Across the Bay

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is the Obama Administration Fed Up with Syria?

Hussain Abdul-Hussain has a very interesting report in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai today (Arabic): As a result of its frustration with Assad's negative behavior, Abdul-Hussain writes, the Obama administration has decided against sending its ambassador back to Syria at this time, in a reversal of the announcement made 100 days ago.

This report comes a few days after Jackson Diehl wrote in the Washington Post that "George J. Mitchell, the Middle East envoy, appears to have given up on including Syria in the Middle East negotiations he is preparing to launch." Mitchell did not include Syria on the itinerary of his current trip to the region.

Abdul-Hussain spoke to unnamed sources and US officials who expressed to him that the Obama administration has had it with the Syrians, who, according to one source, "don't know the difference between normalizing relations and [them] behaving like they've defeated the US in a world war."

Anyone who's read my commentary, whether here or elsewhere, knows full well that that's precisely how the Syrians were interpreting engagement. Remember Imad Shoueibi, the incomparable apparatchik who declared that Syria had "broken" the US, and that it was therefore "up to the defeated to present his menu and up to the victor to present his demands," even threatening then Acting Asst. Sec. Feltman?! And of course, who can forget the comedy classic, the list of conditions to "Abu Hussein" from the regime's most amusing clown, Sami Moubayed?

The sources go on to tell Abdul-Hussain, in an unamused tone, that "Assad had started to count the American eggs in his basket before offering anything in return," adding, "Assad fires a rocket here or there [in south Lebanon] and expects us to run to him... This kind of security blackmail no longer works on the United States."

However, the straw that broke the camel's back, according to Abdul-Hussain's sources, was the regime's behavior after special envoy George Mitchell's latest trip to Syria in July. Abdul-Hussain's sources provide us with a recounting of what happened at the meeting between Assad and Mitchell, and what ensued afterwards:

"During the meeting between Mitchell and Assad in Damascus, the Syrian president asked the American envoy to explain to him the articles in the Syria sanctions. Mitchell pulled out the sanctions draft and read it article by article, and explained it in detail to Assad, which took over an hour and a half... Mitchell concluded by explaining the mechanism of placing and lifting sanctions, and informed Assad that they were reviewed yearly, and that they could be lifted if and when the necessary conditions were met."

However, the Syrians, who are always eager to portray relations with Washington as being on an inevitable path of entente, leaked, either intentionally or by mistake, that the US had promised to lift the sanctions imposed on Syria. Before Mitchell's plane landed in Dulles airport... a wave of anger was sweeping through official hallways in Washington. The State Department had not given Mitchell any instructions that would give the impression that it had any intention of lifting the sanctions. Likewise, several members of Congress were angry, and quickly requested meetings with diplomats from State in order to be briefed on the US envoy's meeting with Assad.

Mitchell showed the official minutes of the meeting with Assad to his colleagues at State and to his former colleagues in Congress. "When we read what really happened between the two men, we reached a singular decision: Assad was always trying to play us, and we had to prove to him that Washington's plans in the region are not dependent on him," said one high-level US source.
But what really angered the US administration, according to the sources, was that "after months of dialogue with him (Assad), he hadn't changed an inch in his behavior, and offered us nothing of what we were asking. Instead, he always asks us about what we can offer him, under the mercy of blackmail and instigating [security] incidents in the region... America will not succumb to Syrian blackmail."

The bit about the Syrians eagerly and prematurely leaking the disinformation about sanctions is certainly true, and I've written about it recently. Essentially, it's Imad Moustapha's doing (via the WSJ), which didn't win him any chums here (not that the had many). And apparently, according to rumors, his standing in Syria is not that hot either, given the way engagement with the US has gone, after Moustapha and pals had portrayed it as a walk in the park, setting up what Andrew Tabler dubbed a huge "expectations gap."

Abdul-Hussain also asked unnamed US officials regarding any Arab role to bring Washington's and Damascus' viewpoints closer, and they replied that "Egypt is angry at Assad and shares our point of view that there is no use talking to the Syrian regime. As for Saudi Arabia, we watched it offer concession after concession to Assad -- in Lebanon and elsewhere -- and we have not seen any results so far." The officials added, "Israel is further today than ever from the idea of prying Assad away from Iran." The Syrian president, said the officials, had tried to use the card of indirect talks with Israel -- via Turkey -- in order to get to Washington, "but Israel categorically rejected what Syria and its Turkish sponsor had to offer."

Finally, Abdul-Hussain concludes that this tension might be escalating, according to his estimation of the mood in Washington. His sources conclude by saying: "we went to Assad because we believe he's the weakest link in the alliance hostile to us in the Middle East. But he behaves as though he were the strongest link and places conditions on us instead of seizing the opportunity of engagement. In the midst of these discrepancies, a return to sharp disagreement, and perhaps even a lasting break, became inevitable."

All in all some very interesting stuff. Let's see how it plays out. But overall, the mood reflected in Abdul-Hussain's report was mirrored in this recent piece by Andrew Tabler. It was also reflected in Diehl's column: "The problem is that none of this has brought any results. ... The results of the outreach to Syria were manifest a couple of weeks ago when the Iraqi government withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after blaming Assad's regime for continuing to foment terrorism in Iraq."

Following up on Tabler's analysis in the aftermath of the crisis with Iraq (see my commentary on that here), David Schenker put forward a rather sensible policy advice, proposing the US "reevaluate" and "review" its approach to Syria.

Perhaps the administration is on a similar wavelength in its overall approach to Syria? In the end, as Ziad Majed recently put it, Syria pretends to be a player but has "no real capacity" to deliver. It's a structural reality that the administration would do well to acknowledge.

Addendum: A very well plugged-in source in Washington writes in response to this post: "I too think the kerfuffle on the Hill over Mitchell's meeting revealed to State that any nominee to Damascus is going to get a great deal of Congressional scrutiny, and until State and their nominee have very good answers to the question: 'What has Syria done to deserve this?' there is little or no reason to go to the mattresses for Assad. So I do think [the Ambassador idea] is pretty dead right now."

Meanwhile, a propos Imad Moustapha, guess who's not on the guest list for Secretary Clinton's Iftar dinner tonight. For whatever that's worth.