August 17, 2009

Syria - Bashar al-Asad has learned well

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad

Recent headlines underscore just how well Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has learned the rules of Middle East politics. It makes sense - he had an excellent teacher, his father Hafiz al-Asad. Just as Hafiz repeatedly outfoxed American presidents from 1970 until his death in 2000, including twice embarrassing Bill Clinton on my watch, his son Bashar now appears to have handed President Barack Obama another foreign policy setback in the region.

This is a setback that Obama does not need. It comes shortly after his overtures to Iran collapsed following the Iranian regime's reactions to post-election violence in that country. It is even more troubling since the Obama administration had planned to restart the moribund Middle East peace process through better relations with Syria.

The Obama administration hoped to be able to break the existing strong bonds, including a mutual defense treaty, between Syria and Iran. Yes, the same Iran the rebuffed Obama's overtures. Driving a wedge between Iran and Syria is a good idea in theory, but extremely difficult.

It was revealed this weekend that less than three months ago, what I call the "real axis of evil" - Syrian, Iran and North Korea - tested another jointly produced new missile in Syria. This test, which failed, was conducted at the same time Bashar was courting American visitors to Damascus. Those visits culminated in President Obama's decision to return an ambassador to the American Embassy in Damascus. That may not happen now.

The U.S. ambassador's post has been vacant since Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. I am of the the belief that the Syrians are not merely "complicit," I think they are just plain guilty. At that time, prior to the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" that peacefully ended Syria's 30-year occupation of the country, these things did not happen without Syrian involvement, direction or approval.

The list of American visitors to Damascus hoping to sway Asad's thinking is impressive. George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, visited Syria several times. Also visiting were Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro, Mitchell assistant Fred Hoff (rumored to be on the short list as the new ambassador) and the U.S. Central Command Director of Plans, Strategy and Policy Major General Mike Moeller.

Of these people, only Feltman and Hoff have the wherewithal and experience to effectively engage Bashar al-Asad in this high-stakes game. Moeller's heavy-handed demand to Asad (stop allowing Iran to resupply Hizballah and Hamas via Syrian territory) was an exercise in naivete.

Given what we know now, it would appear that Asad was merely stringing the Americans along with no intention of making any serious changes in his relationship with Iran. On the same day that Hoff and Moeller met with Asad, the Syrian president announced that he was departing shortly for Tehran to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and to strengthen ties between the two countries.

This should not have come as a surprise to the Obama administration. A key player in any progress in the peace process is Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it quite clear that he has no intention of returning the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria, territory it has held since 1967. With no guarantee of regaining the Golan, no Syrian leader can or will move on the peace process. It is the proverbial show stopper.

Netanyahu knows this - so should Obama. Perhaps we should be trying to get the Israelis on board before pressuring Damascus into a deal it cannot accept.