Dithering on Damascus

The argument made in Washington that aggressive diplomacy with Syria was tried and failed and incentives must be the order of the day, is false.

bashar assad 311 (photo credit: AP)
bashar assad 311
(photo credit: AP)
President Barack Obama's recent decision to name a new ambassador toSyria is puzzling. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained,"Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we canenhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern." But theareas of "concern" with the Assad regime are deep and will not beimproved or resolved by the return of an American ambassador.
There were many compelling reasons why the Bush administration withdrewits ambassador to Syria in 2005. The straw that broke the proverbialcamel's back was the brazen murder in Beirut of the pro-West Lebanesepolitician Rafik Hariri in an operation that bore all the hallmarks ofa politically connected, well-funded, Syrian state-sponsoredassassination.
But Hariri's assassination was just the tip of the iceberg. Since thefall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Syria has financed, trained,armed, encouraged, and transported foreign jihadists to fight againstboth coalition forces in Iraq and the fledgling army of the new Iraqigovernment. The Assad regime has pursued nuclear weapons and continuesto support terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah in Israel andLebanon, and remains tactically and strategically wedded to Iran.
While the White House says that appointing a new ambassador "representsPresident Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance US interestsby improving communication with the Syrian government and people,"nothing indicates that this form of engagement will yield positiveresults. In fact, a year into the Obama administration, it is becomingincreasingly clear that the "direct engagement" he envisioned duringhis presidential campaign with regimes such as Syria and Iran hasproduced nothing more than an increase in Syrian support for terrorismand the ongoing spinning of centrifuges in Iran.
THAT IS because Obama's engagement strategy with Syria is based onseveral misguided assumptions. The first is that it is possible toeffectively pry Damascus apart from its alliance with Teheran, whichwill make engaging with Iran and solving the nuclear issue easier forthe United States. But the durable Syrian-Iranian alliance is not areactive marriage of convenience. They seek to overturn the regionalbalance of power and undermine Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as wellas the US. Furthermore, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is notdependent on Syria. Teheran's problem with Israel is not territorial;it is existential. Moreover, America's issues with Iran will notimprove with a change in Syrian behavior.
The second faulty premise is that Syria is ready to sign a peaceagreement with Israel that will be acceptable in Jerusalem and inWashington. But Assad's concept of peace with Israel was revealed lastyear in an interview with the Emirati newspaper Al-Khaleej: "A peaceagreement," Assad said, "is a piece of paper you sign. This does notmean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise." What woulda cold peace with Syria look like with Hamas and Islamic Jihad'sheadquarters still open for business in Damascus while weapons continueto pass freely to Hizbullah in Lebanon?
The bomb that killed Hariri and brought about the withdrawal ofAmerica's ambassador to Syria weighed 1,000 kilograms and left a crater10 meters wide in downtown Beirut. In addition to Hariri, the bombkilled 21 people, injured 220 more, knocked down several buildings, andset dozens of cars ablaze. This is Bashar Assad's preferred method ofengagement and he has yet to be held to account. When Syria ended itsnearly 30-year military occupation of Lebanon, it did so because ofstrong and sustained international pressure in the wake of Hariri'sassassination. It was not the result of lengthy hand-holding andendless diplomatic engagement, but the real fear of consequences thatcould threaten the stability of the Assad regime.
The argument increasingly made in Washington that aggressive diplomacywith Syria was tried and failed and now engagement and incentives mustbe the order of the day, is false. American policy toward Syria hasdithered since 2005 with neither a carrot nor a stick approach fullyexplored. Syria's rogue behavior is not the result of Washington'sdiplomatic communications skills; it is the result of strategiccalculations and decisions made by Damascus. Syria should be presentedwith difficult choices that will unequivocally and irreversiblydemonstrate that it has changed its worldview and behavior.Unfortunately, sending an American ambassador back to Syria will merelyembolden the regime and those in the region that are opposed to peace.
The writer is the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center inWashington, DC, and senior geopolitical analyst at IntelliWhiz LLC.