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Obama and the Syrian Trap

By engaging Syria now, U.S. rewards rogue behavior, emboldens America's enemies

Matthew RJ Brodsky

With the Palestinian-Israeli peace process returning to a deep freeze, the Obama administration is eyeing an opportunity to make headway with Syria. The theory is nothing new: If the regime in Damascus can make peace with Israel, end its sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, distance itself from Iran, and reorient itself toward the West, then the U.S. would further isolate Tehran’s rulers while giving a critical boost to peace efforts around the region. To that end, President Obama confirmed the new U.S. ambassador to Syria in a recess appointment and reports have surfaced of a recent back channel opened between the White House and Syrian officials in Damascus.

While Team Obama may see such a development as a panacea for what ails the Middle East, the reality is that Syria will simply use the opportunity to play all sides against each other and pocket concessions, while preserving the very status quo that Washington seeks to alter.

The timing could not be any better for the Asad regime. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon tasked with investigating the string of assassinations in 2005 including that of the pro-freedom, former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri, is set to hand down indictments in a matter of weeks. Hezbollah will likely be held responsible with the support and orders coming from Asad’s inner circle.

Moreover, just last month U.S. satellite imagery revealed a compound in Western Syria with hundreds of missile-shaped items, functionally related to the North Korean-designed nuclear reactor destroyed in September 2007. For more than two years, Syria has blocked International Atomic Energy Agency access to the remains of the al-Kibar nuclear site and similar installations.

The pattern is already familiar. Damascus makes tactical choices for diplomatic engagement without making the strategic decision to change its worldview in a manner consistent with a state seeking either peace or a regional realignment. By engaging with Syria now, the U.S. not only ensures that Damascus will not be held to account, but it rewards their rogue behavior and emboldens America’s enemies.

Fundamental Misreading of the Region

Even if one buys the diplomatic snake oil Damascus is selling, there remains the problem of enforcing any imagined peace deal. The international community and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon have utterly failed to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah now stocked with more weapons from Syria’s shelves than ever before. If the U.S. remains incapable of stemming the flow of insurgents across Syria’s border into Iraq, what makes the administration believe it would be successful in enforcing an Asad commitment to stop arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, and cut support for Hamas?

The Asad regime always benefits from the process of peace, but it is the process and not the peace that interests Damascus. That is because Syria has no intention of trading alliances or stopping its support for terrorists since its regional importance rests solely on its capacity to light fires around the region. Nor has there been any change in Syrian rhetoric.

President Asad still considers Hamas to be a legitimate resistance group and preserving Hezbollah’s strength is a strategic imperative for the regime whose first foreign policy priority is regaining and retaining its domination over Lebanon. Simply put, for Syria, the rewards for a peace agreement acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington are far out-weighed by the benefits provided by its strategic and longstanding alignment with Tehran.

Washington’s current flirtation with Damascus, then, only provides benefits to Syria. This distraction points to an American foreign policy in the Middle East that for two years has been built on a fundamental misreading of the region. Indeed, it still rests upon the belief that the problem is one of communication, rather than the decisions and strategic calculations of states and actors such as Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

President Obama came into office with engagement as his mantra, seeking to reset U.S. relations around the globe. One can only hope the White House finds the reset button quickly when it comes to its current approach to the Middle East.