The Magazine

Assad State of Affairs

Syria's dictatorship survives to fight another day.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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WHEN HAFEZ AL-ASSAD was president-for-life of Syria, Washington overlooked the misdeeds of his Baathist dictatorship because it always seemed the brass ring of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal was just around the corner. Now that Assad is dead and his son Bashar nears the six-year mark of his own rule, Washington is again in effect tolerating the Baathist dictatorship. This time, the explanation is that not peace, but war is just around the corner--in Iraq. With so much on the administration's Middle East agenda, Syria seems poised once more to escape penalty from Washington.

If mere condemnations could kill, Syria would long since be in the morgue. Last week, the State Department spokesman denounced Syria for its heavy-handed treatment of political reformers. In mid-May, U.N. ambassador John Bolton criticized Syria for refusing to recognize the independence of Lebanon. Before that, the administration censured Damascus for its sponsorship of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which had orchestrated yet another bloody attack in Israel.

The most frequent U.S. complaint these days concerns Syrian mischief in Iraq. Even before the U.S. invasion began in March 2003, the administration was condemning Damascus for shipping military materiel to Saddam. Recent complaints have centered on the transit of jihadists through Syria to Iraq, and on Syria's provision of safe haven to insurgent leaders. In 2005, Washington went a step further, accusing Damascus of maintaining training camps for Iraqi insurgents, an affront so egregious that the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned publicly that "U.S. patience with Syria [was] running out."

But criticism rolls off Assad's back, and it has not been accompanied by measures compelling Syria to change its behavior. Whether Washington has been unwilling or unable to extract a real price from Syria, the effect is the same: Damascus believes it has dodged the bullet. The regime of Bashar Assad appears more confident than at any time since 2003.

To be sure, the administration has tried to ratchet up pressure. But its policy has suffered from inconsistency, even ambivalence. The Syria Accountability Act, requiring the president to choose from an array of sanctions, provides a good illustration. In 2002, the administration balked at signing this legislation, fearing that sanctions would prompt Damascus to stop cooperating with Washington on al Qaeda. But in 2003, the president did sign it into law--and the very same week, a new ambassador was dispatched to Damascus after a hiatus of four months. The timing no doubt sent a mixed message to the Syrians, taking the sting out of the law.

U.S. ambivalence has also been evident in the willingness to dialogue with President Assad even as Syria was contributing to rising American casualties in Iraq. The administration inexplicably spent three years trying to convince Assad that Syrian interests would be served by more moderate policies. Between 2003 and 2005 the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and the National Security Council dispatched five senior delegations to Damascus to cajole, and later warn, President Assad that there would be consequences for continued Syrian meddling in Iraq and support for terrorism. These discussions only succeeded in alleviating pressure on the regime by delaying the imposition of tougher measures. Adding insult to injury, these trips, though the emissaries delivered blunt messages, were publicly spun by Syrian officials as "breakthroughs" in Syrian-U.S. relations.

The Bush administration's only real policy successes on Syria have come at the United Nations. Since 2004, the administration has orchestrated a series of Security Council resolutions that have proved devastating to Syrian interests. First and foremost, Resolution 1559 called for an end to the decades-long Syrian presence in Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah, while Resolutions 1595 and 1636 established a U.N.-led investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and demanded cooperation from Syria, almost certainly a central player in the killing.

After Hariri's murder, it seemed that all the stars were aligned to lower the boom on Damascus. Not only were the appropriate U.N. resolutions in place, but the assassination spurred a rapprochement between the United States and France in opposition to Syria. Alas, to date the administration has been unable to capitalize on this multilateral moment. The final U.N. report on the Hariri murder is due this month, but absent any smoking gun Assad and company may again emerge unscathed.