Barack Obama’s victory in America’s presidential election was greeted with more than a little relief in Damascus. This victory was seen as an affirmation that staying the course and remaining true to the policy of resistance – muqawama – was the correct decision. Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, extolled the virtues of his nation’s steadfastness in Al-Watan on February 24, 2009: “Syria’s winning card is [the fact that] it has not moved from its positions despite all the pressures it has been facing… The [fundamental] principles of [its] policy towards Washington have never changed, [even] in the most difficult circumstances.” Moustapha stressed that, despite the attempts of the Bush administration to bring about a change in its policy, Syria never “submitted to this blackmail.”
With renewed hope for a change in American behavior, Bashar al-Asad reached out with a telegram to then President-elect Obama on November 7, 2008. In the message, the Syrian president “expressed hope for constructive dialogue so that the difficulties can be overcome which have hampered the advance of peace, stability and progress in the Middle East.” And true to his campaign pledge, Barack Obama charted a new course based on diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. It was therefore not surprising when on February 16, 2010, Obama named a new ambassador to Syria. However, the timing of the decision is puzzling and the assumption that it will lead to a behavior change in Damascus is wishful thinking.
Many Carrots and Few Sticks
It did not take long for the Obama administration to ease pressure on Damascus. In early 2009, the White House and the 111th Congress increased calls for greater U.S. engagement with Syria. Several congressional delegations visited Damascus, and administration officials held talks with their Syrian counterparts. In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce approved an export license of Boeing 747 spare parts to Syria’s national air carrier. A month later, Jeffery D. Feltman was dispatched to meet with Syria’s foreign minister. As the assistant secretary of state, Feltman was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in over four years.
In April, the Obama administration sent Feltman and senior National Security Council aides to attend the Syrian National Day festivities, thus ending the moratorium initiated during the Bush administration that forbade U.S. officials’ attendance at Syrian embassy functions. Syria’s ambassador, Imad Moustapha, wrote about it in his blog: “The huge attendance was a testimony to how Syria is regarded by the American people despite years of trying to distort its image, particularly during the Bush era… The implication of their heavy attendance was both a rebuke to the Bush legacy, and a strong condoning of President Obama’s policies of dialogue and respect.”
On June 24, 2009, the White House declared its intention to name a new ambassador to Syria. The post had been vacant since George W. Bush withdrew Margaret Scobey in 2005 when the pro-independence Lebanese politician, Rafiq Hariri was murdered in Beirut in an operation widely believed to be sponsored by the Syrians, if not orchestrated by the Asad regime. In July 2009, the Obama administration announced it would ease sanctions on Syria. During the same month, the U.S. State Department spokesman explained that the president’s Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, told President Asad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible.
In February 2010, President Obama followed through on his promise to name a new ambassador to Syria and selected Robert Ford to fill the post. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained, “If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern.” Days later, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria.
The problem is that the areas of “concern” with the Asad regime are deep and will not be improved or resolved by the return of an American ambassador. In fact, history has demonstrated that engaging with Damascus is a surefire way to get burned.
Syria During the Bush Years
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Washington began to pursue a policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East with the goal of undermining Islamist ideology. Under the Bush administration, the thinking was that state-sponsors of terrorism would have to be dealt with – especially if those states were seeking or possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This paradigm shift put Syria back on America’s radar because it met the two criteria set out by the White House: Syria supported terrorism as a matter of official state policy and it was developing WMD. Asad’s decision to provide limited assistance to the United States following the 9/11 attacks helped him to avoid his state’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” list that included Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, as described by President Bush in 2002.
In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, the Syrian-American relationship began to change significantly. Bashar al-Asad did not want the U.S. to invade Iraq, and once it did, he did not want the U.S. to be successful, retain a military presence there, or have political influence to the east of his border. As a matter of policy, the Syrian government 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.
Once the war began in 2003, state-chartered buses transported insurgents with considerable fanfare and publicity. So brazen was Syria’s support for jihad against the United States that the regime allowed volunteers seeking to fight the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq to gather in front of the Iraqi embassy, located across from the U.S. embassy, while the Syrian mufti – the most senior state-appointed cleric – formally endorsed holy war against the coalition forces. This was nothing short of a declaration of war on the United States.
