Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Engaging Damascus: A Bad Idea

by Sean Alexander

Summary of a briefing by David Schenker, who is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, previously served as the Pentagon's top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant. He has authored
Dancing with Saddam: the Strategic Tango of Jordanian-Iraqi Relations; more recently, he published a chapter on U.S.-Lebanese relations in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis. On October 14, Mr. Schenker addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on the Obama administration's questionable policy of pursuing engagement with Syria.

Mr. Schenker began his remarks by arguing that the Obama administration's engagement policy with Syria has been even less effective than with Iran. He listed a litany of Syrian crimes against U.S. interests in the region, including Damascus's unwavering support for Hezbollah and other terrorists, its ongoing meddling in Lebanon, and its refusal to seal the border with Iraq against insurgents.

Mr. Schenker identified three key misconceptions that prohibit the administration from developing a sound policy toward Syria. The first is the notion that Damascus welcomes a closer relationship to Washington than Tehran—an assumption that overlooks a thirty-year strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Second, Washington policymakers maintain that Syria can play a positive role in Lebanon, despite evidence of continued interference in Lebanese affairs, even following the Cedar Revolution. Finally, the Obama administration believes that Syria can play a central role for U.S. policy in the region—despite Damascus' use of "resistance" groups to strengthen its hand in the region and its blatant disregard for IAEA and UN resolutions.

During a lively question-and-answer session, Mr. Schenker was asked what it would take for Damascus to respect the U.S. He argued for "a robust military strategy in addition to a diplomatic strategy" that would demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the regime cannot continue its current policies without consequences. Regarding opposition groups inside Syria, Mr. Schenker suggested that effective opposition is likely non-existent, noting for example that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death. On the topic of regime change, Mr. Schenker argued that it would be rash for the U.S. to consider that as an option with the fallout from Iraq still playing out, beyond which there is no guarantee that a replacement would be any more amenable to the West.

Mr. Schenker concludes that "we're chasing after Syria and they're having no part of it," suggesting that President Obama's policy of engagement with Syria is not only ineffective, but probably counterproductive as well.

Summarized by Sean Alexander

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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