By Mark MatthewsBaltimore Sun
January 4, 2002
WASHINGTON - For the first time in a decade, the United Nations Security Council now includes a strident voice for Arab nationalism, one that could complicate U.S. efforts to tighten pressure on Iraq and wage a global war on terrorism.
Syria, which will join the council today for the year's first consultations, has long been on America's list of state sponsors of terrorism and, U.S. critics say, is blatantly violating U.N. sanctions against Baghdad by importing Iraqi oil.
Though hopes for moderation were raised when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, as president in 2000, Syria remains hostile to one of America's closest allies, Israel.
Syria's ambassador to Washington pledged yesterday that his country would try to work with the United States during its two-year term on the Security Council.
"Syria will cooperate with all the members of the Security Council to achieve the noble goals and objectives of the U.N. and preserve international peace and security," said Rostom Al-Zoubi.
For the moment, John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says he will take the Syrians at their word.
"We'll have to wait and see," Negroponte said in an interview. "We will engage them constructively and expect them to reciprocate. We will not go into this with ironclad, preconceived notions."
But those who think Syria might assume a low profile on the council would have to overlook an address its foreign minister, Farouk Sharaa, made to the U.N. General Assembly in November.
He excoriated Israel as terrorism's worst perpetrator, invoking a list of Israeli "crimes" against Palestinians and Lebanese.
"Anyone who would like to target terrorism in our region must target Israeli terrorism first and foremost, because what Israel does is the utmost form of terrorism," Sharaa said.
Syria won its two-year regional seat on the Security Council with support from the Arab world and Asia that foreclosed any real opportunity for the United States to lobby against it. It is the most hard-line Arab regime to sit on the council since Yemen in 1991.
Over the past decade, the United States has enlisted allies in blocking both Libya and Sudan from gaining seats on the council. But in both cases, it argued that those countries should be disqualified because they were targets of U.N. sanctions, which Syria is not.
In recent years, the Arab world has been represented on the council by moderate, pro-Western Tunisia, Oman and Morocco.
Israel speaks out
The only country to speak out forcefully against Syria's membership was Israel.
"A country's election should be based on its contribution to the maintenance of peace and security," Aaron Jacob, the No. 2 official at Israel's mission to the United Nations, said in an interview.
"Syria is harboring terrorists, is supporting terror organizations, especially Hezbollah, and should be disqualified. It diminishes the standing of the Security Council when countries such as Syria sit on the council."
As one of 10 non-permanent members on the 15-member Security Council, Syria won't be able to play a decisive role, as do the five permanent members - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - all of which can veto resolutions. But membership on the council offers a bully pulpit.
"You're able to influence the tenor of discussions," said Jeffrey Laurenti, director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the U.S.A.
The Syrian government newspaper Al-Thawra said yesterday that Damascus would "play a pivotal role in explaining the just Arab causes on an international level."
Unless a veto is cast, resolutions require nine votes to pass. But especially during crises, members of the council often try to produce a unanimous vote to show the world it is speaking with one voice.
In June, Syria will assume the rotating one-month presidency of the council, which will give it additional leverage to stall action on issues, diplomats say.
Iraq offers an early test of how Syria will behave. President Bush has made it a priority to pressure Baghdad to readmit U.N. arms inspectors, whom Saddam Hussein expelled in 1998.
Many U.S. analysts fear that Iraq has used the past three years to increase its stockpile of biological and chemical agents and possibly to resume development of nuclear weapons.
In 1991, the United States was able to use Hafez al-Assad's longtime rivalry with Hussein to enlist Syria in the coalition that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. But relations between Damascus and Baghdad have improved and have gained a commercial dimension.
A reopened oil pipeline between the two countries allows them to share $2 billion a year in revenue from oil sales that violate a United Nations-imposed embargo, according to Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A senior U.S. official says the "flow has been quite substantial."
Al-Zoubi, Syria's ambassador in Washington, denies the accusation of sanctions-busting, saying his country has complied with U.N. resolutions. The pipeline is old and damaged, he said, and reports that it is used to export Iraqi oil through Syria are "not accurate."
He declined to predict Syria's overall stance toward Iraq, except to say "Syria is always with the international consensus" and "every issue will be discussed in its time." Al-Zoubi said Syria hopes to "lessen the suffering of the Iraqi people" after years of sanctions.
But asked about the prospect of U.S. military action against Iraq if Hussein continued to block the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, Al-Zoubi said, "We are against any targeting of any Arab country."
Syria, a secular regime, counts itself among the targets of fundamentalist Islam. The elder Assad crushed the militant Muslim Brotherhood group as a political force in Syria during a 1982 crackdown that left thousands dead.
Syria refuses to apply a terrorist label to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based group that once held Americans hostage and continues to attack Israeli forces on the Lebanese border. And it gives Palestinian terrorist groups a haven.
"All these are information offices," Al-Zoubi said. "Syria is host to more than 400,000 Palestinians as refugees. These information offices represent these 400,000 Palestinians, and they don't launch any act against Israel from Syrian territory.
"There should be a distinction between terrorism and the right of people to resist [Israeli] occupation forces," he said.
U.S. and European diplomats say they hope that the world spotlight on Syria and its ambassador to the United Nations, Mikhail Wehbe, will prevent Syria from trying to obstruct the Security Council's efforts to achieve consensus.
But in offering to cooperate with the United States, Al-Zoubi says Syria wants something in return: a change from what it considers a pro-Israel stance on the Middle East peace process.
"All that we need from the U.S.A. is to play an effective and neutral role for the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region," Al-Zoubi said.
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