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Roadblocks to Damascus | The Nation

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Roadblocks to Damascus

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The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria's response to Israel's unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

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Frederick Deknatel
Frederick Deknatel is a freelance journalist who writes about the Middle East. He contributes to The Nation, the Los...

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With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that's only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region's busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford's nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that "if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior."

This week, skeptics and opponents of engagement got a new round of ammunition when the Wall Street Journal, citing Israeli and American officials plus "a Western intelligence source," reported that since 2009 Iran has supplied Syria with an advanced radar system that "could threaten Israel's ability to launch a surprise attack against Iran's nuclear facilities." The improved radar "could bolster Syria's defenses by providing early warning of Israeli air-force sorties," the Journal  reported, and it could also "increase the accuracy of Hezbollah's own missiles and bolster its air defenses."

Iran and Syria both denied the transfer, which stoked already-tense fears of war on the border of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. The Journal said the transfer "could potentially violate" a UN Security Council resolution "that bans Iran from supplying, selling or transferring ‘any arms or related materiel.' "

* * *

Ever since Barack Obama's election, Washington has been full of talk of engagement, with Syria a test case. Ford's nomination in February fulfilled Obama's pledge in late June 2009, following his address earlier that month to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo, to return an ambassador to Syria. It fits the president's commitment, reiterated in his recent address to graduating cadets at West Point, to "the renewed engagement of our diplomats" with countries isolated by the Bush administration—a speech in which Obama also argued that "engagement is not an end in itself." 

Yet disagreements about the administration's broader goals, and a growing skepticism among political opponents of the endpoints of engagement, have stalled Ford's appointment. "In a sense, the debate over the ambassador is a debate over whether the administration has a policy with Syria beyond engagement," said David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the conservative, Israel-friendly Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Engagement isn't a policy," he said, echoing other observers. "What is the goal? The ambassador is not a gift, but it demonstrates a high level of goodwill on the part of the US to change the footing [with Syria], and there is no level of reciprocity whatsoever."

"The Scuds are symbolic, and on one level it's a bit of a red herring," said Mona Yacoubian, a special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace. "But I do believe that the seriousness of the allegations and the timing of the reports derailed [Ford's] confirmation."

Indeed, before Kerry's most recent visit, President Obama renewed sanctions against Syria, first imposed by George W. Bush in 2004. The sanctions single out Syria's "continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs [that] continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to…the United States." The harsh rhetoric certainly does not match the administration's hope of improved relations.

Nor does it match the promising oratory of his Cairo speech, which has produced just what it didn't intend: skepticism and dismissal from many in the Middle East who cheered the address a year ago. Today the Arab world sees unchanged American policies after Obama spoke of "a new beginning." Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, has called this "a sweetened poison." In Syria's case, soaring rhetoric had to cope with the reality of US-Syria relations, which have been cold for decades due to the longstanding conflict between Syria and America's main Middle East ally, Israel.

* * *

Like the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights were seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Regaining sovereignty over the fertile and strategic plateau above the Sea of Galilee underlies Damascus's foreign policy. According to Joshua Landis, a professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma who runs the influential blog Syria Comment, "Syria cannot allow peace to reign on those borders forever, unless it wants to re-evaluate its attachment to the Golan, which it has said it does not want to do. It maintains relations to do just that. That's why it's arming Hezbollah. Unless Syria can raise the price for Israel to keep the Golan, the issue will be dead."

And since the right-wing Netanyahu government has pledged that "the Golan will remain in our hands"—like the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements—any diminution in Syria's support for Hezbollah seems unlikely.

"I think the administration still doesn't know—and for quite good reason—what to do with a rejectionist, recalcitrant Israeli government that imposes these limitations," on American policy in the region, said Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow and co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. Conservative think tanks like the Washington Institute do not endorse that view, but Andrew Tabler, a fellow there, still acknowledged the gears in the region. "Peace talks with Israel are the air-conditioner in the room," he said. "It cools down everything. All the bilateral problems between the US and Syria, in [Syria's] mind, are easier to handle—but those talks are not coming. Therefore it's caused Syria to make calculations to arm Hezbollah. There's not very much that the US can do, because the Israelis are staying out of this right now. A lot of Syria's policies are related to its postures vis-à-vis Israel."

