What good are sanctions if the people on the ground don't know how to implement them?
That's a question lawmakers are sure to ask at today's opening of the conference on new Iran sanctions legislation, and that's the criticism levied in a new State Department inspector general's report on Syria.
"The most immediate issue requiring greater clarity concerns economic sanctions," reads the IG's latest report on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. "There is no front-channel guidance on the issue. The inspection team reviewed email and informal traffic regarding sanctions and waiver policy, and found several areas in which the guidance appeared to be contradictory."
The major U.S. sanctions against Syria are laid out in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which limits U.S. exports there to food, water, and a select list of items approved by the Commerce Department. And while the embassy staff in Damascus, who have been without an ambassador since 2005, is great about reporting on the Syrian government's wide-ranging efforts to subvert the sanctions, the report found there was "inadequate guidance regarding how embassy officers should advise potential U.S. exporters of sanctions and possible waivers."
The report also states that although the Obama administration's initial announcement last summer that it was restoring an ambassador to Syria yielded some diplomatic benefits, those benefits have trailed off and the Syrian government's engagement remains poor almost one year later.
Although the embassy has noticed some increased access to Syrian officials, for the most part, they avoid contact with U.S. diplomats for any reason, the report explained. For example, the chargé d'affaires, Charles F. "Chuck" Hunter (above right), is not able to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.
"Economic officers have no access to officials in key ministries such as the finance, energy, or industry ministries, and the situation is similar for officers elsewhere in the Embassy," the report states. "Most Embassy business, routine and otherwise, is conducted through diplomatic note or during visits by senior Washington officials and congressional delegations, when access is granted."
One of the problems could be the fact that since 2005, there have "excessive changes" in the embassy's front office personnel, including five chargés d'affaires and seven acting deputy chiefs of mission.
"However, this situation can be expected to improve with the return of an ambassador to Damascus," the report says.
And if and when Obama's ambassador nominee, Robert Ford, ever gets to Damascus, he faces a herculean task in resurrecting an embassy that has taken a series of beatings over the last few years. "Embassy Damascus operates in an exceptionally difficult political and physical environment," the report notes, citing Syrian government activities to thwart the embassy's attempts to conduct public diplomacy as well as security threats, such as the car bombing of the embassy in 2006.
Our sources report that the State Department hasn't been pushing hard recently for Ford's nomination to move forward. Several GOP senators have placed holds on the nomination, partly because they want more information about alleged Syrian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.
The report also goes much further in calling out Syria and its leaders for their poor record on democracy and human rights than any senior official has been willing to do on the record for some time.
"Syria is a repressive state, ruled by a hereditary authoritarian leader. Political opponents of President Bashar al-Asad's government are regularly arrested and jailed. Human rights advocates are routinely persecuted. Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube are blocked. Opposition outlets are subject to government censorship, as are the media. The government's feared intelligence apparatus maintains a heavy presence throughout society."
The report also took the time to point out:
- Freedom House places Syria near the bottom of its world democracy index
- Syria has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979
- In its 2009 Global Corruption Report, Transparency International ranked Syria 147 out of 180 countries regarding government corruption
The Damascus embassy, even in its tenuous state, has focused on human rights in its reporting to Washington.
"In one month reviewed by inspectors, 25 percent of the section's outgoing cables addressed human rights issues," the report states.
The inspector general is calling on the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, headed by former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, to "initiate an interagency review of all sanctions-related issues and provide the embassy with explicit, formal guidance on how to address them, including specific clarification regarding the rules of engagement."
The IG also recommends that State sell a "garden site" and a consular property in Aleppo to raise an estimated $65 million worth of funds that "could be put to better use."