Thursday, September 3, 2009

Neutrality on Iraq-Syria: Obama Administration Betrays Ally and Doesn't Even Defend Its Own Soldiers

By Barry Rubin

On August 26, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was asked what the United States thought about the Iraq-Syria dispute. His answer shockingly recalls the last time a U.S. government made the mistake of being neutral between an enemy radical dictatorship and a friendly moderate government.

First, some background. Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki visited Syria on August 18 to discuss the two countries' relationship. He offered Syrian dictator-President Bashar al-Assad a lot of economic goodies in exchange for expelling 271 Iraqi exiles involved in organizing terrorism against their country. Assad refused. Maliki left.

The next day, huge bombings struck Baghdad, directly targeting the government’s foreign and finance ministries. More than 100 Iraqis were killed and over 600 were wounded. The Iraqi government blamed the very same exiles living in Syria who Maliki was trying to get kicked out and implicated the Syrian government directly in the attacks. The two countries recalled their ambassadors; the Iraqis are calling for an international tribunal to investigate.

Enter the United States. Since the Iraqi government was created by elections made possible by the U.S. invasion, since the same terrorists murdering Iraqis have killed American soldiers, and since Iraq is a U.S. ally while Syria is a terrorist sponsor allied with Iran, what U.S. reaction would you expect?

Why, support for Iraq, of course. For decades under several U.S. presidents, Syria has been unsuccessfully pressed to kick out terrorists targeting Israel, and later Lebanon. This is an old issue and a very clear one for about a half-dozen reasons.

And what did the Obama administration do instead? Declare its neutrality!

Here’s what Kelly said, reading from his State Department instructions:

“We understand that there has been sort of mutual recall of the ambassadors. We consider that an internal matter. We believe that, as a general principle, that diplomatic dialogue is the best means to address the concerns of both parties. We are working with the Iraqis to determine who perpetrated these horrible acts of violence.…We hope this doesn’t hinder dialogue between the two countries.”

Before analyzing this response, let me tell you of what it reminds me. Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was threatening Kuwait, demanding that the weaker neighbor surrender to an ultimatum. Iraq was no friend of America; Kuwait, though not an ally, was a state that had good relations with the United States. A decade earlier, America had gone to the verge of war with Iran to protect Kuwait.

What did the U.S. government say? This was a matter between Iraq and Kuwait in which the United States wouldn’t take sides.

A few days later, Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait. At the time and afterward, everyone said: What a terrible mistake! The announcement of neutrality, the refusal to support a small threatened country against a bullying neighbor ruled by a blood dictatorship, gave a green light to Saddam and set off a war.

And now the Obama administration has done precisely the same thing. Of course, Syria won’t invade Iraq, it will just keep welcoming, training, arming, financing, transporting, and helping the terrorists who do so.

The Obama administration has declared the war on terrorism to be over. But it also said that the United States viewed as an enemy al-Qaida and those working with it. The Syria-based Iraqi terrorists fall into that category. America sacrificed hundreds of lives for Iraq’s stability. Most of those soldiers and civilian contractors were murdered by the very terrorists harbored by Syria.

How can the administration distance itself from this conflict instead of supporting its ally and trying to act against the very terrorists who have murdered Americans?

Nominally, of course, the cheap way out was to say: We don’t know who did these particular bombings. Well, who do you think did it, men from Mars? Even this is not relevant since the Iraqi demand for the expulsion of the terrorists—who have committed hundreds of other acts—came before the latest attack even happened.

Moreover, the administration not only invoked its obsession with dialogue at any price but did so in an incorrect and dangerous manner. The Iraqi government had sought dialogue, had used diplomatic means, and was turned down flat. To make as your main point the theme that diplomatic dialogue should continue is to side with Syria against Iraq. The message conveyed by the U.S. government is: don't impose any sanctions against Syria, keep talking, and if the Syrians do nothing and continue sending terrorists across the border, well, you can...keep on talking forever.

So is this administration incapable of criticizing Syria? Even if it wants to engage in talks with Syria (or Iran or anyone else) it should understand that diplomacy is not inconsistent with pressure and criticism. On the contrary, these are tools needed to push the other side into concessions or compromises.

Looking at this latest development, how can any ally have confidence that the U.S. government will support it if menaced by terrorism or aggression? It can’t. The problem with treating enemies better than friends is that the friends start wondering whether their interests are better served by appeasing mutual enemies and by reducing cooperaiton with an unfaithful ally which ignores their needs.

Here's an excellent backgrounder on the Iraq-Syria issue. And on the al-Qaida connection with Syria, go here.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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