By Andrea Campbell and Emily Williams
Damascus, SYRIA – Last week, President Barack Obama renewed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, or SAA, imposing another year worth of sanctions on the Syrian government.
Officials here are railing against the decision, saying the act is a violation of their people’s human rights.
“[The act] leaves impact on every citizen in Syria. And in addition to the financial impact, could include medical, industrial. This has a 10,000- [Syrian] pound impact on every Syrian,” said Rihad Hejab, the mayor of Al-Qunaytirah, a region in western Syria encompassing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The SAA was originally signed into law in December 2003 by former President George W. Bush in an effort to “halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.”
The act’s sanctions include a ban of U.S.-Syrian imports or exports on the United States Munitions List or the Commerce Control List, with the exception of food and medicine.
The SAA also requires the president to select additional sanctions defined in the act, such as prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, and limiting diplomatic contact with the country.
These sanctions have had a number of additional consequences on Syrian civilians, the county’s officials insist.
For example, as a result of the SAA, civilian airlines in Syria are unable to import parts necessary to repair their aircraft. Not only has this hurt Syria economically, explained Ghiath Barakat, Syrian minister of higher education, but also, as aircraft go without maintenance, it could pose a risk to passenger safety, he said.
“What would be the result? We would be endangering our citizens. This would be a violation of human rights,” said Barakat.
Import of medical technologies has also been affected by the SAA. The minister gave the example of a linear accelerator, used in radiation technologies, manufactured in the U.S. and therefore unattainable by Syria.
“After we signed with the contractor, the administration did not give their approval,” said Barakat. “We’re going to use it for people; it is their right, for medical reasons, not for military reasons.”
These consequences have not gone unnoticed by the U.S. government, said Kimberly Jones, associate director of international affairs at Northeastern University.
“Although it might not have all the details, the United States government understands the overall impact of sanctions. … For obvious reasons, the U.S. de-emphasizes sanctions’ impact while Syria spotlights it,” said Jones in an email interview.
Jones explained that while President Obama’s decision to renew the act stemmed from concerns for U.S. interest in the area, it was also likely motivated by politics, both domestic and international.
Among Obama’s reasons for renewing the SAA is Syria’s alleged support of terrorism through groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. While Syria has politically supported Hamas, it has never contributed financially, said Muhsin Bilal, Syrian minister of information.
Another condition of the act is that Syria better control its border with Iraq. Syrian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdul Fattah Ammoarah explained that Syria simply does not have the resources to secure the entire border.
“If you cannot control your border with Mexico, how can we control our border with Iraq?” said Ammoarah.
“Some of Syria’s relationships of concern actually place it in a unique position, where it has the potential to bridge some diplomatic chasms the United States finds difficult to cross,” said Jones.
The SAA sanctions will remain until May 2010, when President Obama will once again have the decision to renew. Obama didn’t say specifically the reasons he renewed the act this time, but the press release issued by the State Department said that Syria remains a “unique and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security.
The U.S.-Syrian relationship is an important one, said Jones, but Syria has a number of steps it must take before the SAA is repealed.
“Moreover, the U.S. placed enough bad deeds on the Syrian to-do list that if the political timing is not opportune, sanctions may remain. So Syria could theoretically remedy A and B, but the U.S. could say, “Fine, but what about C and D?” said Jones.