Time to rewrite America's Syria strategy

One wonders what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now thinks of her statement last Sunday, when she said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “different leader,” whom many believe is a “reformer.” Aside from the fact that Assad was killing his own people in the streets, anyone with rudimentary familiarity with the Syrian dictator knows that his “reform” conceit always was a cynical charade, as was made plain in his smug speech yesterday. However, Clinton’s statement reflects the Obama administration’s lack of an overarching strategic vision.
The secretary’s remarks on CBS were in response to a question on whether the US would interfere in Syria as it had done in Libya. Her tortured answer threw the incoherence of the so-called “Obama doctrine” into sharp relief. 
While it’s dubious that a military intervention in Syria at this point is a suitable, let alone viable, option, from a national interest standpoint, going after Gaddafi and not Assad makes little sense. Whereas the Libyan dictator had come clean on his nuclear program, his Syrian counterpart has yet to allow full access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect his covert nuclear program. Moreover, Assad is a sponsor of terror, a supporter and supplier of Hezbollah and Hamas, and, as the CBS host reminded Clinton, a strategic ally of Iran and a facilitator of its influence in the region. This is not to mention his years-long proxy war against the US in Iraq.
Perhaps recognizing this was the case, Clinton fell back on the administration’s justification for military action in Libya: humanitarian intervention. But there too, the argument was weak, given how Assad was just as ruthlessly murdering protesters – who, one might add, were unarmed, unlike the Libyan rebels. This led her to claim that Assad was different, simply for not using air power to slaughter demonstrators. That’s when she opted to dig even deeper, conjuring up the views of certain members of Congress (read: Senator John Kerry) that Assad was also a “reformer.”
The administration’s overall lack of an intelligible Syria policy is old news. For two years, it has pursued “engagement” with the Assad regime, and literally has nothing to show for it. Its confusion has only been heightened following the eruption of popular demonstrations against Assad’s rule. This befuddlement was already on display prior to Clinton’s CBS appearance, in a New York Times report on Saturday, which quoted a number of anonymous administration officials.
Perhaps it was the Times’ slant, but rather than find the articulation of a strong position on the unprecedented developments in Syria, one came away with the impression that these officials were more concerned about the potential impact of the situation on the non-existent peace talks between Damascus and Jerusalem that the administration was ultimately hoping to launch.
This strange preoccupation actually makes sense when one considers the Obama administration’s policy ideas and priorities. It’s been clear that for the last two years, this administration has made the peace process its grand strategic idea – the “big game,” as one senior official put it last year. 
In reality, however, the peace process is merely the veneer that camouflages the absence of a real regional strategy. By making the peace process its default policy, the administration affords itself the ability to pretend that it possesses a coherent intellectual and strategic framework when, actually, it doesn’t. The peace process then becomes a panacea that the administration can present as a cogent, comprehensive policy. 
But even if one were to take this position at face value, the administration’s approach to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak quickly uncovers the underlying confusion. Mubarak maintained the peace treaty with Israel for three decades and opposed Iranian subversion. Meanwhile, Assad, Iran’s ally, brags – as he did in his speech yesterday and in a Wall Street Journal interview in January – that the basis of his legitimacy is his enmity toward Israel and his support for “resistance” groups that wage war against it. And yet, President Obama gave Mubarak the bum’s rush, while his secretary of state publicly referred to Assad as a “reformer.” 
Whereas US interests and values may have been at odds in the Egyptian case, they are perfectly aligned in Syria. Therefore, the US has an opportunity to overhaul its failed Syria policy, and to work to rally European support behind it.
To do that, however, Washington urgently needs a paradigm change as well as strategic clarity. The first step would be to admit that the Obama administration’s “big game” is over.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.