Regardless of its strategic purpose, Syria's arming of Hezbollah is the primary concern of Washington hawks. Tabler, who has defended American sanctions, called the Scud reports "the icing on the cake of arms transfers over the past year that has caused alarm not only with the Israelis but also the US, in terms of how it judges if Syria is being a cooperative player." Of the recent report of Syrian radar supplied by Iran, Tabler said, "What these stories are doing is firmly painting a picture of Syria in the Iranian orbit. These are massively destabilizing moves. We always assume that a war starts with Hezbollah and Israel, and Syria stays out of the way of its proxy. Now we are looking at a situation where a war could be waged, on a small scale, on Syrian sites—not bombing Damascus, but facilities in the northern Bekaa Valley [in Lebanon] and in the border areas [of Syria].

"The radar could help Hezbollah deal with Israeli aircraft, which the Israelis have always said is a red line," Tabler continued. "If Assad continues to go over all of these red lines, it is only a matter of time before the Israelis make a calculation."

Landis was more skeptical; he expected opponents of Syrian engagement to focus on the radar allegations as a violation of a new round of sanctions on Iran. "This is the perfect little mine to plant in the way of engagement," he said, while calling the radar upgrade "defensive."

"It is logical that Syria would upgrade a radar system that it hasn't upgraded for years"—a period of time in which Israel has bombed Syria, most notably the destruction of a possible nuclear plant on the Euphrates River in 2007. Landis noted that Israel is improving its own radar significantly with its so-called Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept short-range rockets and artillery.

"That Syria would upgrade its defensive measures is just prudent. But it offers a measure to stop engagement and perhaps get more Congressional legislation for sanctioning Syria—in effect, to trap Syria in this web of legal impediments to engagement. It throws a roadblock in front of Obama's engagement strategy, and could raise an international flag for going after Syria in a new way that encourages Iran and Syria to strengthen their alliance."

"The overall claim that Hezbollah is getting stronger and becoming big part of the architecture in Lebanon is not a shock," Landis said. The Scud allegations, he added, were "made to stall Ford and derail Obama's engagement, and was a well-crafted little campaign, but it shouldn't have been news to anybody."

Tabler's colleague Schenker expanded that view. "Regardless of whether you're a believer in the [Scud] story or not, everyone can agree that the quality of the weaponry that Syria has supplied to Hezbollah has increased their capabilities militarily and worsened the situation on the border. The Scuds would be emblematic of reckless, destabilizing Syrian behavior," Schenker said, while conceding that if the reports are not true—as both the Lebanese government and the commander of the United Nations force in Lebanon have said—the Syrians "have done other things."

It's those "other things" that worry many observers. Last fall, Jane's Defense Weekly reported that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with M-600 rockets, a Syrian-made version of the Iranian Fateh 110, whose range is around 160 miles, longer than any rocket used in the thirty-three-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. These and the arsenal of smaller, short-range rockets are far more of a strategic threat to Israel than Scuds, which despite their longer range (some 430 miles) are less mobile, slower to launch and an easier target for the Israeli Air Force.

Syria's rapid rearming of Hezbollah since 2006 is hardly a new discovery; the Israeli military says Hezbollah has tripled its number of surface-to-surface rockets since 2006, to around 40,000. So why did Washington and Tel Aviv respond so forcefully to the recent unconfirmed allegations of Scud transfers? On the other hand, why would Syria risk derailing American rapprochement by continuing to arm Hezbollah?

"The Scud has a certain kind of mystique about it," said Elias Muhanna, a political analyst and author of the Lebanese blog Qifa Nabki. "Netanyahu has come out and said there will be no trade on the Golan. You get a sense that both sides [Israel and Syria] are looking to put the issue back on the front page, but for their own reasons."

