The Obama administration has from the start seen Syria as a leading case for engagement. Barack Obama said so during his presidential campaign (announcing he would meet Bashar al Assad without preconditions) and repeated this policy view again last summer:
We’ve started to see some diplomatic contacts between the United States and Syria. There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us, and we think that there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues. But, as you know, I’m a believer in engagement and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front.
The engagement with Syria continues apace. Here are the key elements.
* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.
* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).
* The president has also removed the American block to Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization.
* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.
* Syria’s deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.
So there is certainly “progress on that front,” to use the president’s words. But when does “engagement” become “appeasement”? The case of U.S. policy toward Syria suggests that, here at least, the two approaches may not be far apart.
“Engagement” constitutes “appeasement” if it fails to change Syrian conduct, and the failure to change is overlooked while the “engagement” continues and accelerates. This would not just be fooling ourselves but condoning, rewarding, and thereby inducing even more bad conduct by the Assad regime.
Which is precisely what has happened during this year of American engagement.
* Syrian support for terrorism continues. Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, the DFLP, and the PFLP continue to be housed and protected in Damascus. Last August Iraq actually withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in protest over Syrian involvement in deadly explosions in Baghdad. Our commanding general in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, stated as recently as November that Syria continues to facilitate the movement of jihadists and explosives into Iraq.
* Syria continues serving as the route for Iran’s rearmament of Hezbollah, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting such trafficking in weapons into Lebanon. And Syria’s activities in Lebanon remain aimed at diminishing that nation’s sovereignty, even though Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005.
* Internal repression in Syria remains as vicious as ever. Human Rights Watch reported that “Syria’s poor human rights situation deteriorated further in 2009.”
In fact, however the Obama administration views its overtures to Syria, the best evidence that these steps now constitute appeasement is found in Syria’s response. On February 25, Assad hosted an Axis of Evil party, meeting with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Washington Post reported that “the presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East ‘without Zionists,’ combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region’s defining alliances.” More striking was the headline the Post put on the story: “Iran, Syria Mock U.S. Policy.”
Assad’s conduct is surprising only if you view him as a seeker after peace, waiting merely for the hand of friendship from Washington to reorient his regime toward the West. That appears to have been the Obama approach. But Assad’s reaction is entirely predictable if you view him as a vicious dictator dependent on Iran’s regime for political, financial, and military support. Similarly, the notion that American “engagement” is the road to a Syrian-Israeli peace deal over the Golan Heights is sensible if you believe he needs only a bit of American encouragement to ditch his alliance with Iran and turn West. But the terrorist trilateral just held in Damascus should be all the proof anyone needs that George Mitchell may as well stay home: A Golan deal is not in the cards. No Israeli prime minister is foolish enough to hand the Golan to a Syria whose main allies are Israel’s two most dangerous enemies: Hezbollah and Iran.
What has the engagement of Syria actually produced, besides mockery in Damascus? Depression in Beirut, where Sunnis, Christians, and Druze only a few years ago defied Syria, but now see an American policy that appears willing to abandon them. Incredulity in Baghdad, where our willingness to engage Syria while it helps jihadists blow people up in Iraq must seem incomprehensible. Resistance in Jerusalem, which only three years ago blew up a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor Assad was building along the Euphrates and must see our continuing blindness to Syria’s actual conduct as stubborn—and dangerous.
What is to be done? First, the United States should acknowledge that engagement has failed and end it. No more high-level visits, no ambassador, no WTO. If the Obama administration insists on crawling forward, the Senate should not confirm the nominee for ambassador, and Congress should by legislation prevent any further weakening of our economic sanctions against Syria. Second, the United States should loudly and frequently condemn continuing Syrian human rights violations; there are fish in this barrel and we should start shooting them. Third, we should raise in the United Nations Syria’s continuing violations of Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 (barring violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty and arms supplies to Hezbollah).
None of these steps will change Syrian policy; that will only happen if and when the regime in Iran, Assad’s mainstay, falls. But they will restore to U.S. policy the element of self-respect and respect for facts that is now missing. In Damascus in January, George Mitchell said, “I look forward to building on the positive relationship we have formed to make tangible progress on our effort toward peace and on the bilateral relationship between the United States and Syria.” At the very least, let us have no more such statements, whose willful ignorance of Syria’s actual conduct—and the victims of that conduct—is embarrassing to American honor and damaging to American interests and allies.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations.