The threat against the life of the American ambassador to Syria comes during a bad streak for the Obama administration. First was the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies, while incurring perhaps hundreds of American casualties. Next was the White House’s failure to secure an agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, which will empower Iran and its Iraqi allies at the expense of American interests.
Middle Easterners who count on American leadership can be forgiven for misreading signs of American weakness. Some in the Syrian opposition believed that, now with Qaddafi out of the way, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had come into the Obama administration’s crosshairs. Senator John McCain suggested the same during a recent trip to Jordan. However, as the White House made clear last week, this was not the case.
The misunderstanding seems to have started when Robert Ford, the ambassador to Syria, was brought back to Washington. Given the domestic political fight over appointing an ambassador to Syria, administration spokesmen struggled for the right language to explain what had happened: Ford was not withdrawn, they said, but “recalled” for consultations. Because the White House recalled the ambassador to Libya before the onset of the NATO action that eventually led to Qaddafi’s death, parts of the Syrian opposition were eager to see the same pattern developing.
That’s where the similarity ends, however. The reason Ford came home was that the Syrian regime had made credible threats against his life. Perhaps Assad saw his own fate prefigured in the photos of Qaddafi’s last hours, and went on offense against Washington by letting on that he was going to kill the president’s personal representative. The administration says it is planning to send Ford back soon, with the understanding that the Syrian regime, rather than kill Ford, will abide by international law and ensure his safety.
Surely even the Obama administration must know that this is ludicrous. In 2005 the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria after it judged that Damascus was behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. We held off returning an envoy while the Syrians and their allies plotted the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. In Lebanon, Syrian allies made an attempt on the life of former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, now head of the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau.
When it came to power, the Obama White House defended its determination to return an ambassador to Syria with the diplomatic cliché that “you don’t just speak to your friends.” Lost on the president was the fact that it is not possible to speak rationally to those whose policies are predicated on murder. Syria, the administration seems to have forgotten, is a state sponsor of terror. It is accustomed to operating in this particular pit of hell; it thrives here, where Washington can only flounder. Indeed, the White House doesn’t even have the luxury of taking the moral high ground by expelling Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha. Damascus recalled him last week, even as he is under federal investigation for threatening Syrian dissidents in the United States.
Without Ford in Damascus, the administration seemingly has no Syria policy, except to trot out the same formulations it mouthed before the president said Assad has to step down. At least we’ve finally taken “engagement” off the table. Of course, for all practical purposes, the regime in Damascus is already contained. In which case, a cynic might argue, why should the administration commit itself to a more active role in bringing about an end to Assad?
It’s true that Assad has yet to play all his cards. One of them is Syria’s customary gambit of stirring up trouble in Lebanon. Military incursions across the Lebanese border to chase opposition members may be a foretaste of much worse trouble to come. Many in Beirut believe that the fighting in Syria will spill into Lebanon.
In the meantime, Damascus’s ally Hezbollah feels cornered. Last week the Party of God’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah made a televised speech defending the Syrian regime. Assad’s war has not only enraged the region’s Sunni population, but also alienated much of his and Nasrallah’s customary support. As it turns out, slaughtering Syrian civilians who are demonstrating peacefully is a wedge issue. Even fans of the resistance, especially on the left, have identified the discrepancy between advocating on behalf of Palestinian rights and a regime that kills its own people protesting for their rights.
Nasrallah and Assad are finding themselves increasingly isolated. Indeed, something is amiss with the Iranian-backed militia when Nasrallah admonishes the Saudis not to believe the American story about the plot against Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington, and calls the Saudis “brothers.”
So, with Iran’s two key allies boxed in, why should the White House intervene? Perhaps the administration has reverted to a brand of realist foreign policy that would see American interests advanced in conflict consuming and containing both sides. What worked for Iran and Iraq in the ’80s might now be applicable to Syria’s nascent civil war.
The problem with this line of thinking is not just moral. It’s not just that both Iraq and Iran came out of their near-decade-long conflict wounded and more dangerous than before. It’s that the White House is not playing the regional board at all. It was good to hammer away at al Qaeda by killing Bin Laden, Rahman, and Awlaki and finally get Qaddafi. But these moves have been made in the absence of a larger strategy. Consider how Iran looks at the region: Even as it may be on the verge of losing its only Arab ally in Syria, the American withdrawal from Iraq has given Tehran a fresh horse to ride against the United States.
The rest of the Middle East understands that there are two magnetic poles shaping the region. The Saudi plot and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq may have compelled the Obama administration to recognize that Tehran is one of those two poles. They are slower to realize that America is the other.