The conviction of Nizar Hindawi in a London courtroom should provide the occasion to inaugurate a new relationship between the West and the leading sponsor of terror in the Middle East and Europe. Great Britain's dramatic break in diplomatic relations marks the first time that the Syrian government has paid a price for its activities; it must not be the last. Britain, the United States, and their allies should begin a concerted campaign to isolate Syria.
Both the British action and the American decision to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus run contrary to a well-established record of Western behavior toward Hafiz al-Asad, the Syrian strongman. In the past, vaciliation and an unwillingness to stand up to Asad have been the rule. Take the U.S. case. For years, Washington has known about Syria's deep involvement in sponsoring terrorism. At the time of the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, for example, President Reagan, Secretary of State Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger all publicly pinned the blame on Damascus.
But U.S. leaders have resisted drawing the obvious conclusion-that Syria is a principal enemy of the United States and must be dealt with accordingly. Instead, they advocate "dialogue." Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, recently outlined this policy to Cong-ress. The U.S., he explained, seeks to "exchange views on key regional issues, including terrorism" with Damascus; it also attempts "to convince Syria that supporting terrorism is not in its interest." Of course, persuading Asad to drop terrorism is about as easy as getting Gorbachev to dismantle the K.G.B. Seen against this background, the major question that now arises is, Do the British and American decisions signal a long-term shift in policy? Or will we see a reversion to the old habit of vacillation? Are the recent events a turning point or a fluke?
American actions in the next days are critical if the British move is to be more than a one-time event. A policy is needed that builds on British boldness by making it clear to Asad that his continued use of terror will have increasing costs. This can be accomplished by taking a series of steps to isolate Syria. In rough order of severity, this means: stop selling military or police equipment, impose stricter visa requirements, dissuade travel to Syria (as is done with Cuba), reduce the size of Syrian diplomatic missions, break diplomatic relations, deny loans, end trading relations, and cut air transport links (a Syrian airliner brought the bomb to London). Coordination among the major Western powers is critical to the success of these plans. No country, not even the United States, can isolate a foreign state on its own; vain American efforts to boycott Cuba have made this painfully clear. Fortunately, coordination among the allies now looks more likely, for after years of contrary policies, there are indications that the U.S. and its allies now agree on ways to deal with states that sponsor terrorism; this was a principal result of the U.S. raid on Libya last April.
Useful as these steps are, it has to be remembered that Syria's extensive ties to the Soviet Union will permit it to survive a break by the West. This points to the need for a second way of isolating Damascus; the enormously powerful bully pulpit of the United States government can be used to make Syrian mischief known. If the spotlight that was focused earlier this year on Libya were now turned on Syria, the result would be a far-reaching awareness of Syria's role as a sponsor of terror and an aggressor toward its neighbors. It also would make clear that Syria stands, along with Iran and Libya, as a member of the anti-American triad in the Middle East. There are few risks attached to isolating Syria. The country is deeply isolated within its region, because all its neighbors fear its power. Libya was the only state to respond to Syrian pleas for support; no other Arab state has taken steps against Great Britain. And Syria is already a de facto member of the Soviet bloc, so there is no question of pushing it farther into Moscow's arms.
Skeptics claimed the U.S. policy toward Libya would lead to a cycle of violence, make Qaddafi a hero in the Middle East, and alienate the European allies. They were wrong on all of these counts; and the stringent policies that isolated Qaddafi are even more urgently needed for Asad.