Last month, the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), a draft bill mandating economic sanctions against Syria if it does not end its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, discontinue its development of weapons of mass destruction, refrain from violating UN sanctions on Iraq and end its military occupation of Lebanon. Although it evoked sharp protests from the Bush administration and has passed only the first of many hurdles in the legislative process, its impact is already being felt in Lebanon.
Few in Lebanon took notice of the draft bill until June, when Lebanese Christians from around the world convened at the International Maronite Congress in Los Angeles and approved a resolution to "support those elements of the Syria Accountability Act that pertain to the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon." Unlike previous events organized by the Lebanese Diaspora, the Los Angeles conference attracted a substantial number of prominent Lebanese Christians, including seven bishops, three members of parliament, and the editor of Lebanon's largest newspaper.
Those who left Lebanon to attend the conference were denounced upon their return by the pro-Syrian political establishment and pressured to distance themselves from both the conference and the bill, as was Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who had endorsed the Los Angeles conference and sent his personal representative.
As the bill gained more and more sponsors in both the House and the Senate, the Syrians began to issue warnings. In August, Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam complained that "some Lebanese have not learned from past experiences, as they continue to bet wrongly on imaginary foreign support" (an apparent reference to American peacekeeping troops stationed in Lebanon in 1983 and driven out the following year by Syrian-backed groups). "Some people bet on the support of the US Congress through a law that calls Syria to account in Lebanon, the Syria Accountability Act. But this bet is a losing gamble that will backfire. Even the United States will lose in Lebanon if it responds and tries to take this road."1 Khaddam's dual warning - to the Lebanese, not to accept foreign support, and to the Americans, not to offer it - underscores that Damascus was concerned less about the stipulations of the bill or its possibility of becoming law, than about its impact on Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation .
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield visited Syria and Lebanon in early September and reiterated the Bush administration's opposition to the bill. After arriving in Lebanon on September 3, he met with members of the Christian opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering, several of whom had attended the Los Angeles conference and explained that the Bush administration opposed the bill because it "harms the maneuverability of the US president and could embarrass him in his constitutional functions."2
During the rest of his two-day stay in Lebanon, which coincided with the closure of a major television station on September 4 and an ensuing public uproar, Satterfield repeated the Bush administration's rejection of the bill several times and praised Syrian and Lebanese cooperation in the war on terror, squelching speculation that the debate over US appeasement of Syria may have spread from Congress to the White House. After his meeting with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, he told reporters that the United States "is satisfied with the ongoing cooperation with Syria in the field of combating terrorism" (US officials are usually careful to limit their praise to Syria's role in combating Al-Qaida). Satterfield also met with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Al-Hayat characterized Satterfield's message as saying that "every aspect of Lebanese-Syrian relations was the business of the governments of both countries, signaling that Washington would not interfere."3
During the run-up to the SAA congressional subcommittee hearing on September 18, the Lebanese government had little difficulty ensuring that no prominent public figure or organized political group in the country openly supported the bill. It was less successful, however, in organizing an impressive demonstration of public opposition to the bill. Five days before the hearing, Interior Minister Elias Murr and a large number of other pro-Syrian politicians organized a rally against the SAA and invited a broad array of political groups to send representatives. The absence of Christian opposition groups at the rally was not surprising (it's not clear if they were invited). What was surprising was the absence of many leftist and Muslim opposition groups that were invited, such as the Communist Party, former Beirut MP Najah Wakim's People's Movement, former Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Habib Sadeq's Democratic Forum and the Popular Nasserite Organization of Sidon MP Osama Saad.
Meanwhile, exiled former Army Commander Michel Aoun, whose Free National Current (FNC) inside Lebanon has organized massive student demonstrations against the occupation in recent years, traveled to the US to meet with influential congressmen and urge them to support the bill. Although Syria's state-run daily Tishrin condemned Aoun, saying that the pro-Israeli supporters of the SAA in the US were "counting on a runaway general to push it through," Aoun was not deterred. "Passing the SAA means that the Americans oppose handing Lebanon to Syria on a plate . . . Does this not deserve speaking with supporters of the SAA even if they are Jews?" he told the daily Al-Nahar prior to his departure.4
The SAA Hearing
Although scheduled to testify before the subcommittee, Satterfield was unable to attend for medical reasons and declined to send a lower-ranking State Department official. Instead, he conveyed a letter stating that the SAA would make it more difficult to "change Syrian behavior and avoid a dangerous escalation of violence" and obstruct the high-level engagement needed to maintain Syrian cooperation in the war against Al-Qa'ida.
