President Obama is sending Ambassador Robert Ford to Syria in a recess appointment, avoiding a political fight in Congress over his confirmation. This effort to “engage” the Baathist regime is likely to make Bashar Assad laugh as the U.S. pursues a futile effort to draw Syria away from Iran.
A U.S.-based democratic opposition group called the Reform Party of Syria is criticizing the move, especially due to its timing. The appointment comes only days after Bashar Assad met with a brutal terrorist named Samir Kuntar in his Presidential Palace. Kuntar used to be a member of the Palestine Liberation Front and has been convicted of killing innocent Israelis, including murdering a four-year old girl by smashing her skull with a rock. In November 2008, Assad presented Kuntar with Syria’s highest award after he was released from an Israeli prison as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah.
The engagement comes as Syria continues to host Baathist insurgents and elements of Al-Qaeda responsible for carrying out countless attacks in Iraq and sponsors Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. In March, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a member of Al-Qaeda living in Syria named Muthanna Harith al-Dari who was funding the training of Al-Qaeda members in Syria. The Assad regime’s collusion with these terrorists is so deep that in fall 2009, Iraq tried to have a U.N. tribunal established to prosecute Syrian officials and terrorists on Syrian soil, but failed to gain the support of the Obama Administration.
Syria refuses to allow the International Atomic Energy Organization to inspect three suspected nuclear sites and the agency says it has been uncooperative since June 2008. The Assad regime still will not answer questions about the nuclear reactor it was building with North Korean assistance that was destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007. It has, however, admitted to carrying out uranium conversion activities in 2004 that it previously did not disclose.
The Obama Administration previously backtracked on its plans to send an ambassador in September 2009 because of concerns that Syria using “security blackmail” against the U.S. “Assad fires a rocket here or there [in south Lebanon] and expects us to run to him,” one official said. So far, no one in the administration has publicly explained what has changed between now and then to justify sending the ambassador, though it is probable that it is related to the impending indictment of Hezbollah for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri by a U.N. tribunal.
Farid Ghadry, an Executive Member of the Reform Party of Syria, told FrontPage that the U.S. is also trying to win over the Assad regime so it does not complicate the removal of forces from Iraq.
“Assad has been using threats to get the U.S. to normalize relations with his regime, while offering no concessions, such as by warning the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq could be made very difficult,” Ghadry said.
“So, Obama is using Ambassador Robert Ford to comply with the demands of an extortionist. In my opinion, a U.S. President should never allow a third-rate terrorist dictator like Assad to impose his will on our great nation. That’s not the change Americans voted for.”
It has long been argued that Syria, as an Arab country with a secular government, can be given enough incentives to betray its alliance with Iran. There is absolutely no indication that the regime is open to this and Bashar Assad has openly made jokes about it when its been talked about in the Western press. In October, Iranian President Ahmadinejad gave Assad his country’s highest medal and Assad said, “We have stood beside Iran in a brotherly way from the very beginning of the [1979 Islamic] revolution.”
The timing and manner of this outreach to Syria is discouraging U.S. allies. During the second term of the Bush Administration, Lebanese opposition leaders that once bravely stood against Hezbollah and Syria caved and began embracing the Assad regime when it became clear they would not be given U.S. support. An anonymous Jordanian official has said, “No matter what the Syrians do, how they declare all the time they are allied with Iran, the U.S. is trying harder and harder to attract Syria and offer them more.” Another Egyptian official said, “Only if you’re tough with America and adopt an anti-U.S. stance will the U.S. have a more flexible attitude and pay you.”
The sending of the ambassador will give strength to an Assad regime at a time when it should be worrying. Its Iranian allies are suffering from the sanctions and popular discontent. Hezbollah is clearly fearful as it waits for the U.N. to issue indictments against some of its top officials and Iran has cut back funding to the terrorist group by 40 percent. The Syrian people are angry at the corruption in their government, their poor economic situation, and their lack of political and economic freedom. As Ghadry pointed out in June, Syria spends 35 percent of its GDP on defense but its average tank is nearly as old as the state of Israel.
The Assad regime is not strong and it has many weaknesses that should be exploited to force it to change its behavior. Instead, the Obama Administration is pursuing a fantasy that Syria can be persuaded to abandon its alliance with Iran and stop supporting terrorism. The only way to get Syria to change is to exert enormous pressure that destabilizes the regime or to change the regime.