The news from Syria grows grimmer by the day—more peaceful protesters killed, ten thousand arrested in the past week, army units shelling residential neighborhoods.
But the Obama administration’s response has not grown grimmer or louder. As recently as May 6, Secretary of State Clinton was still talking about a “reform agenda” in Syria, as if Bashar al-Assad were a slightly misguided bureaucrat rather than the murderer of roughly 1,000 unarmed demonstrators. As for the president, though the White House has issued a couple of statements in his name, he has yet to say one word on camera about the bloodletting in Syria. This is not a small matter, for a tough statement attacking the regime’s repression and giving the demonstrators moral support would immediately circulate over the Internet. American sanctions against Syria, meanwhile, have not named Assad, and there has been no call for him to step down.
Why is the administration appearing to stick with Assad and refusing to call for his ouster? A key reason may be the hope that an Israeli-Syrian peace deal can be arranged.
From the day it came to office, the Obama administration clearly wanted to win an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. There has been no progress during its two years in office, mostly because the White House insisted on a 100 percent construction freeze in the West Bank settlements and Jerusalem as a precondition for negotiations. This was politically impossible in Israel, and also meant that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas could not come to the table lest he appear to be asking less from Israel than the Americans.
With negotiations frozen, the Palestinians turned to unilateral measures: seeking a United Nations vote admitting the State of Palestine to membership and getting dozens of countries to recognize a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, their delegitimization campaign against Israel continued apace, especially in Europe, where calls for boycotts and sanctions spread. On the pro-Israel side there was also consideration of unilateral measures—steps to head off the Palestinians diplomatically (several of which I described and supported in the April 11 Weekly Standard).
Some forlorn hope may still have existed inside the administration that a compromise on construction could bring the Palestinians back to the table with the government of Israel—until the agreement between Hamas and Fatah was signed on April 27. This agreement, unless and until it collapses, makes Israeli concessions or new flexibility in the West Bank impossible and puts paid to the entire “peace process.” It brings Hamas into the Palestinian Authority government, ending a period of several years when Palestinian Security Forces have cooperated with the Israel Defense Forces against terrorism and against Hamas in particular. It will also bring Hamas—next year and for the first time—into the PLO, the body charged with negotiating peace with Israel. Even Yasser Arafat resisted that development when he headed the PLO, and it seems obvious that Israel cannot negotiate peace with an anti-Semitic terrorist group bent on its destruction.
So where can the White House turn if it wants some kind of peace process in the Middle East? Syria. After all, in his first term as prime minister, back in 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu did authorize indirect negotiations with Syria. And the IDF—and especially Ehud Barak, a former head of the IDF, Israel’s defense minister, and a close adviser to Netanyahu—has long favored such a deal. The IDF theory was that if Syria made peace, so would Lebanon, and then Israel would be at peace with all four neighboring Arab states. And it can be argued now that Assad may see negotiations with Israel as a way to climb back from the pariah status he is earning, making him at this juncture truly open to a new peace process.
Such thinking, whether in Jerusalem or the White House, is foolish and even grotesque. There is no possibility that Assad would negotiate seriously and that an agreement could be attained. He is now clinging desperately to power, and his only true allies are Iran and Hezbollah. Yet Israel’s (and, one hopes, our own) key precondition to any agreement would necessarily be a clean break in those relationships: an end to the Syrian alliance with Hezbollah and Iran. Otherwise Israel would be giving the Golan, in effect, to Iran—a suicidal act. No Israeli government would do it, which suggests that negotiations with Assad would have no purpose.
Assad may indeed be open to commencing a negotiation as a means to escape international isolation, but that’s all the more reason not to give it to him. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 talks with Syria (via Turkey) allowed Syria to escape the partial isolation the United States had imposed on it in that decade, with zero gain for Israel. This is not an experiment worth repeating, for the Assad regime is today even more despicable than it was three years ago.
To react to the murders now taking place all over Syria by embracing the Assad regime would be morally indefensible. Whether Assad can be overthrown soon by the people of Syria is a fair question to ask. Will the army stay with him, or will Sunni units rebel? Will the Sunni business elites turn against him? How long can the regime survive? We do not yet know the answers. But surely we must avoid any step that could help Assad, rehabilitate his regime, or undermine the courageous struggle of peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Syria.
The peace agreements that Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan were real achievements, but there will be no such agreements with the Palestinians or with Syria in the foreseeable future. The Palestinians have taken themselves out of the game for now. We cannot turn from them to the Syrians while Assad’s troops are using howitzers and sniper rifles against his people. This is the time not for diplomatic engagement with Assad, but for diplomacy aimed at quarantining his regime and helping bring it down. The White House should dismiss any remaining dreams of a “peace process” with Syria to substitute for the Palestinian version and face facts: There will be no peace with the butcher who rules Syria today.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.