Thursday, December 30, 2010

A White House clueless on Syria

Barack Obama did it. With Congress in recess, the United States president confirmed the appointment of several ambassadors, including the ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, whose approval had been held up by the Senate. The decision is not only bound to anger Republicans, who now hold a majority in the House of Representatives, it also happens to be remarkably foolish.

Let’s go back to one of the leaked American diplomatic cables to bring home why. The cable, dated February 2009, was prepared by the US Embassy in Paris, and recounted a meeting with the French diplomatic troubleshooter, and former ambassador to Syria, Jean-Claude Cousseran, in which he discussed engaging Syria.

The meeting took place a year after Cousseran and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner sought to facilitate the election of a Lebanese president once Emile Lahoud’s term ended. The mediation effort failed because of Syrian intransigence, and Cousseran offered this advice to the Americans, according to Mark Pekala, the deputy chief of mission, who signed the cable: “[He] urged that Washington should ‘get something tangible’ from the Syrian regime. He cautioned that the Syrians were masters of avoiding any real concessions and were adept at showering visitors with wonderful atmospherics and delightful conversations before sending them away empty handed.”

This was very sound counsel, which Obama has basically ignored by dispatching Ford to Damascus for nothing tangible. The administration has yet to explain convincingly why it would willingly risk congressional ire in order to ram through an appointment that is bound to leave Washington empty-handed.

In the cable, Pekala went on to report that Cousseran also cautioned Washington against over-reaching: “If the U.S. were to aim for something too difficult, such as urging Syria to sever its ties to Hamas or Hizballah, than [sic] it would get nowhere,” the diplomat said.

No doubt the French envoy was correct. There is a structural difficulty hindering better American-Syrian relations: Washington wants to engage Syria so that it will give up on alliances that the Syrians will never willingly surrender, because doing so would so weaken Damascus politically that it would defeat the very purpose of engagement. Syrian President Bashar Assad always wanted Obama to yield, but refused to offer anything substantial in return. By sending Ford, the president fell magnificently into the Syrian leader’s trap.

Against congressional opposition, the administration offered a lukewarm defense of Ford’s appointment, with officials stating that it would allow Washington to get its message to Damascus more clearly. Nonsense. There are plenty of ways to transmit messages to Syria without legitimizing the fact that in the five years since the previous ambassador was withdrawn, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Assad regime has not budged on issues the US considers important—whether Lebanon, inter-Palestinian affairs, Iraq, Syrian cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah, and negotiations with Israel.

But worse, if Cousseran is right, namely that the US must not overreach by asking Syria to cut its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, that only begs the question: What is the Obama administration entitled to ask of Syria? No explicit answer whatsoever has come out of the White House and State Department. And with uncertainty filling the thick Potomac air, what is Washington’s broader Syria strategy anyway? If Ford is a mailbox, what specific ideas will he be relaying?

There really are none. Obama has a wish list. He still hopes for a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli negotiations, and wants someone in Damascus to ease the process. But the president has done things in reverse. He should have sent Ford to Syria in exchange for a solid concession from Assad—perhaps Syrian acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, which Damascus has refused to sanction; or maybe Syrian consent to the return of direct negotiations with Israel; or at least participation in a high-profile event that would help inject life into the Syrian-Israeli talks. The problem is that neither Syria nor Israel is keen to engage in bilateral moves, because the Syrian-Israeli track is moribund. Alive or dead, it made no sense for Obama to throw away a card he should have made Syria pay for.

It is not as if the US is unaware of Syrian intentions. Last week, an American official issued a pointed warning to Syria and Saudi Arabia that they should not reach any accord over Lebanon that might undermine the tribunal formed to indentify and punish Rafik Hariri’s killers. Syria has fought tooth and nail to obstruct the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which Washington supports, and recently intensified those efforts. And yet at the same moment, Obama sends Ford to Damascus, as if to say that whatever the Assad regime does, even taking measures that America opposes, it will be rewarded.

Obama would answer that he had a small window of opportunity in which to put Ford on a flight to Syria, before Congress reconvened, so he took his shot. A laudable rationale for an important decision: Let time pressures, and sneakiness, guide your foreign policy. Here’s a wager: Ford will cool his heels in Damascus without achieving much, because Assad got what he wanted, and is now in a position to stall Washington interminably. He won’t have to forfeit anything, because Obama has not a clue about what he really expects from Syria.

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