Friday, May 8, 2009

Obama’s Syria Policy: It’s Not all Bad

People ask me why I criticize the Obama administration some days, note positive developments on others, and at still different times say that things are acceptable if not great. That’s because I look at the facts and make my judgment accordingly. Not every issue is the same; not all administration officials are identical. Of course what’s most important is who wins out in the end. But it’s too early to know that.

So far, Iran policy has been pretty bad and Israel policy so far ok, policy toward Syria has been the best of the lot. That doesn’t mean all is well. The administration has been too soft on supporting moderates against the Iran-Syria clients in Lebanon—they say the right things generally but they aren’t backed up by any sense of toughness or influence—yet cautious about engagement with Syria.

The basis for this, it seems, is that Iran is more of a White House issue and Syria is more under the control of the State Department? I can’t be certain but that’s what appears to be true. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman seem to understand Syria’s subversive role, sponsorship of Hamas and Hizballah, campaign to take over Lebanon, and solid alliance with Iran.

So while many are eager to portray Syria as moderate, Clinton and Feltman no doubt noticed the wildly enthusiastic welcome the Syrians organized last week for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian regime may be able to poke America in the eye and get away with it. The Syrians are being held, at least so far, to a higher standard.

Remember, this is a country which, according to the State Department's own terrorism report just released, has “ties to the world's most notorious terrorists” including those who killed over 350 Americans in attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The report also points out that Syria is a major funder of terrorism, the biggest transport route for terrorists coming into Iraq to murder Americans, and backs Hizballah which is training the Iraq terrorists to make bombs to blow up U.S. soldiers.
It is thus encouraging to see some effort, with three promising developments. First, the Obama administration has renewed U.S. sanctions against Syria for the next year. Members of Congress pressed for this step but if the White House really wanted to break with past policies and signal to Damascus its eagerness to be buddies, it could have asked that they not be continued.

Second, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Rice said that the United States makes no distinction between a “political” and a “military” wing of Hizballah. This is a direct slap at the British government which has been weakening on this issue, seeking engagement with Hizballah under the guise of talking only to those who order people murdered not those who actually do it.

Third, a State Department official told an Arab newspaper that no decision has yet been made about returning the U.S. ambassador to Damascus. Any improvement of bilateral relations depends on Syria’s behavior toward the June 7 Lebanese elections.

It may not be up to the level of past U.S. toughness, but the administration, or at least parts of it, seems determined not to play the fool for the Syrian dictatorship. We’ll have to see what happens in the Lebanese elections and how U.S. policy reacts to know better how the administration’s strategy will develop.

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