Friday, April 23, 2010

Shadow Play

Lee Smith
21 April '10

Ambassador Robert Ford is a career foreign-service officer with a distinguished record who now finds himself under a strange spotlight, one that illuminates one of Washington’s most heated debates: What direction should U.S. policy on Syria take? Some argue that the United States should continue to isolate a regime that has declared itself our enemy, as we did during the Bush years; others contend that we should turn the page and engage Damascus. Ford is the man the White House has tapped as the next U.S. ambassador to Damascus, five years after the last one was withdrawn following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri’s murder touched off the Cedar Revolution that seemed, for a time, as if it might herald the rebirth of a democratic Lebanon, free from the control of the Assad regime in Syria, which saw Lebanon as part of its historical inheritance. The prospect of an independent Lebanon was even less appealing to the Syrians than was the prospect of a democratic neighbor in Iraq, where Damascus also employed terrorism as part of its strategy to roll back the United States and its partners in the Middle East. Syria’s war targeted not only American allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, but also U.S. diplomats and military personnel. Since 2003, Syria has served as the main transit route that foreign fighters use to enter Iraq, and it has provided financial, logistical, and operational support to a wide range of insurgent forces aiming to kill American soldiers.

Accordingly, Damascus has few friends in Washington. But it nonetheless occupies a unique position in U.S. policymaking circles: Syria kills Americans and our allies, but its strategic significance pales in comparison to China, Russia, and Iran, which makes it a second- or even third-tier issue. And even as Syria policy fosters loud debate, surprisingly, that debate doesn’t break over strictly partisan lines; the split is reflected throughout Washington, even in the U.S. military, and within the Obama Administration.

The foremost proponent of reaching out to Syria is the commander-in-chief, and yet more than a year after taking office, President Barack Obama has been unable to make good on his campaign promise of engaging this adversary. The first step is to return an ambassador to Damascus, a White House campaign spearheaded, oddly, by Sen. John Kerry, who has effectively become Damascus’s voice in official Washington and the most prominent U.S. official with a soft spot for a regime that much of Washington loves to hate.

This past week was a bad one for those eager to reach out to Syria. It was reported that Damascus is believed to have transferred to Hezbollah Scud missiles that would be able to reach any part of Israel. “The threat that Syria might transfer more advanced weapons to Hezbollah has existed for a long time,” says Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush White House and is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “With respect to Scuds, it has been understood the Israelis would interdict such a shipment. I do not recall the Bush Administration ever expressing disagreement with that view.”

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