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Syria: We React Instead of Prevent

The looming military intervention in Syria is but the most recent example of a reactionary American foreign policy that fails to identify and counter threats well before they escalate. It prompts me to ask: what if the Syrian Accountability and Liberation Act of 2007 — SALLA for short — been enacted and fully implemented? It is worth revisiting, especially as the House Foreign Affairs Committee begins to deliberate tomorrow on Syria.

Congressional Republicans introduced SALLA in May 2007. SALLA declared the Assad regime’s following actions as “a threat to the national security interests of the United States”: Syria’s support for terrorist activities, the Assad regime’s development of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction, as well as its systematic violations of the human rights of the Syrian people.

SALLA tightened the economic and international political noose on Assad by proposing an expansion of the type and scope of sanctions imposed on the regime and its enablers.  Concurrently, it proposed a long-term strategy by authorizing:

  1. Democracy-building and civil society efforts in Syria, including the provision of assistance to vetted peaceful organizations certified by the President to be eligible, and
  2. Radio and television broadcasting to Syria to complement democracy-building and civil society efforts.

This bill was not afforded a hearing in the House, nor was its companion ever discussed in the Senate. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria in early 2007 took care of that.

How different would the landscape be if SALLA had been enacted and enforced? Would
Assad be in power? If so, would there be a more credible and capable opposition rather than the current conglomeration which causes as much concern for U.S. policymakers as the regime they are trying to replace? Unfortunately, we will never know.

SALLA also outlined a series of efforts to be undertaken at the United Nations and UN agencies. Had it been enacted and enforced: Would U.S. contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency have continued to fund technical assistance programs in Syria? Would the Assad regime have been elected to UNESCO’s human rights committee?

Would Assad have “used chemical weapons” now if the UN had held Syria accountable for building a secret nuclear site at al-Kibar or refusing to cooperate with IAEA inspectors following the September 2007 Israeli strike on this facility?

Beyond SALLA, would Russia have continued providing arms to the Syrian regime if it had been sanctioned for it under U.S. law? Would Moscow’s behavior today regarding Assad be the same if John Kerry, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not thought of Assad as a reformer and had, instead, acted on a bill to strengthen U.S. efforts against proliferation by rogue regimes such as Syria?

The Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act of 2011 passed the House in December 2011 by a vote of 418-2 but languished for all of 2012 in the Senate.

Detractors will argue that what I am laying out is 20/20 hindsight, however, it isn’t. The U.S. has long known the nature of the Assad regime and has failed to act accordingly, making Syria a classic example of what Machiavelli wrote about in The Prince. When threats are identified well in advance, he said, they can be quickly addressed but “when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.”

And so it is that a limited military strike in Syria, as the Administration proposes, may be too little, too late. More is needed, or do nothing at all.

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