On December 12, 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA) into law. It was a comprehensive effort to pressure Damascus to cease its support for U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, withdraw all its forces and security personnel from Lebanon, cease the development of weapons of mass destruction (as well as longer range missiles), and end “all support for, and facilitation of, all terrorist activities inside Iraq.” In May 2004, the Bush administration also began to apply economic sanctions against Syria.
Despite the new push for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, Damascus continued to exercise its control over Lebanon’s political system. When Asad decided to extend the term of the Syrian-appointed president of Lebanon in 2004, Washington took note. A part of America’s efforts to bring Syria’s occupation of Lebanon to an end was rallying the international community. These diplomatic endeavors culminated in the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 in September 2004. Among other things, the resolution called for the withdrawal of foreign forces (i.e. Syria) from Lebanon, the “disbanding and disarmament of militias” (i.e. Hezbollah), and declared support for a “free and fair electoral process in Lebanon’s upcoming presidential elections…without foreign interference or influence.” Syria, however, would have none of this and the regime continued to have its way in Lebanon.
On February 14, 2005, the pro-West, Lebanese politician, Rafiq Hariri was murdered in Beirut in an operation that bore all the hallmarks of a politically connected, well-funded, Syrian state-sponsored assassination. The bomb that killed Hariri and brought about the withdrawal of America’s ambassador to Syria weighed 2,200 pounds and left a crater 30 feet 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.
The United States held Syria responsible and in the face of strong and sustained international pressure, Syria was compelled to withdraw its military from Lebanon. Indeed, relations between Washington and Damascus reached a nadir. In May 2007, as a result of determined U.S. diplomacy at the UN headed by John Bolton, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1757, which established a special tribunal to prosecute Hariri’s killers. Damascus has yet to cooperate with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Syria’s Nuclear Play
Another low point was reached in September 2007 when the Asad regime’s nuclear activities were brought to light by Israel’s bombing of Syria’s undeclared Dair al-Zour nuclear facility. With a large cylindrical structure and pumping station, it matched North Korea’s nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.
What is most striking about the nuclear episode is what is says about the Asad regime. Syria was warned by President Bush during his 2002 State of the Union Address that there was an “axis of evil,” that included its senior partner Iran, its neighbor to the east, and North Korea. During the same speech, George W. Bush proclaimed: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Instead of exercising moderation, Bashar al-Asad decided to follow in Iran’s footsteps – down the path towards nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report from November 19, 2008 established that the construction of the Dair al-Zour facility began between April 26 and August 2, 2001. This means that one of Bashar al-Asad’s first initiatives as president of Syria was to seal a deal with North Korea to build a nuclear facility.
On February 18, 2010, the IAEA released another report on Syria reiterating that Damascus has refused to cooperate since June 2008. Regarding the presence of uranium particles discovered and tested, the report found that Syria’s “explanations were not supported by the results of subsequent sampling carried out by the Agency…” The report went on to state: “Given that Syria has no reported inventory of natural uranium, this calls into question the completeness and correctness of Syria’s declarations concerning nuclear materials and facilities.” Indeed, in a letter dated February 10, 2010, Syria again declined the IAEA’s request for a meeting. Instead, on February 2, Western intelligence sources were quoted in Japan’s newspaper, Nikkei, saying that North Korea renewed its supply of sensitive military technology to Syria and resumed its assistance with Damascus in manufacturing maraging steel, which is used in missile skins, ballistic warheads, and gas centrifuges that are critical in the uranium enrichment process.
Before taking office, the working assumption that emerged among many in the Obama administration was that the problem was not as much about the hostile and belligerent ideologies of states and actors such as Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, but rather the style with which Bush conducted statecraft. This inaccurate yet widely held narrative of Bush’s abrasive diplomacy led many to conclude that the confrontational posture and aggressive diplomacy had been tried and failed. Instead, through diplomatic engagement and by offering rewards and incentives, rogue regimes such as Syria and Iran would alter their behavior. This persistent error in judgment continues to affect how the U.S. engages with the Middle East.