All but one of the 20 members of the sub-committee disagreed with Satterfield. "Our inaction in holding Syria accountable for its dangerous activities could seriously diminish our efforts in the war on terrorism and our efforts in brokering a viable peace in the Middle East," said Republic Majority Leader Rep. Richard Armey (NY). Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the main author of the SAA, accused Syria of occupying Lebanon the same way Iraq occupied Kuwait and displayed satellite images of Syrian chemical weapons and long-range missile facilities.
Only two speakers argued against the bill. William A. Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, gave a rather dry lecture arguing that unilateral trade sanctions usually don't work. The other speaker was Edward M. Gabriel, the president of the one Lebanese-American lobbying group in the United States that is opposed to the legislation - the American Task Force on Lebanon (ATFL).
ATFL is a group of Lebanese-American businessmen with strong ties to the ruling elite in Lebanon and both parties in the United States. The Vice-Chairman of ATFL, Nijad Fares, is the son of Issam Fares, the deputy prime minister of Lebanon and a close associate of Gen. Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence in Lebanon for tweny years (he was replaced in early October). Since both Fares' have strong connections to the Republican Party, Gabriel is a major Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, and other members of the group are similarly well-connected, ATFL is almost always invited to testify at congressional hearings concerning Lebanon (this also explains why ATFL received a $100,000 grant from USAID during the Clinton administration to host a conference on Lebanon).
After rehashing much of the same argument made in Satterfield's letter, Gabriel was notified that his time had expired, at which point he added a final bombshell:
Let me just tell you. I visited Lebanon, July 23rd through the 29th with the delegation of our members and we met with all the leadership of that country. From the Maronite delegation all the way through the others.
I want to impress you with one thing because it was mentioned by Mr. Engel in his very thoughtful testimony. That perhaps he gave the impression, he didn't say this, but perhaps he gave the impression that the Maronite church supports this act. I guarantee you and I state for the record, the Maronite church does not support this act. As a matter of fact it opposes this act and with that, Mr. Chairman, I will tell you that no one we met with supported the Syria Accountability Act.
But neither Engel nor any other member of the committee had suggested that the Maronite Church supported the SAA. In fact, the issue of how the SAA is perceived in Lebanon had not come up. Gabriel had clearly come to the hearing with the intention of declaring that Lebanon's highest Christian religious institution opposed the bill and that no one he met in Lebanon supported it (in light of his connections to the regime, it may well have been true that no one voiced support for it).
When Engel asked Gabriel an unrelated question later in the hearing, the ATFL president ignored him entirely and instead elaborated further on his claim:
Engel: I don't believe we can talk out of both sides of our mouth. We can say one thing about the war on terrorism, and then on the other hand kind of look the other way when it comes to Syria. So I would just say other than diplomacy and leverage, which hasn't worked, what would you do?
Gabriel: Thank you very much, Mr. Engel, for asking that question. I've been wanting to offer my opinions on this. First of all, let me quote from the patriarch of the Maronite Church in a private meeting with me. He is against the Syrian Accountability Act. It is not wise to get Syria out of Lebanon with enmity. If there is no accord with Syria, Syria will intervene with the Muslims all the more. Lebanon's interest is to be good friends with Syria. I also met with many of the hierarchy of the Maronite Church in this country recently, and they told me, directly to me in this country, that they really weren't for the bill as much as for the debate --
Engel: May I just say --
Gabriel: -- so I just wanted to state on the record --
Engel: Because the question for me is not whether one group is for it or against it.
Gabriel: Right. I just want to clear the record, Mr. Engel.
Engel: Okay. The question is [rephrases the original question]
Many Lebanese-Americans were outraged by Gabriel's remarks. Patriarch Sfeir wisely declined to express his views on what he thinks of the SAA, until pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon turned up the heat on him, after which he told his followers that "it is an American project and concerns only the American people." It is not only illegal for someone living in Lebanon to openly support this legislation (speech which undermines Lebanese ties with Syria is prohibited by the 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood Cooperation and Coordination and other legal statutes), but it is dangerous (the head of the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, was killed in 1989 for crossing a Syrian "red line"). Sfeir's words can hardly be construed as opposing the legislation.
On September 23, Lebanese Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum announced that he had begun an investigation into Lebanese "supporters of the anti-Syria bill in the US congress." According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, the aim of the recent crackdown on the media and on opposition political figures in Lebanon is to prevent the Christian opposition from encouraging the United States to adopt anti-Syrian policies.5 It appears that the aim of ATFL is to use their silence under duress to lobby for pro-Syrian policies.
1 Al-Safir, 16 August 2002.
1 The Daily Star, 5 September 2002.
3 Al-Hayat 8 September 2002.
4 Al-Nahar 4 September 2002.
5 Al-Nahar 27 September 2002.