In the midst of the crises in Lebanon and Egypt, the return of the US ambassador to Damascus went by with little fanfare. When news came out of Robert Ford’s recess appointment, some Arab commentators were quick to speculate about the bargaining that must have underwritten the American move. Such a gesture, observers reasoned, must be the result of either US capitulation, or a deal with Damascus. For to simply offer free concessions to intractable adversaries would be nonsensical for a super power. Muddling the cardinal rule of punishing enemies and rewarding friends seems to have become the hallmark of this administration.
President Barak Obama’s decision to circumvent Congress did not factor in any of these concepts. In fact, it was not at all about Syria—or foreign policy altogether, for that matter. Rather, it was a decision entirely motivated by and consumed with domestic politics, following the Democratic Party’s massive defeat in the November midterm elections, seemingly without a thought about how it might impact US interests.
Other issues were also ignored. Consider, for instance, that when the recess appointment was made, Syria was in the middle of negotiations with Saudi Arabia whose aim, from Damascus’s perspective, was to force then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to publicly denounce the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and end Lebanon’s cooperation with it. Moreover, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was expecting Saudi acquiescence to renewed Syrian political primacy in Beirut.
Riyadh was clearly unwilling to deal with Damascus’s shenanigans. When Saudi Arabia saw Syria unwilling to live up to its part of a deal that, according to Hariri, was to hold a conference for national Lebanese reconciliation in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said the kingdom had pulled out of joint efforts with Damascus to resolve the crisis in Beirut. The foreign minister said the Saudi-Syrian deal broke down because Syria had not lived up to its promises.
Immediately thereafter, the Syrians and Hezbollah made their move, toppling Hariri’s government. It bears recalling that the US Ambassador to Syria, Margret Scobey, was recalled in 2005 following former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s murder and the consequent toppling of the pro-Syrian Omar Karami cabinet in Beirut. Six years later, the Syrians were backing the re-establishment of a pro-Syrian Lebanese government that would rescind its cooperation with the STL, and simultaneously getting back the US ambassador without the slightest change in their behavior or objectives.
Beyond these outward appearances however, the Obama administration has yet to put out a convincing argument as to what exactly it expects to get from this appointment. So far, it has fallen back on a pitifully unpersuasive position, that the appointment was crucial to more effectively communicate Washington’s messages and demands to the Syrians, better pressing US interests in Damascus. As some informed Syria observers have noted, Ford’s time in Damascus is likely to be spent “delivering démarches” about Syria’s negative policies.
However, aside from being flimsy—as the US has repeatedly made its position amply clear to the Syrian leadership—this reasoning becomes doubly weak when we consider that the administration has not clearly articulated what the price of continued Syrian non-compliance would be. By reducing the Syria policy to mere empty rhetoric, the administration risks appearing inconsequential, allowing Assad to ignore it without serious repercussions.
The same lack of seriousness marred the claim by the US embassy in Damascus that Ford’s appointment “represents a tangible American action to try to find common interests between Syria and the United States.” It has been painfully clear that this is a fool’s errand. A quick perusal of the recently leaked US diplomatic cables reveals why.
On three main issues of contention—illegal arms transfers to Hezbollah, lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and shutting down the Syrian-based networks of Iraqi Baathists and foreign fighters—the cables show that the prospect for any serious change in Assad’s behavior is dim.
For instance, the State Department has already delivered a démarche from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Syrians about their smuggling of ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. The Syrians denied such activity, ignored the démarche, and continued their arms transfers. Not only does this undercut the argument about the need for better communication, but the lack of a credible US response means that Ford’s future complaints will also be ignored.
Damascus also continues to deny the IAEA access to its facilities. While the US has threatened a special investigation, the IAEA has been reluctant to pursue such an option. Again, Syria snubs its nose at the world and pays no price for it.
As for Iraq, one cable, written following a trip to Damascus by coordinator for counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin, shows Syria’s lack of seriousness as well as its contempt for the US—a contempt accentuated by Benjamin’s poor performance during his meetings. Syria laid out a number of demands it wanted delivered up front, while its own end of the deal was left ambiguous and brushed aside into the future, pending further stipulations.
And yet, the Obama administration has not set forth the price for such cocksure disdain for US interests. It has not even contemplated adjusting its posture following the recent provocations in Lebanon. Instead, it continues to repeat—seemingly to itself more than to anyone else—that the appointment should not be viewed a reward to Damascus.
However, just because the administration says it does not make it true. When Syria and its friends topple US allies in Lebanon and Assad gets restored diplomatic relations in return, the
administration’s feeble defense rings particularly hollow. Worse still, by not backing its demands with clear consequences for noncompliance, Washington risks appearing dangerously weak.
That is why when all is said and done, the only saving grace in Ford’s ill-advised appointment is that it’s only for one year. Beyond that, however, a US foreign policy that loses sight of the cardinal rule of punishing enemies and rewarding allies cannot succeed.