Obama’s engagement strategy with Syria is based on two fundamental and misguided assumptions. The first is that it is possible to effectively pry Damascus apart from its alliance with Tehran, 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 United States. Furthermore, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons does not depend on Syria.
There is no concession that the U.S. can receive from Syria that would not be exponentially greater if it were received from Iran. A weakened Iran, and therefore a weakened Syrian-Iranian alliance would transform Syria into a fourth-rate power, void of natural resources, and with little influence in the Middle East. It would limit Syria’s ability to sow the seeds of destruction around the region. The reverse, however, is not true. Therefore, the Obama administration is wasting valuable time and resources rewarding Damascus with engagement while the key to unlocking progress in the region lies in Tehran. This points to Washington’s inability to understand that America’s problems with Iran will not be solved or improved by a change in Syrian behavior.
The second misguided assumption is that Syria is ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel that will be acceptable in Jerusalem and in Washington. But Asad’s concept of peace with Israel was revealed last year in an interview with the Emirati newspaper, al-Khaleej: “A peace agreement,” Asad said, “is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.” This should be a troubling sign for Israel. After all, a peace agreement with Syria today is no longer about land for peace but land for Syria’s strategic realignment. This would mean turning away from Iran and ceasing the support for terrorist groups devoted to Israel’s destruction. Therefore, in exchange for all of the Golan Heights and Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee, in a hypothetical peace, Syria would still keep the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices open for business in Damascus, while arming Hezbollah in Lebanon. This form of peace would not benefit the United States or Israel.
Bashar al-Asad continuously claims in Western media that he is seeking “a just and comprehensive peace” between Israel and its neighbors. Not so in Arab media. The problem and the proposed solution Asad expressed in his April 2, 2009 interview in Asharq al-Awsat: “The enemy does not want peace. What is the alternative? The parallel route to the peace process is resistance. The Israeli [sic] will not come by his own will, so there is no alternative but for him to come from fear.”
The peace process with Israel offers Syria the best avenue to reap rewards and showcase its assumed regional importance. But it is all about the process and never about the peace.
It is not in Syria’s interest to have a peace agreement with Israel that would inevitably increase American influence in the region, just as it is not in its interest for a separate Palestinian-Israeli peace to emerge that would forever rob the regime of its most valuable card: the Palestinian issue. For many Arab states, the Palestinian issue is the regional gift that keeps on giving and no one has played that card better than the Asad family. It is therefore no wonder that Syria supports the opponents rather than the advocates for peace.
One can only hope that the future doesn’t resemble February 2010. During that month the Asad regime rejected an IAEA request for a meeting; began importing sensitive nuclear-related military equipment from North Korea; exported Syrian-made Fateh-110 missiles to Hezbollah; began training the terrorist group in the use of SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-surface missiles; mocked Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration with Ahmadinejad over dinner in Damascus; met with Hezbollah’s leader during lunch; vowed to strengthen its relationship with Tehran; pledged to continue support for the resistance; and threatened missile attacks against Israeli cities. It is an impressive litany to which the Obama administration responded by naming a new ambassador to Syria and lifting the State Department’s travel warning for the county.
The Obama administration’s current policy towards the Asad regime is to hope Syria will change in exchange for gestures from Washington. Instead, the White House should learn from the experiences of successive U.S. and Israeli governments. Syria’s importance in the Middle East stems not from its ability to play a constructive role in region, but rather from its ability to cause mischief and wreak havoc upon its neighbors.
Furthermore, the argument 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. Neither a carrot nor stick approach has been fully explored. And one thing is certain: 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.
While the sanctions imposed by Washington have not produced a change in Syrian behavior, they are having an effect on the regime. The executive orders created during the Bush administration are due to be renewed next May. The IAEA report on Syria’s nuclear dossier and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon are additional levers of persuasion available to the White House.
The Obama administration should be ratcheting up the pressure on the Asad regime rather than easing its pain. Syria should be presented with difficult choices that will unequivocally and irreversibly demonstrate that it has changed its worldview and behavior, before being presented with rewards for future promises.
Matthew RJ Brodsky is the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center.