Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Shadow Play: Agents of Influence on Egypt Ambassador Pick Robert S. Ford

Syria may be getting a new U.S. ambassador, but the problem of Syrian engagement is far from solved

Lee Smith
April 21, 2010
Robert Ford at a hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to Syria last month.(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Ford at a hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to Syria last month.(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Ambassador Robert Ford is a career foreign-service officer with a distinguished record who now finds himself under a strange spotlight, one that illuminates one of Washington’s most heated debates: What direction should U.S. policy on Syria take? Some argue that the United States should continue to isolate a regime that has declared itself our enemy, as we did during the Bush years; others contend that we should turn the page and engage Damascus. Ford is the man the White House has tapped as the next U.S. ambassador to Damascus, five years after the last one was withdrawn following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri’s murder touched off the Cedar Revolution that seemed, for a time, as if it might herald the rebirth of a democratic Lebanon, free from the control of the Assad regime in Syria, which saw Lebanon as part of its historical inheritance. The prospect of an independent Lebanon was even less appealing to the Syrians than was the prospect of a democratic neighbor in Iraq, where Damascus also employed terrorism as part of its strategy to roll back the United States and its partners in the Middle East. Syria’s war targeted not only American allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, but also U.S. diplomats and military personnel. Since 2003, Syria has served as the main transit route that foreign fighters use to enter Iraq, and it has provided financial, logistical, and operational support to a wide range of insurgent forces aiming to kill American soldiers.

Accordingly, Damascus has few friends in Washington. But it nonetheless occupies a unique position in U.S. policymaking circles: Syria kills Americans and our allies, but its strategic significance pales in comparison to China, Russia, and Iran, which makes it a second- or even third-tier issue. And even as Syria policy fosters loud debate, surprisingly, that debate doesn’t break over strictly partisan lines; the split is reflected throughout Washington, even in the U.S. military, and within the Obama Administration.

The foremost proponent of reaching out to Syria is the commander-in-chief, and yet more than a year after taking office, President Barack Obama has been unable to make good on his campaign promise of engaging this adversary. The first step is to return an ambassador to Damascus, a White House campaign spearheaded, oddly, by Sen. John Kerry, who has effectively become Damascus’s voice in official Washington and the most prominent U.S. official with a soft spot for a regime that much of Washington loves to hate.

This past week was a bad one for those eager to reach out to Syria. It was reported that Damascus is believed to have transferred to Hezbollah Scud missiles that would be able to reach any part of Israel. “The threat that Syria might transfer more advanced weapons to Hezbollah has existed for a long time,” says Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush White House and is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “With respect to Scuds, it has been understood the Israelis would interdict such a shipment. I do not recall the Bush Administration ever expressing disagreement with that view.”

The Obama Administration seems to feel differently. Initial reports explained that the White House convinced the Israelis not to attack the arms shipment and promised that Kerry would deliver a strong message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his visit to Damascus early this month. U.S. officials confirmed Kerry did indeed convey the Americans’ displeasure even as more recent reports suggest that the Obama Administration now believes that the actual transfer may not have occurred.

“If it didn’t happen now it will happen in the future,” says Dov Weisglass, at one time a close adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking by phone over the weekend from Israel. “The concern is about long-range missiles, which would put two halves of Israel under threat by Iranian assets. Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. You don’t have to be a strategist to understand that if Iran will be pressured, or there will be an operation against Iran by any party, the entire length of Israel will be in range of missiles fired by Iran’s allies.”

There are others in Israel, however, who don’t think it’s that large a cause for concern. “It’s not that dramatic,” Giora Eiland, Israel’s former national security adviser, told me last week. “It means that for the first time Hezbollah has ballistic missiles, but this is not a game-changer. Due to Israeli air superiority, their launchers would be a relatively easy target. We are much more concerned about the thousands of other rockets in Lebanon that despite their limited size and effective range can cause much more significant damage.” Even Weisglass is quick to admit that Israel has more pressing concerns than the Scud story, noting that the story didn’t even make the local front pages, which are occupied with a corruption case against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Despite the claims of some American analysts that Israel is using the Scud scare to change the subject and divert attention from the stalled peace process, the Syrian Scud story has had more traction in the United States than in Israel. The story is less about Israeli security than it is a chapter in the ongoing Washington feud over Syria policy, an intra-American conflict that touches on larger issues like terrorism and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Even those who want to engage the Syrian regime do not necessarily believe that Damascus is a likely friend. While it is no secret in Washington that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus wants to speak with the Syrians himself, his reasons for wanting to go to Damascus have never been clear. Does Petraeus think he can make the Syrian regime see the light, or does he just want to stare down the men he and his successor in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, accuse of backing the foreign fighters that kill U.S. soldiers?

Many of those who are most contemptuous of the Syrian regime are to be found in the State Department, which in the past has been an Arabist stronghold where Damascus has held pride of place. That is no longer the case, at least in part due to the history that the Arabists’ boss, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, has with the Assad regime. Three years ago, when Feltman was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Syria tried to assassinate him in Beirut. Today, the State Department barely conceals the fact that one of their reasons for wanting to send an ambassador back to Damascus is to allow U.S. diplomats to circumvent the untrustworthy and obnoxious Syrian envoy to Washington, Imad Moustapha.

