Washington Watch: Quid pro bupkiss

Assad and his pals understand something that Obama doesn't: In the Mideast, giving something for nothing is a sign of weakness.

March 3, 2010 19:27
4 minute read.
Assad meets Ahmadinejad in Damascus.

Assad Ahmadinejad 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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On Purim, the president of Syria played host to the modern-day Persian who would be the new Haman and several of his henchmen. They marked the holiday with curses for America, threats for Israel and mockery for the Obama administration.

They were also celebrating a political coup for Syria’s Bashar Assad. He had just won some highly visible concessions from the US, and all he gave in return was ridicule. By playing host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Assad made clear who he considers his allies.

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And if there was any doubt, he publicly ridiculed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for suggesting that he “begin to move away from the relationship with Iran,” sarcastically thanking her for her “advice” and telling her “don’t give us lessons about our region.”

He punctuated his message by cancelling visa requirements for travel between Iran and Syria and joining Ahmadinejad in pledging to create a Middle East “without Zionists,” telling the Americans to “pack their things and leave” the region.

THAT PURIM spiel came in the same week the Obama administration lifted the ban on travel to Syria and named a new ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence. The last envoy was withdrawn in protest of Syria’s role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s pro-Western former premier Rafik Hariri.

Assad and his pals understood something the Obama administration apparently did not: In the Middle East, giving something for nothing is considered a sign of weakness.

President Barack Obama was right to try to repair relations with Syria, but he seems to act as though Assad is doing us a great favor just by meeting with American diplomats and possibly whispering a tidbit of information in their ears – something the Syrian autocrat learned from his father. But the reality is that he needs us much more than we need him.

He wants to trade his pariah status for international acceptance; he wants an end to sanctions, removal from the terrorist list, access to Western technology, trade and investment, unblocking his application for World Trade Organization membership, and for the investigation of the Hariri assassination (which may implicate him personally) to be dropped. He also needs American backing if he hopes to get back the Golan Heights.

“In the Middle East, favors are not accepted; you always trade something for something,” said a veteran Israeli diplomat who supports US dialogue with Syria. “If Obama got anything for all he just gave to Assad, it’s a very well-kept secret. He’s still problematic in Iraq, tightening his alliance with Iran, smuggling arms to Hizbullah, moving back into Lebanon and refusing any dialogue with Israel.

When [Yitzhak] Rabin was offering Assad Sr. an opportunity to get back the Golan Heights, we asked for the return of the bones of [Israeli spy] Eli Cohen as a goodwill gesture. We were turned down flat,” he added.

Topping the US wish list are separating Syria and Iran, stopping support for the Iraqi insurgents, halting the arms smuggling to Hizbullah and ending support for Hamas. Assad delivered his rebuff with Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Mashaal just days after the White House announced the return of the ambassador. Hopefully, when veteran diplomat Robert Ford goes before the Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing, senators will have some tough questions, starting with “What has Syria done to deserve elevating the relationship?”

So far, all we know is that William Burns, number three at the State Department, met with Assad to inform him of plans to return the ambassador, and the Syrian leader assured him he is not helping the Iraqi insurgents, meddling in Lebanese politics, smuggling arms to Hizbullah or assisting Palestinian terror groups. Burns came away saying he was “hopeful we can make progress together.”

The White House said returning an ambassador “represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance US interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people,” but the White House hasn’t answered the big question – where’s the beef?

Assad made it repeatedly clear that his relationships with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the other terror groups are not negotiable.

When Secretary Clinton called on him to end support for terrorist groups, Assad declared that backing “resistance” movements “is a moral and national... and also a religious and legal duty.”

Nonetheless, Assad seems well on his way to getting what he wants: rapprochement with the US, acceptance of his role in Lebanon, and no requirement that he change his relationship with countries and groups working directly against US interests – and which seek Israel’s destruction.

Dialogue with Syria is important and necessary, and there is a time for gestures, but in the Middle East it is important to remember that giving something for nothing is not considered generosity, but weakness.


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