Sunday, June 20, 2010

U.S. Trade Delegation to Syria

June 20, 2010

A high-level diplomatic and trade delegation, including U.S. officials and executives of U.S. I.C.T. companies, was dispatched last week to Syria for a four-day visit. Officially, the mission had the target to understand the potential Syrian hi-tech demand and to discuss future cooperation projects between the U.S. and Syria. All the involved I.C.T. companies are at the moment subject to the U.S. sanctions versus Syria. Officially, on the State Department’s side there was the idea of testing the willingness of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to find ways to improve the level of information technology in Syria and to expand Syria’s economic ties in general. Unofficially, this mission was to be considered as one of the latest attempts by the Obama administration to derail the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran. The State Department would like to help Syria establish a more democratic environment and the U.S. has still plans to send back a U.S. ambassador to Damascus (Washington pulled back its ambassador from Syria in 2005).

This mission was quite controversial and on Monday, June 14, before the departure of the delegation, some lawmakers and Syrian human rights activists criticized the necessity of dispatching a U.S. delegation to Syria. If, on the one hand, in the last months, many U.S. officials   among them some U.S. senators have visited Syria with the goal of discussing bilateral and regional affairs, on the other hand, in May 2010, the U.S. renewed for one additional year its sanctions versus Syria, which is still accused of supporting terrorists groups (recently there were U.S. allegations that Syria one more time transferred missiles to Hezbollah, although both Syria and Hezbollah denied the U.S. allegations) and of trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction (Damascus is still refusing to cooperate with the U.N. investigators looking into Syria’s possible development of weapons of mass destruction). Syria is considered to belong to the category of rogue states and to be a sponsor of terrorist activities. Many of these lawmakers and activists pointed out that Syria had never responded to all of the policy requests made by Washington since the policy shift that the Obama administration implemented last year in order to engage in a better way Syria and to disentangle it from Iran’s sphere of influence.

Apparently, some in the U.S. State Department, still to this day, remain committed to pursuing Assad to peel him away from Iran” said Mr. Farid Ghadry, the head of Syria's Reform Party, which opposes the regime. But what really scares many activists is that the Syrian government could use the new technologies in order to crush in an improved manner its political opponents and increase its grip on civil society. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considers the spread of information technology as a tool of paramount importance in order to improve global development of democracy and civil society, but nowadays in Syria the spread of these technologies could really have the opposite results. Watchdog Freedom House ranks Syria as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Leading Republican senators are threatening to block the White House nominee for the ambassador post in Syria, Robert Ford, until there is a clear picture of the relationships between Syria and Hezbollah.

Syria has been experiencing some U.S. sanctions since 2004. The most important sanctions are laid down in the Syria Accountability Act (S.A.A.) of 2003. This act bans the exports of the majority of goods that contain more than 10 percent of U.S.-manufactured component parts to Damascus. Moreover, the U.S. Patriot Act was enacted in 2006 explicitly against the Commercial Bank of Syria. Lastly, there are the Executive Orders of the U.S. president. These orders aim at blocking some Syrian citizens and entities from entering the U.S.

In the last months, the U.S. administration has started to ease the exports of certain types of telecommunications equipment and anti-filtering software that before were banned from being exported to countries such as China, Iran and Sudan. The basic idea was that these instruments rather than working for the public good would be instruments of oppression in the hands of authoritarian governments. As a matter of fact, while the overall structure of the U.S. sanctions toward Iran impedes the sale of all high-tech equipment and parts, at the same time some waivers could be decided by the White House. A good example could be last-year sale of spare airplane parts to Syria’s national carrier thanks to the facilitator role played by U.S. officials.

Last week the State Department sent top diplomats to Syria. In fact, the head of the delegation was Alec Ross, who is the senior advisor for innovation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Apart from U.S. officials, the delegation included executives of Dell, Cisco, VerySign, Microsoft, Simon Tech and Fraser. The executives on Tuesday met with Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari, who strongly encouraged the U.S. companies to invest in Syria and to reap many benefits from these investments. According to SANA, the Syrian News Arab Agency, which belongs to the government, the delegation also met with Minister of Higher Education Ghayath Barak to discuss about how to develop cooperation with reference to education and training. Mr. Barakat said that the government aimed to introduce informatics in state jobs (in the future, the International Computer Driving License (I.C.D.L.), will be a must for all work applicants). During the meeting with the minister of high education, the deans of the informatics faculties in Syria openly expressed the point that their institutions had to improve their technological infrastructure and to have better trained personnel. The involved companies discussed about the possibility of setting up authorized centers in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. All this said, before any real commitment, it should be well analyzed for the mentioned U.S. companies where stands the balance between the economic profit of working in Syria and the negative collateral reputational damages.