With the departure of the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, from Damascus and the summoning home of Syrian ambassador Emad Moustafa, President Obama’s original Syria policy has now crashed and burned.
There is no immediate danger of Obama going in the direction recommended by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), of military action against Syria. But the likelihood of Ford actually returning to his post any time soon, despite State Department assurances, is low. He has repeatedly been the object of ire among regime loyalists in Syria, and his abrupt return to Washington appears to be related to some sort of planned attack on him. Ford has vocally supported the right of Syrians to peaceable assembly and protest (he should have a word with the US police forces who have arrested or harassed so many of the “Occupy” protesters). Despite his being a thorn in the side of the Baathist regime, President Bashar al-Assad is making a huge error in allowing the situation to deteriorate so badly that Ford has had to leave.
Barack Obama came to office in 2009 determined to talk to all parties in the Middle East, including Iran and Syria. This policy of ‘jaw-jaw’ rather than ‘war-war’ (in Churchill’s phrase) contrasted with George W. Bush’s ‘cooties’ theory of diplomacy, wherein he never acknowledged that Syria and Iran existed except to condemn them, and declined to allow any US official to get near enough to them to actually speak to them. While the Baath in Syria and the Islamic Republic have adopted policies deserving of condemnation, it is not useful for a great power only to scold from a distance, in the absence of other forms of engagement.
Thus, Obama addressed the Iranians on the Persian New Year (typically March 21), and had a US representative meet along with other UN Security Council members and Germany with a representative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to negotiate the impasse over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. (Iran says it is a civilian program to produce fuel for reactors).
With regard to Syria, Obama restored diplomatic relations and sent an ambassador to Damascus. Syria had had an envoy to the US all along, Emad Moustafa, but no one in the capital seemed to talk to him and he was billed the loneliest man in Washington.
But Obama’s determination to talk with his enemies abroad met the same fate as his attempt to reach compromises with the Republican Party domestically. Iran weirdly made a deal on sending low-enriched uranium out of the country to be turned into fuel for a medical reactor, then abruptly reneged on it.
Relations between the US and Syria foundered on the Arab Spring and the widespread demonstrations in Syria’s provincial cities, which have been met with brute force that has left an estimated 3,000 demonstrators dead and many more wounded or imprisoned.
On Friday, some 25 protesters were killed by the Syrian army.
Obama has been left with a policy toward Syria of financial sanctions and a diplomatic freeze, despite his best efforts to craft a better approach.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should realize that keeping Ford in Damascus and safe is his best option for keeping a line open to Obama. By allowing or perhaps fostering threats to the US ambassador, he has cut himself off from any dialogue with Washington. It is Sen. McCain’s warmongering that has filled that vacuum.
McCain is wrong that Western military intervention is plausible in Syria. There has been no Arab League resolution calling for it, and no UN Security Council resolution (action is being blocked by Russia and China). Most Syrian protesters themselves have opposed foreign intervention. There is no framework of international legality or legitimacy that would permit an outside intervention. Additionally, Syria’s geography is diverse and often rugged, and no attempt at intervention would be simple, tactically or logistically.
Given the danger that sinister accusations will come to substitute themselves for reality in Washington with regard to Syria, Damascus would be better off finding a way to get Ford back into the country. To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.