Marc Lynch

Is something brewing with Syria?

 Former Bush NSC official Elliott Abrams today declares that Obama’s policy of reaching out to Syria is failing.  The Washington Institute’s Andrew Tabler a few days ago declared that Obama’s policy of reaching out to Syria is failing. These strikingly similar essays seem to mirror what Israeli sources told the Jerusalem Post, that the US ...

 Former Bush NSC official Elliott Abrams today declares that Obama’s policy of reaching out to Syria is failing.  The Washington Institute’s Andrew Tabler a few days ago declared that Obama’s policy of reaching out to Syria is failing. These strikingly similar essays seem to mirror what Israeli sources told the Jerusalem Post, that the US is unhappy with Syria’s response to its outreach.  This all suggests, of course, that perhaps something is going right with Obama’s outreach to Syria.  What might it be?

 First, the bill of indictment.  The argument for failure rests primarily on Iraqi accusations of Syrian responsibility for last month’s horrific bombings in Baghdad which have thrown a deep chill onto Syrian-Iraqi relations.   It also includes the continuing presence of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus, the continuing stalemate in Lebanan’s efforts to form a government, and Bashar al-Asad’s visit to Tehran. 

 Most of these are just silly.  If visiting Tehran is a red line, Washington will need to have some long talks with Nuri al-Maliki, Jalal Talabani, and virtually every other Iraqi politician. 

 Blaming Hezbollah alone for the fiasco of Lebanese coalition politics — as March 14th’s attempt to form a goverment enters its 9th week — is ridiculous.  Most analysts warned at the time of the Lebanese elections that an attempt by March 14 to remove Hezbollah’s cabinet veto would be a dangerous over-reach which would paralyze Lebanese politics, and that it should instead seek a national consensus government.  Those who have encouaraged March 14 leaders to play hardball against Hezbollah bear at least as much responsibility for the gridlock there. 

 It’s true that Hamas still operates out of Damascus. It’s also true that Hamas leaders have made frequent appearances in Cairo, and that Khaled Meshaal just visited Amman for his father’s funeral.  The main focus of regional diplomacy — if not so much of American diplomacy —  has been to find a workable formula for a Palestinian unity government and the reunification of the West Bank and Gaza.  Whatever Syria’s role, Hamas has in fact made a number of important overtures over the last few months towards accepting the principle of a two-state solution.  Those may not satisfy the Quartet pre-conditions, but that’s mainly a problem with a rigid and counter-productive fetishization of the Quartet pre-conditions. 

 That leaves the Iraq-Syria spat — the ferocity of which has been genuinely surprising. That’s because up until that moment, Syria had very much seemed to be responding to American concerns on Iraq.  Maliki’s decision to focus on Syria after the bombings followed directly on his visit to Damascus, which had seemed to generate considerable progress towards revising Syrian-Iraqi relations, and a series of visits by American military officials.  I’m skeptical about any direct Syrian role in those horrific bombings, which makes the question one of Maliki’s calculations rather than of Syria’s.  An interesting issue to pursue, but of little support to the Abrams/Tabler et al thesis. 

 I wouldn’t say that the engagement with Syria has been a brilliant success at this point.  I’ve been frustrated with the "business as usual" approach of Syrian diplomacy, and Syria’s refusal to take more dramatic steps to this point.  But then, I’ve also been frustrated with aspects of the American approach to the peace process, and it’s not as if Netanyahu’s government has done much to merit any such moves at this point.

 There’s little reason to pronounce the failure of the outreach to Syria at this point, except for those who have always expected it — and always wanted it — to fail. Engagement is a slow process which was never expected to pay immediate dividends.  Its value (or lack thereof) will be seen when Obama’s intiatives on the peace process finally begin to unfold.  The sudden rush of anti-Syrian commentary by hawkish essayists and Israeli sources actually suggests that something may be afoot which they don’t want to see.  What might that be? 

 Meanwhile, Abrams does do a real service in his essay.  After attacking Obama’s outreach, he then argues that Bush’s policy failed because it was "far too soft" and didn’t take the "direct action" which might have worked, but at least had "moral clarity."  It’s useful to be reminded of how Bush administration officials approached such issues when you start to get frustrated with Obama’s team. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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