June 24, 2009

Return of an American ambassador to Syria

My business card while assigned to the US Embassy in Damascus

President Barack Obama has opted to return our diplomatic presence in Syria to the ambassadorial level for the first time since 2005. At that time, we withdrew our ambassador as a sign of displeasure with the Syrian government over their alleged complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. "Complicity" is the polite term - anyone familiar with Lebanese and Syrian politics knows the Syrians either ordered the killing or did it themselves (I believe the latter is true).

I have been critical of the President's misguided efforts to engage (his word) the Iranians, even more so in light of the brutal repression taking place in the aftermath of the June 12 presidential elections. I do not think it is wise to talk to a government that is still supporting Shi'a militias in Iraq and has been responsible for the death of over 100 American troops in Iraq, not to mention shooting its own citizens in the streets for protesting an election. While Syria has some indirect responsibility for American deaths in Lebanon, the main culprits in virtually every operation that has caused American casualties has been the Iranians.

So, why send an ambassador to Syria? What's wrong with the current arrangement? The Syrians have an ambassador in Washington, and we have a chargĂ© d’affaires in Damascus. It provides representation and a venue to observe and report (some people call that intelligence gathering) what is happening on the ground in a critically important country in the Middle East peace process, while demonstrating our concern over the activities of the Bashar al-Asad government.

One word answer: Iran. This is all about iran's ascendancy in the region and its close ties with Syria. Iran has very few friends anywhere in the world, and only Syria in the region. Damascus and Tehran have a formal mutual defense treaty, close economic relations, intelligence sharing and a host of military/technical cooperation efforts. They also produce the Sham autimobile - yes, that's the real name. See my earlier article, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.

The State Department claims that the decision has nothing to do with the post-election turmoil in Iran. I hope it does - the problems in Iran may present an opportunity for American foreign policy. We should be looking for any way to break Damascus away from Tehran.

Syria is key to the peace process, but as long as they remain allied with Iran, there will be no solution. Syria's key demand for peace with Israel is the return of the Golan Heights - that is a non-negotiable condition. Israel will return the Golan - despite rhetoric to the contrary - in return for a deal with Damascus. Israel will not enter into an agreement with Damascus unless Syria agrees to stop allowing Iran to use its airspace and territory to fund, equip and train Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Break the tries between Damascus and Tehran, and peace all of a sudden becomes a possibility. Absent that, we continue on in this morass. The presence of an ambassador as opposed to a chargé might lend more weight to our efforts and demonstrate to Asad that he may get a better deal with us than by continuing on in his relationship with Iran.

I have been taken to task by a mentor and friend who believes I am being too harsh on Obama's plans to engage the Iranians. While I think the reinstatement of the ambassadorial post in Damascus is a good move, I remain convinced that we need to marginalize the Iranians while expanding our relationship with the Syrians.

Send an ambassador - but send one that knows what he/she is doing.

Click here for my photos of Syria.