With every passing week, it becomes clearer that the Obama administration has no intention of revising its failed Syria policy and the ideas that underpin it, namely reviving the Syrian-Israeli peace track and distancing the Assad regime from the Iranian axis. Rather, when it comes to Damascus, the administration is content to remain in its own echo chamber.
The latest indication of Washington’s continued refusal to abandon its ideas on Syria can be found in what anonymous US officials told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in response to a recent story in al-Hayat that the Hamas leadership in Damascus was preparing to find a new home.
These officials, according to Ignatius, “see signs that Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has concluded that to survive the massive protests against his regime ... he will have to distance himself somewhat from Iran.” In fact, even if Assad survives, these officials believe that “he will have to establish some distance from Iran to appease Sunni protesters.”
How these officials reached this conclusion, or what these “signs” are, is anyone’s guess, especially when the exact opposite is the likely outcome of Assad’s survival. This is not to mention that the White House’s refrain has been that Assad was relying on Iranian assistance in quashing the challenge to his regime.
But is this just a matter of incoherence, or, as Lee Smith recently wrote, is the Obama administration’s Syria policy “an ideological fantasy ... premised on getting Damascus back to the negotiating table with Israel”?
An interview with the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, on al-Arabiya on Tuesday lends support to this contention. Even now, after everything that Assad has done, Ford makes it clear that the Obama administration’s primary interest with Syria remains returning it to peace talks with Israel. “We are still very, very interested in the issue,” Ford said. “This administration has been interested in Syrian-Israeli peace perhaps more than any other administration in the last twenty years.”
What Ford said next was most fitting in describing Washington’s policy. Asked whether there was any realistic prospect for reviving the Syrian peace track at this stage, Ford replied: “There’s always hope!” Indeed. The Obama administration’s policy represents nothing if not the triumph of delusional hope over reality.
There is more audacity to the administration’s hope. Ford explained how, due to the crisis in Syria, everyone was focused on that issue right now. However, he added, “We hope that Syria overcomes this difficult phase.”
What could this statement possibly mean? Over a month ago, a New York Times report gave the distinct impression that, more than anything, the officials who spoke to the paper were concerned about the impact of the situation in Syria on the administration’s hope to relaunch peace talks between Syria and Israel. This is also the takeaway from the recent comments by Jacob Sullivan, the director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Sullivan told reporters on April 26 that “the current situation in Syria is one that … it’s hard for us to stand by and see Assad … engaged in this kind of campaign ... and to then think easily about how to pursue the other diplomatic initiatives with him.”
What this signals is that, similar to its attitude toward the Iranian Green Movement, the Obama administration is indicating that the Syrians' unprecedented uprising complicates its hope to tend to more important business: Syrian-Israeli peace talks!
That is why Ford could not restrain himself from making the following statement, faithfully relaying what is apparently administration policy: “If things calm down, we’ll see what the possibilities are.” Things might “calm down” if Assad kills, imprisons and tortures enough people to quell protests for a while. Maybe then everyone can once again focus on the important things. Is this really what the administration has in mind? That, should Assad manage to put down the protests, the US would simply resume “engagement” with him as though nothing had happened?
This is where the administration’s incoherence is most troubling. Not only is it not asking for Assad to step down, as it had done with ally Hosni Mubarak, but also, it is not even openly defining what end state it would like to see in Syria, before talking about “pursuing initiatives” and exploring “possibilities.”
The administration should have recalled its ambassador by now, but it has adamantly refused to review even that aspect of its disastrous approach to Syria. The administration has repeatedly insisted that his presence was necessary to convey clearly Washington’s messages to the Assad regime.
Apparently, the central theme of these messages is “hope,” which evidently has superseded strategic vision and sound policy.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.