Rebuilding the ‘box’ around Syria

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When the Obama administration came to power, it began to dismantle the diplomatic “box” that had been built around Syria, a box meant to isolate it for its destabilizing behavior in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Administration officials argued that the international will to pressure Syria no longer existed and that an attempt at distancing it from Iran was worthwhile. The United States’ gentler approach has included sending senior officials to Damascus, refraining from public criticism of President Bashar Assad and his government, and nominating a U.S. ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years. But such engagement has proved its limits, and it’s time to put the box back together.

International concern with Syria is on the rise. Assad’s latest affront, despite genuine outreach to the Syrian leadership, was hosting a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in Damascus in April. This bold show of defiance — together with reports that Syria has supplied increasingly sophisticated weaponry, possibly including Scud missiles, to Hezbollah in Lebanon — left many in Washington, Paris, Cairo and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at a loss, trying to make sense of Assad’s strategic calculus. Did he not foresee the likely consequences? Could he not have taken advantage of Western and Arab efforts to woo him from Tehran? Was the message not getting through?

It’s hardly a message problem. More U.S., European and Arab officials have visited Damascus in the past months than at any time in the last five years. Assad has a very clear idea of how such behavior will be received in Western and Arab capitals. The problem is that he believes he can get away with it.

Further insight into Assad’s thinking surfaced this month when Hezbollah leaked to a Lebanese daily that its leader actually asked Assad if he was “capable of handling the international pressure that will ensue from the publication of the picture” showing the two of them together. The Syrian president reportedly replied: “I’ve handled heavier loads before; this will be an easy lift.”

Such reckless, triumphalist thinking seems to have struck a nerve. Signs of a tougher U.S. approach emerged when the State Department publicly summoned Syria’s ambassador and warned him against Syria supplying weapons to Hezbollah. In an angry congressional hearing, Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, warned that “all options will be considered” in responding to the Syrian missile transfers — diplospeak for “the use of force is on the table.”

And it didn’t stop there. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made equally strong public statements, demonstrating that alarm over Syria’s behavior extends to the upper echelons of the administration. Finally, President Obama renewed economic sanctions that Damascus has long pushed to repeal, reiterating that Syria continues to constitute a national security threat.

It’s important to note that the Obama administration’s frustration is not unique. France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq have all attempted a gentle approach with Assad and also come away empty-handed.

On May 2, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has visited Syria about 20 times since taking office, expressed concern over the Syrian effort to provide Hezbollah with an ever-growing and increasingly sophisticated “stockpile of weapons.” He described the situation as “dangerous and serious,” demanding that Syria “guarantee the security” of its border with Lebanon.

According to Arab media, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is equally disappointed and sent an envoy to Damascus in late April to express concern over Syria’s behavior, including Assad’s withdrawing support for Iyad Allawi, the Saudi and Western-backed Iraqi prime ministerial candidate.

Similarly, a reconciliation summit between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Assad scheduled to take place before last month’s Arab League summit was put off. Speculation is rife about when the meeting will be held, if at all. Assad’s deepening ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas mean the two countries’ strategic interests remain diametrically opposed on key issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and relations with the West.

The Obama administration will not be alone should it continue its tougher, more balanced approach with Syria. It should apply more political and economic pressure while leaving the door open to improved relations.

Through active multilateral diplomacy with European and Arab allies, the administration can again raise the opportunity cost for Syria’s bad behavior. Along with anchoring such a policy in existing United Nations’ resolutions, this will make U.S. policy more effective and legitimate.

Damascus may well try to undermine such a concerted effort to rebuild the diplomatic box that constrained it in the past. It might offer partial compromises with one or another of the allies. They should resist the allure of short-term concessions in favor of strengthening a credible deterrent against Syria’s provocations in the Mideast. It would then be left to Assad to decide whether his deepening relationship with Iran — and its proxies — is “an easy lift” or not.

Firas Maksad is a Washington-based Middle East analyst and advocate for Lebanon.