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Assad’s Cabinet

Syria’s dictator’s, and the rest of the Iranian-led resistance bloc’s, well-placed advocates in Washington.

3:01 PM, Jan 10, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Where other U.S. lawmakers were wary of getting too chummy with an Arab despot who jailed, tortured, and murdered dissidents, supported terrorist groups, accumulated a chemical weapons stockpile, built a secret nuclear weapons facility, was alleged to be responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon and other Lebanese political figures and journalists, and had facilitated jihadist attacks on American troops in Iraq, Kerry saw an opportunity. Dialoguing with a dictator during the first three years of Obama’s presidency is how he auditioned for the secretary of state job.

It wasn’t until a month or so after the uprising against Assad began that Kerry started to hedge his bets on Assad. Up until Syrian forces opened fire on what was then an unarmed opposition, Kerry took him at his word. “President Assad said to me,” Kerry recalled for a Washington audience in March 2011, “you know, I have 500,000 kids turning 18 every year. And I want jobs for them. I want education opportunity for them.” Kerry was making his case for Damascus’s catcher in the rye shortly after Assad’s security forces tortured teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Deraa.

Later that month, as the news of the tortured boys spread throughout Syria and the uprising kicked off in other cities, Kerry presided over the nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Syria—the first to be sent to Damascus since the Bush administration withdrew its envoy in the wake of the February 2005 murder of Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri. “Diplomacy is not a prize,” said Kerry, echoing a favorite slogan of the president he will soon be working for.  “I believe that with confident, carefully calibrated diplomacy,” said Kerry, “we can show Damascus what it stands to gain by moderating its behavior—and what it stands to lose by going in the other direction.”

But over the course of more than four decades, the United States has almost never exacted any price from Syria for not “moderating its behavior.” The Assad regime, from father Hafez to Bashar, killed and continues to kill with impunity. In the zero-sum thinking of Middle Eastern regimes, failure to punish a transgressor is the same as a reward. In that same mental universe, engagement with a superpower lends one’s domestic and regional standing inestimable prestige. Therefore, from the perspective of U.S. adversaries, diplomacy is a very big prize. The question that neither Kerry, nor any of the other cabinet nominees, nor Obama himself, seem to have ever bothered asking is whether presenting your enemies with such a gift outweighs the damage that it might do to U.S. interests and American allies.

As Kerry saw an opening with Syria, John Brennan sees Hezbollah similarly. "Hezbollah is a very interesting organization," Brennan said in May 2010. "There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they're doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

Brennan it seems was well aware of the problems that Hezbollah poses for American interests—and that between its attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1982 and the Marine barracks in 1983, as well as other smaller operations, it had killed hundreds of Americans. The question is where did Brennan get the idea that there were moderate elements among Lebanon’s Islamic Resistance?

Before joining the Obama administration as counterterrorism adviser, the longtime CIA official published “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence” that described a strategy for engaging “moderates” not only in the Islamic Republic, but also within its Lebanese arm, Hezbollah.

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