  

Last March, for example, the LACD hosted a political fundraiser for Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. As chair of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, Ros-Lehtinen has been one of Congress' most outspoken supporters of increased aid to Israel. But she also played an instrumental role in passing the Syrian Accountability Act. "She is very supportive of our cause," Haddad said. "She is Cuban. Having Lebanon occupied by a country that has basically a Stalinist regime, she understood exactly where we were coming from." So far this year, the LACD has raised some $35,000 in contributions for Ros-Lehtinen's congressional campaign, according to Haddad.  

Abdelnour, a prominent New York-based venture capitalist and registered lobbyist, has also played an instrumental role in promoting the Syrian Accountability Act. Like Haddad, his efforts have drawn him toward some of America's most pro-Israeli lawmakers and political pundits. According to Right Web, a website linked directly to the USCFL's website, Abdelnour's advocacy group is supported by the likes of such conservative ideologues as Michael Ledeen, senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute; Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the UN; James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA; Elliot Abrams, Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the National Security Council; and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Abdelnour is convinced that President Bush's "get tough" policies will spark revolutionary changes not only! in Syria and Lebanon, but throughout the region as well. "They (the Bush administration) want a fully sovereign Lebanon ... If the Syrians don't behave, sanctions are going to be harsh," he said. "If Bush is re-elected, we are done with the regimes in Syria and Iran."  

For Farid N. Ghadry, this would be welcome news. A rising figure in Washington's conservative political circles, Ghadry, along with some fellow Syrian expatriates, formally established the Reform Party of Syria in 2003. "Our goal is regime change," said Ghadry. The Reform Party of Syria is closely affiliated with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  

But despite all three men's close affiliations with Washington's pro-Israel establishment, they insist their primary aims are to promote reform in Lebanon, Syria and the general Middle East region, not to serve Israel's interest. Their views, they say, do not always coincide with those of some of their pro-Israeli friends.  

Last October, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives that, among other things, called on the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to establish "a program for resettling all of the Palestinian refugees under the authority of the UNRWA in the host countries or territories in which they are living, other Arab countries, or third party countries willing to assist."  

The bill caught Haddad's attention, who voiced his concerns to Ros-Lehtinen personally. "We explained to her that Lebanon cannot be one of the countries to absorb (the Palestinians)," said Haddad. "Economically, we cannot absorb them. I am here because Lebanon cannot absorb me." This was not the first time Haddad's organization has had disagreements with lawmakers who might otherwise support LACD causes. Some members of Congress, he said, felt the Syrian Accountability Act provided too many incentives for Syria to comply with the legislations. For example, the act would supercede existing legal restrictions on aid to countries that are members of the State Department's list of state-sponsors of terrorism, which Syria is on. "We lost some strong people from our bill, originally, because we gave the president the authority to give them aid," said Haddad. Haddad envisions a! day when both Syria and Lebanon, independent of each other, share a common market and open borders, similar to the relationship between Canada and the US.  

Abdelnour also disagrees with some of his pro-Israeli associates. While he believes that Lebanon should sign a peace treaty with Israel - even before the Palestinian issue is resolved - he, like Haddad, objected to the spirit of Ros-Lehtinen's resolution.  

Ghadry, too, supports positions that are not necessarily popular with some of Israel's supporters. For example, he believes that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, though through peaceful rather than military means. "But this is not a possibility if we, as a country, do not change - get rid of weapons of mass destruction and reform our education system."  

Haddad, Abdelnour and Ghadry's claims to independence have not silenced their Arab critics, who view the men with deep suspicion. One such critic is Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Global South at Washington's American University, and a former Arab League Ambassador to the UN.  

Maksoud, a Lebanese-American, considers the cause of reform in Syria and other Arab states to be noble. But he believes that reform is not what supporters of the Syrian Accountability Act truly seek. "Some Lebanese are interested in settling old accounts (with Syria)," said Maksoud. "Asking for reform from a point that addresses Syria's interest in the region is different from (doing so in a way that) serves Israel's interest. The movement for reform in Syria should not ... weaken the role of Syria ... because that would help to perpetuate Israel's hegemony."  

But Maksoud's fears may be unfounded. Even some of the Syrian Accountability Act's supporters admit the sanctions will have only a minor impact. According to the Census Bureau, Syrian exports to the US were valued at a mere $260 million in 2003, and imports were valued at $214 million.  

Abdelnour argues that the sanctions against Syria will gradually increase with time if the country is not cooperative. But, for the moment, the act's impact is largely symbolic, which, to Ghadry, is fine. "It is a law that sends a signal that the US wants to see Syria change, and that the US does not stand by Syria," said Ghadry

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