* * *

"I don't think anyone ever saw Ford's nomination as a panacea," said Daniel Levy. "When Obama renewed the sanctions, he mentioned some improvement in relations with Syria"—in a message to Congress, Obama acknowledged "some progress" in stemming the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq—"but I think the Syrians knew all along this would be limited engagement as long as Israel is not part of the equation."

In the end, then, the political disagreements in Washington over whether and how to engage Damascus are a function of America's relationship with Israel. It is an argument about linkage: whether to carry out peace negotiations on separate tracks, as the administration is currently attempting to do through proximity talks between Israel and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, or whether to join them comprehensively—not only with the Syrians, but with Hamas in Gaza. According to some experts, the failure to work out an Israel-Palestine peace deal will only increase the prospect of war between Israel and Hezbollah—and perhaps Syria too. Others, like former Clinton and Obama advisor Robert Malley, argue that no peace deal is possible without Hamas. Given Syria's closeness with Hamas—the movement's exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal, and his political office are sheltered in Damascus—Syria could seek to derail broad Palestinian-Israeli negotiations if they see diminishing hope of getting back the Golan.

"If you don't think there is linkage, and if the administration's view is that there is no linkage, then there's really no reason to take Syria seriously," said Landis. "The majority opinion in Washington is that the situation [in the region] is livable. The status quo is livable."

"It all has to do with balance of power," Landis continued, "because the Scud thing raises the question again: is the US committed to Israel's military superiority, which allows it to keep land?"

A decade ago, US-brokered peace talks between Syria and Israel were close to a conclusion. But Israel's prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak (currently Netanyahu's defense minister), reportedly balked at Syria's willingness to compromise for the Golan. This infuriated Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who felt double-crossed and walked away from the talks. He died later that year. Acting as intermediary, Turkey revived talks in 2008. But they collapsed later that year with Israel's assault on Gaza. Israel's recent deadly attack on the Free Gaza flotilla has likely dashed any possibility of resumed Turkish mediation in the immediate future.

"Hafez had realized that there was no longer any real bulwark against American hegemony in the region like there had been with the Soviets, so he had to cut a deal," Muhanna said, reflecting on the 2000 negotiations. "But today Bashar looks around the region and sees a totally different situation."

While Washington debates placing an ambassador in the empty residence in Damascus, Moscow is happily restoring relations with a country that was once a prime Soviet ally in the region. The scruffy port of Tartus, just north of Lebanon, was once a major refueling station for the Soviet fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Relations cooled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Tartus began to host more fishing and container ships than military cruisers. Today Russia is dredging and restoring the harbor there to expand its service to the Russian navy, with rumors that it could become a permanent base. More joint oil and gas deals are being signed. In May Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Syria with businessmen in tow—the first Russian head of state to visit Syria. "It's a perfect recipe for Russia to exploit, and that is exactly what they are doing," said Landis.

A few days after Kerry's visit, Charlie Rose was in Damascus to interview Assad (they last talked in 2006). Rose's first questions were about meeting Kerry. "It is said he came here as an emissary of President Obama. What is possible with respect to relations with America?" Rose asked.

"If [America] wants to play the role of the arbiter, it cannot play that role while it is siding with the Israelis," Assad replied. "It has to be an impartial arbiter. It has to gain the trust of the different players. If you don't have good relations with Syria, how can Syria depend on you as an arbiter?"

In the mid-1980s Mona Yacoubian studied in Syria on a Fulbright grant. Relations "at the level of high policy were terrible," she remembered, "but the notion of not having an ambassador for five years in those years would have seemed ludicrous. You need this direct line to the government and control over your message, so trust and personal relationships are built—essential parts of engagement." And engagement, she said, is not about "high-level, official trips to Damascus, but the hard, day-to-day work of diplomacy, which is not glamorous. It's a slog, about building trust and insights. And those cannot be accomplished without an ambassador."

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