One of the best known, and least liked, diplomatic presences inside the Beltway, Moustapha was heard around town boasting that Syria had the new president in its pocket before Obama even came to office. So, when Feltman invited Moustapha to Foggy Bottom for the 2009 meeting that was meant to signal a new beginning between the two countries, State Department staffers enjoyed humbling Moustapha: Among other things, the Syrian ambassador was unceremoniously yanked off a red carpet that he assumed had been rolled out for his arrival. The State Department believes that Moustapha can’t even be trusted to relay simple messages back to Damascus, and indeed it was Middle East envoy George Mitchell who had to explain U.S. sanctions to the Syrians when Mustapha had failed to perform his job.

That brings us to what is perhaps the most salient point of the Scud story—that the political official representing Washington’s views to Damascus is Kerry. Some of those in favor of engaging Syria—a group that might include Kerry himself—would argue that having a senator rather than a diplomat running interference proves that the U.S. needs an ambassador in Damascus who can deliver tough messages to a recalcitrant regime. However, it is not clear that the White House really wants to send tough messages or it would not be using Kerry, as it is an open secret around town that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Teresa, are enamored of Bashar al-Assad and his stylish first lady, Asma.

One American official who is less smitten with the Assad regime is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, like others in Foggy Bottom, has a history with the Syrians. Her sentiment is at least partly due to her husband having sent his secretaries of state, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, to Damascus almost 50 times during the 1990s in a series of unsuccessful attempts to broker a deal between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and successive Israeli prime ministers. Maybe Clinton is not handling Syria policy because she does not want a Syrian president keeping her waiting on the tarmac at Damascus Airport for hours, as Hafez al-Assad did to Christopher, or perhaps it is because Obama trusts Kerry more. In any case, the fact that Kerry is on point and Clinton has been silent on the Scud story is a sign of how high up the split over Syria policy goes.

While the senators holding up the appointment of the ambassador are all Republican, the Syria argument crosses partisan lines, with prominent Democrats like Eliot Engel, Gary Ackerman, and Sen. Barbara Boxer having expressed their misgivings about the aadministration’s stated policy of engaging Damascus. Washington officials’ feelings about Syria are not determined by their affection for Israel. Indeed, this is one place where America’s pro-Israel camp and Israeli opinion appear to part company. Surprising as it may seem, many Israeli political, military, and intelligence officials are somewhat kindly predisposed toward Syria.

From the Israeli perspective, Syria’s is a weak regime that can make neither war nor peace. Assad is an Alawite, a minority Muslim sect that would incur the wrath of the country’s majority Sunni population if he dared sign a treaty with the Zionists. This suits Jerusalem just fine, as it has no desire to return the Golan Heights to Syria. While Damascus is allied with Iran and supports proxies that wage war against Israel, a more significant fact for many Israeli strategists is that the Assads, father and son, have kept the Syrian-Israeli border the most peaceful in all the Middle East for more than 35 years. Jerusalem is loath to change the equation by risking an attack on Syria that, in some Israeli scenarios, may topple Assad and bring to power a militant Islamist regime.

It’s true that in the wake of the Scud story, the Israelis warned Damascus that missile attacks from Hezbollah would precipitate immediate retaliation against Syria itself. But it’s unclear how seriously anyone takes that threat. After all, a few months ago when Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman engaged in a constructive bit of deterrence and warned Assad that, “when there is another war, you will not just lose it, but you and your family will lose power,” he was quickly hushed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In the event of a Hezbollah attack, all that is certain is that Israel will level Lebanon. “People believe there is a confrontation in Lebanon between the bad guys, Hezbollah, and the good guys, the government of Lebanon,” Giora Eiland says. “But the only real strategic decisions are made by Hezbollah. So, if there is real violence from Lebanon, Israel policy will be very different than it was during the 2006 war. We will hold the government of Lebanon responsible, and the immediate consequence will be the total destruction of Lebanon.”

That prospect, which is abundantly clear in Washington, is one reason for the split on Syria policy. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution won a lot of sympathy on both sides of the aisle. We may have abandoned Lebanese democracy, but that doesn’t mean that the sentimental attachment to the country and its citizens in the pro-democracy March 14 movement is entirely dead. Lebanon’s American friends do not want to see the land of cedars turned to rubble on behalf of a joint Syrian and Iranian project.

The argument over how to engage Syria encompasses, then, both sentimental and strategic logic. It’s a debate in which emotions run surprisingly high for a country that has nothing like the significance of China, Russia, or Iran, because finally the argument is little more than a shadow play. Washington doesn’t like the fact that Syria kills Americans and our friends, but since we are not willing to stop them by killing those Syrians responsible, there is little that we can do about it. So, we argue with ourselves about sending an ambassador to Damascus.

The reality is rather more consequential than the phony argument over Syria policy would suggest. The issue is finally about terrorism, which is not the work of shadowy networks hiding in caves and rogue operators whose grievances about the end of the Ottoman caliphate and the plight of the Palestinians can be soothed by an American public diplomacy campaign. This is a fiction, and the truth could not be any clearer. As Syrian support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a host of other organizations shows, Islamic terrorism is how Middle Eastern regimes fight for their strategic interests. If we let Syria off the hook for its proven acts of terror against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, as well as U.S. allies in Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq, we have all but announced that in the event of future attacks on the U.S. homeland we will never retaliate against the states without which so-called stateless terrorist organizations cannot exist. We will have effectively disabled any deterrence we have against our adversaries and make our cities vulnerable to anyone who can lie his way past the Transportation Security Administration.

Obama’s public diplomacy is premised on the notion of reaching out to the Muslim masses and encouraging moderate streams of Islam, a strategy that is incongruous with a diplomacy that also reaches out to Muslim states that not only breed and support extremism but also arm it to kill Americans.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.