Assad Remains Defiant, Washington Might be Signaling Departure
3:03 PM, Oct 29, 2010 • By ED STEIN
Since taking office, the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been one of engagement. Repeated visits by high-level U.S. officials, as well as a strong push to re-send an ambassador there, were meant to signal to Damascus a departure from the Bush administration’s policy of isolation. The Syrian response, however, has left many in Washington miffed.
Take the most recent example of how Syria returns Washington’s favors. In an interview on Tuesday with the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad officially—and publically—bit the outstretched hand, perhaps for the last time. Assad told the interviewer that the U.S. has “created chaos in every place it entered.” “Is Afghanistan stable?” he rhetorically asked. “Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” Assad’s statement is the continuation of a series of provocative actions that have signaled clearly that Syria, although perhaps interested in reconciliation with the U.S. on a theoretical level, is not prepared to pay the price where it counts. Continued support of Hezbollah and a refusal to break with Iran suggest that Damascus has already made its calculation that its interests are better served by aligning with what it perceives to be an ascendant Iran.
What was surprising, however, was the U.S. reaction. Rather than downplay these provocative remarks, State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley replied in kind, pointing out that “Recent Syrian behavior and rhetoric has had a destabilizing effect on Lebanon and the region, has contributed to recent tensions.” In addition to arming Hezbollah with deadlier weapons, Syria continues to obstruct the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, carried the baton further yesterday. Rice singled out Syria, declaring that it has “displayed flagrant disregard for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the Lebanese government.” Although it is too early to tell, these strong words may signal the beginning of a more confrontational Syria policy.
Instead of signaling an interest in reconciliation with the West, Damascus has pursued even greater cooperation with both Hezbollah and Iran. And although many on Capitol Hill have pointed to Syria’s provocations and cried foul, the Obama administration has continued to push engagement as its policy, leading lawmakers to delay the confirmation of Robert Ford, the proposed ambassador to Syria.
Assad may soon discover that Obama’s outstretched hand was worth more than his own two clenched fists.