The Middle East Channel

Why Syria needs to get a grip

Why Syria needs to get a grip

Earlier this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to forward the nomination of Ambassador Robert Ford to the full Senate for confirmation as ambassador to Syria. If his appointment is confirmed — an outcome that seems increasingly unlikely — Ford would become the first diplomat to occupy the post since 2005, when the U.S. downgraded relations following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. For the Syrian regime, his arrival in Damascus would be the most significant result to date of the Obama administration’s commitment to engagement. Both Washington and Damascus see the return of a U.S. ambassador as a tangible indicator of just how far the U.S. has traveled in its policy toward Syria since George Bush left the White House in January, 2009.

Yet Syria too has traveled a considerable distance since Ford’s predecessor left Damascus five years ago. Against all odds, and after a decade in which the regime’s very survival seemed at times to be uncertain, this is a moment of Syrian triumphalism. It is a moment of renewed conviction among Syria’s leaders that they are, at long last, reaping the rewards of steadfastness and resistance. After years of international pressure and isolation, and despite continuing sanctions, Syria’s leaders believe that regional and international tides have shifted decisively in their direction. Vindication is in the air in Damascus. Recent controversies over alleged Syrian transfers of SCUD missiles to Hezbollah and Israeli murmurings of a summer war in Lebanon suggest that it has already made the Levant more dangerous and unstable. The Syrian regime’s triumphalist sensibility has visibly sharpened differences between Damascus and Washington, weakened the hand of advocates of engagement, and begun to reshape the strategic landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If the Syrians hope to benefit from their new position, the Assad regime needs to curb its triumphalism. But this is all the more reason for the U.S. to get Ambassador Ford to Damascus — where effective diplomatic representation is more needed by the day.

The Syrian mood could be heard in President Assad’s response in an interview with al-Manar to Ambassador Ford’s March 16confirmation hearings: "A fine ambassador with a bad policy is worthless. The results will not be good." These comments were preceded by the "resistance summit" of late February in Damascus between President Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, during which Assad ridiculed U.S. efforts to weaken Syria’s alliance with Iran. During that summit Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, signaled a significant shift in Syrian security doctrine, committing Syrian forces in the event of renewed conflict between Israel and Hizballah. This week, senior Israeli officials went public with reports that Syria has begun supplying Hizballah with Scud missiles, potentially extending the range and accuracy of its already formidable arsenal. The administration has responded to these reports by summoning a senior Syrian diplomat to the State Department yesterday to condemn "in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the SCUD, from Syria to Hizballah."

These moves, which have escalated tensions between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, bear the classic hallmarks of a triumphalist mindset, recognizable from America’s own post-Cold War experience: an exaggerated sense of capabilities, unrealistic expectations, and an increased tolerance for risk. This is a highly combustible combination, all the more so because it follows nearly a full decade in which President Assad struggled, initially to secure his own position against internal rivals, and then, after February 2005, against extraordinary diplomatic and economic sanctions led by the U.S. that sharply curtailed his room for maneuver. Now, finally emerging from those dark days, Syria’s newly confident leaders have little appetite for either moderation or compromise. This is evident not only in the strategic realm, but in the economic and political arenas, as well. Over the past year, the Syrian regime has deepened its repression of local dissidents. And late last year, Syria "postponed" signing a long sought after Association Agreement with the EU that would have required Syria to address European concerns about human rights.

The triumphalist mood of Syria’s leaders admittedly reflects how much conditions on the ground have changed over the past couple of years, especially since Lebanon’s Parliamentary elections of June, 2009. Over this period, European states that had joined in sanctioning Syria after 2005 began processes of rapprochement, led by the French. Saudi Arabia began to mend ties with Syria that had frayed with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Lebanese leaders have also been compelled to acknowledge Syria’s continuing influence in their country. Prime Minister Saad Hariri made an obligatory pilgrimage to Damascus in late 2009, despite lingering perceptions about Syrian complicity in his father’s assassination. More recently, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, a sharp critic of Syria after 2005, returned to the fold in a meeting with President Assad that was carefully staged to telegraph the changing balance of power in the region. Jumblatt was accompanied on his visit by senior Hizballah officials, and was reportedly instructed that all future communications with Syria were to be made through Hizballah intermediaries — a stark humiliation for one of  Lebanon’s leading power brokers. In addition, a visit by President Assad to Cairo is in the works, signaling a notable improvement in Syrian-Egyptian relations after an extended period of estrangement. Even the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination has recently turned its attention away from Syria towards Hizballah. And while an indictment of senior Hizballah officials would be of concern to Syria, the tribunal elicits far less worry in Damascus today than it did in its earliest phases when it focused on Syrian involvement in the death of Rafik Hariri. None of these shifts have involved any tangible concessions on Syria’s part in areas of greatest concern either to moderate Arab leaders or to the U.S.

Engagement of Syria, whether by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, or France, is based on a gamble. By giving Syria’s leaders options other than Iran and Hizballah, and by holding out the prospect of long-term regime security, engagement creates incentives for Syrian moderation. In theory. Thus far the bet has not paid off. Instead, Syria’s leaders have pocketed their gains and raised the stakes, strengthening Hizballah’s arsenal and deepening its strategic ties with Iran. 

Should the U.S. put engagement on hold in response? Should Ford’s appointment be delayed in the Senate? As tempting as these options might appear, they should be avoided. There is little to be gained and much to be lost by slowing either Ford’s confirmation or his departure for Damascus. Indeed, Syria’s recent trajectory makes this a critical moment for the U.S. to have an ambassador on the ground in Damascus. To be sure, American leverage over Syria is limited. Expectations for what Ford can accomplish must be realistic. Yet even under these conditions, American diplomacy is unnecessarily hamstrung by the continued absence of an ambassador. As regional tensions escalate, the U.S. will need all the resources it can muster to avoid another round of conflict. Diplomatic representation in Damascus is not a reward for good behavior, but rather the return of an important instrument of political leverage which could help to prevent the problems already on the horizon. And there is always a chance, however slight, that a "good ambassador" can help to curb Syria’s triumphalism, not least by communicating directly to the Syrian leadership that engagement is not an open ended commitment, and cannot remain a one-way street.

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of the Grants and Fellowships program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace.