Friday, May 21, 2010

Washington is getting sidetracked again


by Michael Young

Political Washington has a gift for getting sidetracked into marginal disputes. The latest example is the decision of 12 Republican senators to block approval of Robert Ford, who was recently named the US ambassador in Damascus, because of reports that the Syrians have sent Scud missiles to Hizbullah.

The State Department has a different perspective. It believes an ambassador in Damascus is necessary to better relay the Obama administration's messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad. This is partly due to the fact that Assad's man in Washington, Imad Mustapha, is mistrusted by his American counterparts.

The senators, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, responded that Ford's appointment would be a concession, even a reward, "if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group." The Republicans want new sanctions to be imposed on Syria, or a deadline from the administration to determine whether engagement is working before new sanctions are put in place.

The points of view on both sides conceal a far more significant problem. Undue focus on whether an ambassador should be sent to Damascus or not is secondary to the fact that the Obama administration is not really clear about how to bring about a change in Syrian behavior where it has demanded such  change – namely Syria's ending its destabilization of Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hizbullah, and its efforts to reassert its hegemony over Lebanon. 

Naming an ambassador should only be a means of advancing policy. But because the policy is unclear, the appointment process has taken center stage. For the State Department to defend an ambassador as necessary to get Assad's ear is ridiculous. In itself, the transmission of messages is not, and should not be, what justifies a significant political reversal, especially when the previous ambassador was pulled because the US assumed that Syria had ordered the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

On the other hand, the Republicans, by making Ford the issue, have also confused matters. The sanctions they are demanding may be justified, but sanctions, like the dispatching of an ambassador, do not in themselves constitute policy; they are instruments of policy. What the Republicans (and Democrats) should be asking of the Obama administration is whether its engagement strategy with Syria has any chance of succeeding – and if not what must be done to ensure it succeeds – and whether American strategy is cohesive, so that a dialogue with Syria does not actually give it wider latitude to pursue those very aims that Washington is seeking to undermine.

If the dispute over an ambassador is a red herring, oddly enough so too is the discussion over Scuds. If or when a war occurs between Hizbullah and Israel, it is probably fair to say that Syrian Scuds will not be a major part of it. Assad will continue to push against the red lines in his relationship with Israel, but not to the extent of supplying significant quantities of powerful missiles that may invite massive Israeli retaliation against Syria. Moreover, fueling and firing a Scud takes time, so that Hizbullah would doubtless do so far away from the southern border, in areas under its control. Most of those areas happen to be located too close to Syrian territory for comfort.

Syrian weapons to Hizbullah appear to be there to serve a more complex purpose. I continue to believe that the primary Syrian objective is to create the proper conditions for a Syrian military return to Lebanon. This is not an easy venture, or one guaranteed of success. However, reversing what happened in 2005 has been very much on Assad's mind since he lost the Lebanon that his father bequeathed to him and that Hafez Assad had spent two and a half decades fighting hard over in order to consolidate Syrian rule. That loss was a bitter one for Bashar, striking at the very heart of his political self-esteem. 

But there are more pragmatic reasons as well. Only a military presence allows the Syrian regime to control Lebanon's Sunni community, with the implications this has domestically for Assad. It also allows Syria to stifle its old bugbear, the Maronite community, where Samir Geagea has made headway at a time when the Aounist movement is losing steam. But perhaps most important, only if Syria is physically present in Lebanon can it turn the "Hizbullah card" to its advantage by projecting itself as the sole actor able to contain the party – which it would nevertheless allow to pursue a "resistance' agenda, since Syria could use this as leverage whenever it needs to bargain with the Arab states, the US, Israel, even Iran. 

If Syria can guarantee that the next war between Hizbullah and Israel is particularly vicious and that Hizbullah can hold its own (Syria's passing of game-changing weaponry, for example more effective anti-aircraft missiles, would help do so), this could open up numerous possibilities. Israeli retaliation would be ferocious, the Lebanese state and government would emerge from the maelstrom discredited and weak, United Nations resolutions on Lebanon would effectively collapse, and Hizbullah would be perceived by Arab states and Israel as a major regional menace, which Assad could then use as a wedge to facilitate acceptance of a Syrian military comeback.  

The absence of a credible UN-sponsored post-conflict framework would be Syria's opening. No one, least of all the Israelis, would take seriously a new international force in southern Lebanon. That conviction could swing the Americans. Subcontract Lebanon to Syria once again and everyone is happy, the rationale might go.

That's where the hard questioning should come in Washington. If Syria's energies are primarily geared toward reestablishing a military presence in Lebanon, then American engagement of Damascus will not change much in Bashar Assad's plans. Washington needs to move beyond Robert Ford to address the real issue: Syria's intention to again use Lebanon as the platform from which to become a dominant Arab state. 


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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


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