Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barack Obama can still avoid the Syria trap.


by  Tony Badran


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns during the latter’s recent trip to Damascus. (AFP photo/Louai Beshara)

The Obama administration last week made a major diplomatic opening to Syria. It dispatched Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Damascus for talks, thereby elevating the level of diplomatic contact and further making good on a pledge to engage with countries that George W. Bush’s administration shunned.

Administration officials leaked to the media, on background, that the Burns visit was intended to “isolate Iran” by wooing Damascus away from Tehran and other allies, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas.

This strategy will not work. Indeed, it may be no strategy at all. Despite its eagerness to engage with Syria, the United States must avoid giving too much up until the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.   

Why Syria, and why now? The Obama administration’s efforts to open a dialogue with Iran have been ineffective. To undermine Iran’s nuclear program, the administration must contemplate actions that will exacerbate relations with Tehran and might endanger the US withdrawal from Iraq and surge in Afghanistan. The administration has always regarded Arab-Israeli settlements as necessary to temper regional animosities. However, given its failure to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks, Washington believes the only alternative is to advance on the Syrian track.

Obama, as The New York Times has reported, also hopes to “benefit from a global perception” that he has “reached out to North Korea, Cuba and even Syria.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that the resumption of high-level contacts with Syria has proven the administration’s “willingness to engage.” But this begs the question: Which audience is Washington trying to impress? And how would these impressions actually further American interests in the Middle East?

Important actors in the region are unnerved by the fact that the administration appears incapable of hearing the most pressing concerns of its anxious allies. Consider Clinton’s recent trip to the Gulf. The secretary spoke of imposing more sanctions on Iran and repeated her earlier statement about extending a US defense umbrella to protect Gulf allies. In doing so, however, she failed to convince America’s primary Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, bluntly told Clinton that sanctions were an inappropriate response to the urgency of the Iranian threat. This was not the first time this past year that he publicly rebuked the administration over one of its chief initiatives.

What Washington’s allies want, instead, is a coherent US strategy. The administration has responded with tactical maneuvers that American allies regard as sideshows. Instead of wasting time on secondary measures such as engaging Syria, the administration should be focusing on what everyone across the Middle East agrees is the most pressing objective: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability, and weakening the influence of the Iranian-led regional axis.

American media outlets friendly to the White House praised Barack Obama’s efforts to move closer to Syria, describing it as a step toward driving a wedge between the different parties in that axis. However, more sober observers recalled that Washington has tried to pry Syria away from Iran for over 25 years, to little avail. The argument mistakenly turns the Syria-Iran dynamic into a subcategory of the peace process, when the relationship was always broader and more ambitious in scope.

That is partially why the leaked justifications for the US opening to Syria sounded so unconvincing. They were designed to play up engagement with a relatively weak regional player like Bashar al-Assad as something that would make Iran nervous, though exactly how was never explained.

There is incoherence in the Obama administration’s position. For example, the administration is spinning its engagement of Syria as a move aiming to achieve two sets of outcomes – those achievable in the short term and those in the long term. However, moving Syria away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – propositions Damascus has repeatedly dismissed – are only described as Washington’s long-term objectives. If so, how will the US approach today isolate Iran, whose centrifuges continue running?

The administration is setting a perfect trap for itself by giving Syria the time and space to pursue its actions without American benchmarks to verify if engagement is working.  This will be exploited to the fullest by Assad. The US would do well to abandon the ill-advised “short term vs. long term” approach that allows Syria to obtain rewards for minor concessions while allowing its regime to pursue a policy of destabilization.

Further complicating matters, the administration’s outreach couldn’t have had worse optics. While Burns was visiting Syria, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Syria was developing a covert nuclear program with North Korean help. This came a few days after a report disclosed that North Korea and Syria had resumed cooperation on “sensitive military technology” in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In a sign of what’s in store for the Obama administration, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem declared that Damascus would continue to ignore IAEA calls for cooperation.

Washington can still pull back from the trap. Until now it has conceded little of substance to Syria. Until Assad gives something up that the US can take to the bank, the administration must maintain the existing sanctions regime, some conditions of which are due for renewal in May. Moreover, it should avoid supporting Syria’s application to the World Trade Organization, as has been rumored it might do.

The Obama administration’s Iran policy is in disarray and its signature Mideast initiatives are in shambles. Running after the Syria mirage too hastily, without ensuring that Bashar al-Assad will satisfy American exigencies in return, may only make matters worse. What the administration most urgently needs is an integrated strategy, not disjointed initiatives that will only end up favoring its enemies.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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


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