President Obama’s statement on the Libya crisis last Wednesday elicited a particularly apt criticism of the administration’s “rhetoric of futility” – a reference to its knack for making pronouncements that carry no clear implication of action. The same could be said of the Obama administration’s approach to various other regional problems – which has only served to further embolden adversaries. One fitting example is Washington’s response to Syria’s concealed nuclear activities and its ongoing illegal transfer of ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. On the same day President Obama gave his Libya speech, the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that Western intelligence agencies had identified a second suspect nuclear site near Damascus, which they believed hosted a uranium conversion facility. Three such undeclared facilities had already piqued the interest of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) back in 2008 for possible functional links to the covert reactor in Deir al-Zour, destroyed in September 2007. Syria has denied IAEA investigators access to all of them. Even after its reactor was bombed, there have been possible indicators that Syria’s nuclear quest has seemingly remained active. For instance, last year the Japanese Nikkei news site reported that North Korea was helping Syria build a production line for maraging steel “that can be used in missile skins, chemical warheads and gas centrifuges, a vital component in the uranium enrichment process.” Despite its utter disregard for the IAEA’s requests, Syria has paid no penalty. The Assad regime’s contempt likely stems from its calculation that at the end of the day, there will be no consensus to push for a special investigation, which would legally bind Syria to comply or face referral to the UN Security Council. Indeed, there is reluctance among certain IAEA board member states, who, while concerned about Syria’s covert program, are not willing “to go much further than calling for everyone to cooperate more with the IAEA,” as one leaked State Department cable noted was Brazil’s position in late 2009. There are several reasons for this. Ironically, one reason stems from the fact that the Syrian reactor at the al-Kibar site has already been destroyed. So, for some, the urgency behind the special investigation is reduced. Then of course there’s appeasement. For example, France’s disastrous engagement policy with Damascus has played a role in compromising French support for a tough position on Syrian non-compliance. One leaked State Department cable from 2008 describes how Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor for the Middle East at the time, Boris Boillon, had “convinced himself that escalating pressure on Syria at the IAEA would be a mistake.” How, you might ask? Boillon reasoned “the Syrians may pull back into their shell and turn again to Iran.” Two additional years of continued Syrian stonewalling notwithstanding, President Obama nevertheless found it fit to restore full diplomatic relations with Damascus, appointing Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria during a Congressional recess. The administration’s argument has been that an ambassador would be able to better communicate US concerns and press Washington’s interests with the Syrians. In light of Assad''s track record, less optimistic analysts concluded that Ford will “spend much of his time in Damascus delivering demarches.” But here’s where the criticism of the administration’s empty rhetoric becomes particularly relevant. If the US is not able to push its preference for a special investigation, or to somehow hold Syria accountable for its violations and utter contempt, then how exactly will Ford press US interests, and what weight will his demarches carry? This is not to mention how the administration has further undermined its argument since Ford’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has already dispatched a demarche to the Syrians over their transfer of advanced ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. However, Clinton’s words were not followed by any concrete action, and, as a result, were essentially brushed off. Assad continued with business as usual. With Russia confirming plans to supply Syria with the Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile, concerns over arms smuggling have come to the forefront once again, especially since Damascus has all but announced its intention to make the system available to Hezbollah. But once the secretary of state’s warnings have been ignored, any further reprimands by the ambassador will be all but meaningless, unless the US finally lays out specific consequences for continued Syrian contempt – something it has so far failed to do. In another sharp criticism of President Obama’s Libya speech last week, the administration was taken to task for giving “the impression that the opinion of the United States was no more worth hearing than that of, say, Switzerland.”
As the region undergoes upheavals with potentially serious repercussions on American influence and interests, Washington can ill afford to have rogues continue to pursue destabilizing policies free of cost or worry. The US is not Switzerland – or France, for that matter – nor can it assume such a dangerously inconsequential posture.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published at NOW Lebanon.