In a move that some say rewards Syria for its past and continued involvement in sponsoring terrorism, President Obama recently used a recess appointment to name Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005.
The US ambassadorial post had gone unfilled since the Bush administration recalled Ambassador Margaret Scobey in protest for what it said was Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.
Fueling speculation that Ford’s appointment is undeserved is the news that a UN tribunal is now preparing to indict members of the Syrian-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah for its involvement in al-Hariri’s assassination.
The UN indictment is said to include up to six members of Hezbollah, including Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah military commander and brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyah. Mugniyah, killed in a bomb blast in 2008, was the mastermind behind the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon in 1983, an action that killed 241 Marines. He and Badreddine are said to be linked to the car explosion that killed Prime Minister al-Hariri and 22 others in 2005.
Al-Hariri’s murder, which prompted a strong anti-Syrian protest by the Lebanese people (dubbed the Cedar Revolution), led to Syria ending its 29 year-old armed presence in Lebanon in April 2005. Since then, a Western-backed coalition government, which shares power with Hezbollah, has kept a fragile peace within the country.
It is a peace many fear could now explode with the indictment of the Hezbollah members by the UN, plunging Lebanon into a repeat of the sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that occurred in 2008, violence which killed 81 people.
Both Syria and Hezbollah have done nothing to allay those fears. Hezbollah’s No. 2 official, Naim Qassem, has said, “Such an indictment is a warning bell equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion, and is dangerous for Lebanon.” Added Syrian Presdient Bashar Assad, “Any clash at any time between any group will sabotage Lebanon and destroy it.”
Acutely aware that a UN indictment could ignite renewed sectarian strife, the Lebanese government has even gone out of its way to downplay the role of Syria in the murder of al-Hariri. Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, Sa’ad al-Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq al-Hariri, has said, “At a certain point we made a mistake in accusing Syria of assassinating the martyred prime minster. That was a political accusation and that political accusation has now come to an end.” The UN tribunal seems to have come to a far different conclusion.
Yet apparent UN corroboration of the Syrian connection to al-Hariri’s murder was not enough to deter Obama from naming Robert Ford as envoy to Damascus. Ford, whose term expires at the end of the next Congressional session in 2011, had been awaiting Senate confirmation since February 2010. However, no vote had been taken, primarily because of concerns expressed by lawmakers over continued transfers of long-range Scud missiles by Syria to Hezbollah.
Those apprehensions were voiced in a letter sent by a number of GOP senators to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2010, which read in part: “If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”
Unfortunately, the appointment of Ford as Syrian envoy seems to do nothing but compensate Syrian malfeasance. Incoming Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, echoed that sentiment when she said of Ford’s appointment:
Making undeserved concessions to Syria tells the regime in Damascus that it can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda and not face any consequences from the US. That is the wrong message to be sending to a regime which continues to harm and threaten US interests and those of such critical allies as Israel.
Syria certainly doesn’t ascribe to Ros-Lehtinen’s view, laying any blame for its actions squarely at the feet of those in the West. As Syrian President Assad told the German daily Bild:
The problem with the West is that they think they are the world, they forget about the rest of the world. The West cannot just keep following the ostrich policy where they put their head in the ground and they do not want to see what is happening in the world. In the world Syria’s image is very good.
Syria’s image has certainly improved in the eyes of the Obama administration, as it now argues that ending the five-year ambassadorial absence will help persuade Syria to change its policies regarding Israel, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as its willingness to support extremist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Yet, that stance seems to now stand in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s own stated position announced only months earlier, when it was strenuously accusing Syria, Iran and Hezbollah of trying to destabilize Lebanon.
In October 2010, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had singled out Syria in particular for displaying “flagrant disregard” for Lebanon’s political independence by ensuring that Hezbollah was the most heavily armed militia in the region.
State Department spokesman PJ Crowley went further by adding, “These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.”
It remains unclear as to what constructive role Syria has actually played since that time to now warrant a resumption of full diplomatic ties with the United States. Obama’s decision to tap Ford as US ambassador only serves to add confusion to the entire situation.
In either case, Ford’s appointment was greeted warmly by Syria. Issa Darwish, a former assistant foreign minister and a senior member of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, said, “Syria has proven, as President Bashar al-Assad has, that it is for peace. And experience has proven, over the past four decades that Syria is an important player in the region and it is in Washington’s interest to have an ambassador in Damascus to understand the political position of Syria.”
As a nation designated by the State Department to be a “state sponsor of terrorism,” Syria’s political position as a longtime agitator of regional unrest is all too clear. As one analyst said, “Syria views terror as a tool to achieve its political goals. Syria does not have a strong army and is using its terror support to show its presence and make the West take it into account as a major player in the Middle East.”
Unfortunately, the actions undertaken by the Obama administration only serves to demonstrate the wisdom of such a Syrian policy.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com or contact him at [email protected].
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