The Obama administration has been trying out a new policy toward Syria since the day it came to office. The Bush cold shoulder was viewed as a primitive reaction, now to be replaced by sophisticated diplomacy. Outreach would substitute for isolation. Thus there have been six visits to Damascus by high-level administration officials, including two by George Mitchell. Moreover, the administration has signaled that its handling of export license applications for Syria will be more "flexible" than that of the Bush administration, which tried to deny every shipment it could.
Well, the returns are in. Within the past week, Iraq has withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus and accused Syria of involvement in terrorist incidents in Baghdad. Iraqi TV has also aired a confession by an accused al Qaeda terrorist, a Saudi who claimed he had been trained in Syria--by the Asad regime's intelligence services. Nor is this all. Syria continues to support Hezbollah's blocking of the formation of a government in Lebanon, backing Hezbollah in its demand for a "blocking third" that would prevent any decisions Hezbollah opposes in any new Cabinet. The Palestinian terrorist groups remain headquartered in Damascus, and under no visible restraints. And on August 19, President Bashar Asad paid a visit to President Ahmadinejad in Tehran, to showcase his support of the latter during the current Iranian political crisis.
None of this is new. Throughout the Iraq war, jihadis who wanted to go to Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis would not cross the Saudi/Iraqi, Jordanian/Iraqi, or Kuwaiti/Iraqi borders--all of which were carefully patrolled. No, they would fly to Damascus International Airport, where young Arab men with no papers, no destination, and no visible means of support were welcomed and guided onward to the Iraqi border. It is obvious that in a police state like Syria it would have been simple to police the airport; even the mere requirement that young men have valid visas would have slowed or stopped the flow of jihadis through Syria. But that, of course, was not what the regime had in mind, and as the Iraqi government has now publicly stated, Syria remains a haven for jihadis and terrorist organizations killing people in Iraq.
Watching the smiling Mitchell shaking hands with Asad, Syrians knew that any hope of American pressure for human rights progress was in vain as well. Neither Mitchell nor Obama has ever mentioned the subject publicly, and if Mitchell has asked Asad to release any particular political prisoners that fact has been kept secret. In fact the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, Muhanad Al-Hasani, was imprisoned on July 28, four weeks after Mitchell's last visit.
Syria is an excellent test case of the new Obama approach to the Arab world and to dictatorships that the Bush administration tried to isolate. The new policy is failing.
The Obama staff can argue that Bush's isolation policies did not produce the desired results--they did not change Syrian policy toward Lebanon, the Palestinian terrorist groups, terrorism in Iraq, or human rights in Syria. True enough, but there are two responses. First, Bush's policy was far too soft. While the Bush administration used some trade and financial pressure against the Asad regime, it did not take the direct action against terrorists and terrorist facilities there that might have made the regime back away. Jihadis flowed into the Damascus airport, through training camps, and across the border into Iraq, to murder Coalition forces and civilians--but the United States never threatened or imposed the kind of punishment our military, across the border in Iraq in full strength, might have wielded. Second, whatever the weaknesses in Bush's policy, he knew and he stated repeatedly that the Asad regime was a vicious dictatorship that was an enemy of peace in the region. The new Obama policy has produced no change in Syrian conduct, but it has produced a change in American behavior: Now we have even lost the moral clarity with which America used to speak about the nature and actions of the Asad regime.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.