Wikileaks: Obvious US confusion over Syria

(By Tony Badran)
WikiLeaks’ ongoing release of classified US State Department cables is providing a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of Washington’s dysfunctional Syria policy. Although there’s little in there that we didn’t already know or predict, the cables paint a frustrating picture of confusion and impotence in the face of the contempt of a terror-sponsoring, extortionist regime.
The latest batch of cables, also published by US newspaper The New York Times and British daily The Guardian, cover a couple of important stops in the course of the “engagement” process with the Syrians that give an insight into what has plagued this failed US policy.
The cables relate the discussions that senior US officials held with the Syrians over the course of a year, starting in March 2009, when Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro made the first trip to Damascus.
This was back when the Obama administration was still flying high on its quasi-theological principle that it was incumbent on the US to build confidence and “goodwill” with the rogue regimes it intended to “engage.” The assumption was that the Bush administration had so damaged US standing in the “Muslim world” that a show of humility and respect was critical for America to restore its stature. In other words, what had prevented progress in US diplomacy was the attitude of the US itself, which now would be rectified, and would thus open doors for diplomatic breakthroughs with regional adversaries.
Shapiro apparently brought that guiding principle with him to Damascus, where he explicitly demonstrated this conviction by offering a mea culpa to the Syrians, reassuring them that “the US had publicly recognized its mistakes, e.g. the use of torture methods, and would continue to take steps.” That he chose the issue of “torture methods” in particular to prove America’s bona fides to a regime notorious for its brutality is sure to make any sober reader cringe, just as it undoubtedly must have made the Syrians smirk with smug satisfaction.
Needless to say, none of this made any difference with the Syrians, neither did the platitudes made after that trip about how there was common ground between the two sides that could be pursued. More recent cables, recounting meetings almost one year later involving discussions with State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin show how this too was a mirage.
The US administration had convinced itself that cooperation on counterterrorism, especially in Iraq, would be an obvious shared interest with the Syrians. After all, the Syrians themselves kept selling this as a prime avenue for fruitful engagement – leaving aside the fact that for the previous seven years, they had sheltered terror networks operating in Iraq.
Of course, the Syrians saw things very differently. For instance, before Benjamin’s visit, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flatly told a visiting congressional delegation that he “won’t give it [intelligence cooperation]… for free.” So much for the self-evident Syrian interest in clamping down on terrorist networks using Syrian soil.
That this was nothing but the typical Syrian shakedown became rather evident in the meeting with Benjamin, as the Syrians began demanding all kinds of things and placing conditions and timetables on any action on their part. The US had to first prove its goodwill, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Moqdad and Syrian General Intelligence Director Ali Mamlouk told Benjamin, by lifting sanctions and by removing Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, among other things. And, to be sure, there would be no cooperation on Iraq until after the Iraqi elections in March – whose outcome the Syrians tried to affect through a series of major terrorist attacks designed to destroy Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki politically.
Moreover, Moqdad and Mamlouk explained that there could be no real cooperation without a “political umbrella.” Rather than seeing this attitude as clear evidence of the absence of any serious common ground – clearly the Syrians didn’t feel this posed an imminent “challenge” to them, as the administration posited – Benjamin instead felt it more appropriate to recite another of the administration’s doctrines, agreeing with Moqdad and Mamlouk, and noting that “unlike its predecessor,” the Obama administration “recognized that progress in bilateral relations would involve coordinated moves in a number of areas.”
Somehow, emphasizing how different the Obama administration was from its predecessor was deemed a necessary priority here, as though US policy had been the problem, and not Syria’s actions.
This is not even to mention that the Syrians do not include their support for groups like Hizbullah and Hamas as part of counterterrorism cooperation. On that point, the US preferred to “agree to disagree” and leave it at that. In fact, US Charge d’Affaires in Damascus Charles Hunter wondered in a cable about the wisdom of focusing too much on the Hizbullah angle at this point. “[S]ending US officials to focus on Syrian relations with Hizbullah could distract significantly from our efforts to build a cooperative foothold,” he wrote.  After all, Hunter added, such a focus “could further set back our efforts to re-energize the engagement process.”
With so much fruitful cooperation from Damascus, who would want to jeopardize such a good thing? And so, save for a rather timid demarche , no action was taken against Syrian armament of Hizbullah with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
The WikiLeaks cables on Syria confirm the obvious – that the US administration’s focus has been on the kind of meek missionary work that has defined the Syria policy to date, and which revolves around “challenging Syrian assumptions” and showing them where their “real” interests lie.
The cables reveal a State Department with only a vague idea of what they would like to see from Syria, and an even more confused set of ways to advance those interests. For his part, Assad never had any interest in Washington''s view of what his “real interests" should be, irrespective of all the ill-conceived displays of American "humility."
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article first appeared on NOW Lebanon.