Cause of sovereignty makes for strange bedfellows
(c) 2004 THE DAILY STAR, BEIRUT, LEBANON.
In an effort to pressure Syria, Arab
expatriates partner up with Washington's
critics wonder whether other ulterior motives have influenced their
selection of political allies
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);
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
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
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