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The U.S.-Syria war of words: It’s getting personal

The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years. Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other’s officials. For instance, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.

Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other's officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.

The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.

Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other’s officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.

This week, the State Department unloaded on Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. On Tuesday, after the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Syrian officials, the State Department sent around some additional quotes to reporters about Muallem, to be attributed as coming from a "senior administration official."

"Walid Muallem has played a key role in trying to insulate the regime from the implications of its own brutality. By devoting himself to strenuously trying to hide Syrian government culpability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens, Muallem bears some responsibility for the crimes committee. He has intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," the senior administration official said.

Then came the kicker: "Muallem remains an unapologetic, shameless tool and mouthpiece of Bashar al-Assad," the senior administration said.

At Wednesday’s State Department briefing, reporters pressed spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether she would repeat these insults on the record, and whether she thought it was constructive to publicly demean the Syrian foreign minister.

Nuland’s answer was yes on both accounts.

"He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime’s capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens. Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He’s intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," she said.

"You know, we saw people in the Qaddafi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Bashar Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."

And Nuland had more Muallem bashing quotes in her briefing book:

"Not done. Not done. More Muallem," she said. "He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he’s strengthened Assad’s reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people."

Muallem is one of the key interlocutors between the Obama administration and the Assad regime, and the public sniping doesn’t bode well for future contact. It could also be awkward when Muallem comes to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, but apparently the State Department no longer cares about playing nice.

Some reports have suggested that the personal nature of the insults is based on long-standing grudges between some members of the Obama administration and the Syrian officials. This Associated Press article links the new rhetoric to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who survived an assassination attempt, presumably planned by Syria, when he was ambassador to Lebanon during the George W. Bush administration.

"The Assad regime is probably at the top of the suspect list," in terms of who tried to kill Feltman, said Andrew Tabler, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion’s Den, although Tabler doesn’t think the war of words is based solely on personal grudges.

"Engagement is over, we are now essentially in a policy of confrontation. It’s certainly a sign of the incredibly bad state of relations between the two countries," he said. "And it is getting nasty."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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