President Barack Obama’s appointment of an ambassador to Syria typifies the administration’s faith in engaging unfriendly nations.
To some observers in the Jewish community, however, the administration is rewarding Syria’s erratic and hostile behavior.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which many attributed to the Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
Since that time, Syria has continued to play dangerous games in the region, such as providing arms to Hezbollah and cozying up to the Iranian regime, many argue.
It’s not the type of behavior that typically earns presidential plaudits, say those who criticized Obama’s move.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “wanted an ambassador back because having one is a symbol of legitimacy,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Yet Obama’s recess appointment of Robert Ford, which came while Congress was adjourned for the holidays, thus circumventing Senate approval of the pick, rewards harmful behavior, Bryen said.
“They got what they wanted and didn’t pay for it,” she noted. “We can say all day it’s not a reward, but it is.”
David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, however, warned against interpreting Obama’s move as a plum for Syria.
“Talking to people, having somebody on the ground to deliver our message can only help us communicate to the Syrian leadership better and more effectively,” he said.
Pro-Israel insiders, however, aren’t overly optimistic.
“The pro-Israel community is very hesitant to give the benefit of the doubt to Syria,” said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s vice president for public policy and director of its Washington office.
Assad’s intrusion into Lebanese affairs, his ongoing arming of Hezbollah and his pursuit of dangerous weapons “are all issues which are problematic,” explained Daroff.
Still, said Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of government and international affairs, “We and others will be watching closely to be sure that leverage and access and the information that comes from having an ambassador is not misconstrued by the Syrians as a reward for their continue misbehavior.”
Congress, too, will be closely eyeing the situation.
“It will be Congress’ responsibility to hold the State Department accountable,” said a GOP Senate aide who was critical of Obama’s decision to sidestep Senate approval.
Lawmakers in both houses “will be watching closely to make sure Ambassador Ford holds Syria’s feet to the fire on a range of issues from terror sponsorship to [nuclear] proliferation to Lebanon,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on record.
Others remain deeply troubled over Obama’s appointment of Ford, who served as an ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008 and also as a deputy chief of mission in Baghdad.
Since the U.S. pulled out of Syria in protest, Assad has done little to show that he’s becoming more moderate, argued Matthew Brodsky, director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition.
That’s part of the reason why Obama’s move exposes a “fundamental misunderstanding of the region,” said Brodsky.
With a United Nations-supported international tribunal expected to indict Hezbollah in the coming weeks for its role in assassinating Hariri, Brodsky believes that the presence of a U.S. ambassador could help Syria dodge the blame.
“To be engaging with them kind of takes away the pressure that would build from the tribunal,” he said. “I don’t know why they get a free pass on this.”
“Diplomatic relationships are not a cookie,” Hadar Susskind, J Street’s vice president of policy and strategy, said. “They’re not a reward. We’re not patting Syria on the head. It’s the way nations interact with each other.”
A high-level U.S. diplomat, Susskind added, could help the U.S. soften Syria, edging the country “in the direction we want them to go.”
Talk of improved relations between the American Jewish community and Syria was spurred by a recent trip to the country by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein met with Assad last month to address what he said were “humanitarian concerns,” according to reports.
Some privately argued that Hoenlein’s visit represents the baseline of Jewish opinion.
“If Malcolm — as arguably the most powerful Jewish leader in the country — goes to Syria and meets with the Syrian dictator, and in doing so bring the entire American Jewish community with him by extension, then who the hell are the Jews to tell the American president that he can’t appoint his own representative?” asked one Jewish communal official who would only discuss the issue on background.
An impasse in peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians also could have played a role in the administration’s appointment, analysts noted.
“When the Palestinian track looks less promising,” the U.S. has historically pivoted “to the Syrian track,” noted JINSA’s Bryen.
“There’s a feeling that you don’t want dead time, so if somethings not happening on one side, you try the other,” she said, adding that multiple bids to foster peace between Syria and Israel have failed in the past.
Steve Clemons, however, warned against looking into the rearview mirror.
While Clemons, a senior analyst at the New America Foundation, was hesitant “to oversell what might come from a recess appointment” as far as the peace process is concerned, he was optimistic that Ford could help “to reach new, more stable and hopefully peaceful equilibrium down the road.”