President Barack Obama’s recent decision to name a new ambassador to Syria is puzzling. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained, “Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern.” But the areas of “concern” with the Assad regime are deep and will not be improved or resolved by the return of an American ambassador.
There were many compelling reasons why the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was the brazen murder in Beirut of the pro-West Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri in an operation that bore all the hallmarks of a politically connected, well-funded, Syrian state-sponsored assassination.
But Hariri’s assassination was just the tip of the iceberg. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Syria has financed, trained, armed, encouraged, and transported foreign jihadists to fight against both coalition forces in Iraq and the fledgling army of the new Iraqi government. The Assad regime has pursued nuclear weapons and continues to support terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah in Israel and Lebanon, and remains tactically and strategically wedded to Iran.
While the White House says that appointing a new ambassador “represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance US interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people,” nothing indicates that this form of engagement will yield positive results. In fact, a year into the Obama administration, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “direct engagement” he envisioned during his presidential campaign with regimes such as Syria and Iran has produced nothing more than an increase in Syrian support for terrorism and the ongoing spinning of centrifuges in Iran.
THAT IS because Obama’s engagement strategy with Syria is based on several misguided assumptions. The first is that it is possible to effectively pry Damascus apart from its alliance with Teheran, which will make engaging with Iran and solving the nuclear issue easier for the United States. But the durable Syrian-Iranian alliance is not a reactive marriage of convenience. They seek to overturn the regional balance of power and undermine Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the US. Furthermore, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is not dependent on Syria. Teheran’s problem with Israel is not territorial; it is existential. America’s issues with Iran will not improve with a change in Syrian behavior.
The second faulty premise is that Syria is ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel that will be acceptable in Jerusalem and in Washington. But Assad’s concept of peace with Israel was revealed last year in an interview with the Emirati newspaper Al-Khaleej: “A peace agreement,” Assad said, “is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.” What would a cold peace with Syria look like with Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s headquarters still open for business in Damascus while weapons continue to pass freely to Hizbullah in Lebanon?
The bomb that killed Hariri and brought about the withdrawal of America’s ambassador to Syria weighed 1,000 kilograms and left a crater 10 meters wide in downtown Beirut. In addition to Hariri, the bomb killed 21 people, injured 220 more, knocked down several buildings, and set dozens of cars ablaze. This is Bashar Assad’s preferred method of engagement and he has yet to be held to account. When Syria ended its nearly 30-year military occupation of Lebanon, it did so because of strong and sustained international pressure in the wake of Hariri’s assassination. It was not the result of lengthy hand-holding and endless diplomatic engagement, but the real fear of consequences that could threaten the stability of the Assad regime.
The argument increasingly made in Washington that aggressive diplomacy with Syria was tried and failed and now engagement and incentives must be the order of the day, is false. American policy toward Syria has dithered since 2005 with neither a carrot nor a stick approach fully explored. Syria’s rogue behavior is not the result of Washington’s diplomatic communications skills; it is the result of strategic calculations and decisions made by Damascus. Syria should be presented with difficult choices that will unequivocally and irreversibly demonstrate that it has changed its worldview and behavior. Unfortunately, sending an American ambassador back to Syria will merely embolden the regime and those in the region that are opposed to peace.