Will Obama Restore the U.S. Ambassador in Damascus?
Israel gets an ultimatum; Syria gets an ambassador.
9:51 AM, Mar 21, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
In 2005, Syria's Ba'athist dictatorship was accused of supporting the assainination of Rafik Hariri, who was then the prime minister of Lebanon. Hariri's death sparked an internal anti-Syrian uprising in Lebanon--the Cedar revolution--which was both supported vocally by the Bush administration and tangibly when the State Department yanked its ambassador from Damascus.
Now the Obama administration wants to send the State Department back, claiming that U.S. foreign policy objectives would be better served by restoring normal diplomatic relations with Damascus. Both the White House and congressional allies are talking up the qualifications of Robert Ford, Obama's pick for a potential Syrian posting. Ford is a long time State Department veteran who served as ambassador to Algeria and more recently deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Iraq -- neither easy diplomatic postings.
But the debate isn't about Ford's qualifications. Syria's brutal Ba'athist regime is a habitual human rights offender with multiple priors -- and a fanatical enemy of the United States.
1) Damascus purposefully sustains regional destabilization. Syria's alliance with Iran has heightened tensions with other Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as contributed to a constant cycle of war in southern Lebanon and Israel's northern flank. Syrian ports are critical logistical nodes for Hezbollah and, to an extent, Hamas in Gaza. They provide short range rockets to both terror groups, which are used unmercifully on Israeli towns and villages. It should be noted that this is far more harmful to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process than building a couple of housing units in Jerusalem, which earned the Netanyahu government the stiffest of rebukes from the White House and an ultimatum from Foggy Bottom.
2) Syria is an avowed enemy of America's regional democratic allies. An official state sponsor of terrorism since the State Department released the list in 1979, the regime actively works to undermine the freely elected government in Iraq (largely in the form of pushing foreign fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border) and exports violence by proxy into neighboring Lebanon and Israel.
3) They're brutal. Bashar al-Assad's one party regime uses torture to suppress internal dissent and individual liberties. Assad's security forces have nearly unlimited power, rendering basic freedoms practically non-existent. Freedom House, an international political rights watchdog, has frequently ranked Damascus at the bottom of their human rights and civil liberties index. Last year, they included Syria in their "Worst of the Worst" section, dedicated --as the name implies-- to the world's most heinous totalitarian regimes.
Syria doesn't deserve to be recognized or rewarded with an ambassadorial presence -- at least, not until lawmakers and diplomats see tangible evidence of the positive liberalization trend that was promised by Bashar al-Assad when he assumed power in 2000. The State Department needs to articulate clearly what foreign policy objectives they expect to be served by redeploying an ambassador to Damascus, but--more importantly--Syria must prove to the world that they are capable of rational action and discourse. That means immediately and unconditionally terminating support of the Iraqi insurgency, as well as publicly renouncing violence against their democratic neighbors. Then and only then should President Obama consider inviting Syria back to the community of responsible nations.