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.   

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of the recent The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).

  • Carlo

    Am surprized that no one is considering that this might be linked to something bigger than a mere act of good-will from the US government. It seems that now the US has a stronger team of ambassadors in the region, between the lebanese, Jordanian, Turkish, Iraqi, Saudi, american ambassadors, they can coordinate and convey the US foreign policy point of view better. STL is about to issue a draft indictments, this is another reason why an american presence on the ground is better. president Abass is about to announce the Palestinian State, yet another reason. A high diplomatic US presence in Syria could be essential at this time, if not critical. The region is at the brink of a shake up, and Syria is an important player.

    January 4, 2011

  • truth

    well who cares if obama niminated an ambassador or not the real thing going on is that israel approved it and israel put lot of pressure and plead to georges w bush to not touch the syrian regime because it was planned by bush to change the regime after invading iraq they want the assads family to govern syria they are the allied of israel better not to put syria in any other regime . and beside obama he could not foul me i did not vote for him he lied at the american people . did not and will not deliver what he promised and he will lose by a big margin in 2012 to any republican , but at the same time it was helpfull to have him a president for 4 years due to erase the racism in united states

    January 4, 2011

  • pcnav

    I agree with Mr Young on this analysis. World diplomacy and US laws are not the same thing which is what most commentors here fail to see. If Syria is innocent before proven guiltly then by who's laws would this be applicable, Syria's or the USA's. We do not have a global government ruled by the USA or the UN. When engaged in diplomacy even with regimes like Syria you have to weigh the outcomes of every action you engage them in. What Obama would see as common sense other nations might see as weakness and could lead them to take actions against US interests that otherwise they wouldn't have taken. Get off this global government kick because it does no exist.

    January 3, 2011

  • anas

    Oh Mr. Young, Where should I start? Hmm, Let's first ignore the fact that pulling the US ambassador from Damascus was a knee-jerk reaction in the first place. US law says anyone is innocent until proven guilty, yet it didn't take them 48 hours to withdraw the ambassador and here we are 5 years later with no damning evidence, but only a highly politicized tribunal and some fake witnesses. The burden of proof shouldn't be on Syria to demonstrate her innocence, but on who ever is accusing Damscus of the crime to show proof. Also, you said that in 5 years [with no ambassador] Syria hasn't budged on any of the key issues. Your proposed solution: let's keep doing the same things we've been doing for the past 5 years. Yes. Perfect. That should definitely work. The fact of the matter is, the further the US pulls away from Damscus, the more Damascus will find new friends. Turkey and Iran have great ties with Syria now. China, Europe are playing nice as well. US only hurt its interests.

    January 2, 2011

  • previous student

    Dear Young it is important to have a continous dialogue. a presence of an ambassador will clarify the picture that was destorted by neocon and media reports that have their own agenda not necessary the best interest of Lebanon or USA

    January 2, 2011

  • Viiit

    Let's face the inconvenient truth: Obama is a .... in a suit!

    December 31, 2010

  • jared

    Mr. Young, I wonder if you are aware of how few countries world wide lack an Ambassador as chief of mission in their US Embassy? The regrettable truth is the US has a wide variety of interests in Syria. Syria's role in Lebanon is not on top of that list, nor in my opinion should the restart of bi-lateral talks with Israel be near the top o that list, though I fear it may be. There is a reason we have ambassadors in myriad countries with unsavory regimes across the world. We don't use their presence in those countries solely as a bargaining chip, nor should we do so in Syria.

    December 31, 2010

  • harris

    No wonder what Obama does. The syrian regime is vital to the existance and security of the state of Israel. Israel itself defended and put a lot of pressure on Goerge Bush to make him change his mind on the idea of changing thr syrian regime due to the fact that Israel needs this regime to stay in power after years and years of protecting and securing the border of Israel. I do not expect any American administration to do the opposite as long as the state of Israel is the priority in their foreign policy

    December 30, 2010


    Obama is a darker version of Jimmy Carter who was arguably the most unsecure and indecisive President the US had since WW2 (yes, beats Nixon & Ford too). But after Carter, we had Reagan... Sarah Palin's hero. Would be curious to know what are the odds with the bookies on a one-term presidency.

    December 30, 2010