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Thursday, March 31, 2011

White House divided on Syria?

Michael Singh claims that the White House is divided on Syria.
More so than the conflicts in Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain, and perhaps even more than the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the recent violence in Syria has posed a challenge to the Obama administration's strategy in the Middle East. The conflicting impulses within the administration can be seen in recent statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; days ago, she described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "reformer"; in London on March 29, she issued a "strong condemnation of the Syrian government's brutal repression of demonstrators." Which view of Assad prevails, and how the United States responds to events in Syria, will go a long way toward determining how deeply US.. policy in the Middle East is altered by the recent turmoil there.

One of the key departures President Obama made from his predecessor's policy in the Middle East was in his approach toward Syria. Rather than continuing to heap pressure on the Syrian regime, the Obama Administration returned to the policy of engaging Syria practiced by past administrations. The reasons behind this shift were manifold: the pressure policy was perceived as not working and engagement with hostile regimes broadly was seen as holding diplomatic promise.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Syria was seen as key to making progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace. Damascus not only hosted the headquarters of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and therefore in theory held leverage over these groups, but its own negotiations with Israel were essential to achieving the "comprehensive peace" that the administration sought.

After two years, this approach to Syria has borne no fruit. Syria has not increased its compliance with the IAEA investigation into its clandestine nuclear activities, decreased its cooperation with Iran and Hizballah, or reduced its interference in Lebanon or increased its cooperation with the Hariri Tribunal. On the domestic front, far from being a reformer, Assad oversees a regime rated worse for political rights than was Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. And there has been no progress on the Syrian-Israeli track, nor has Syria played a role in the frozen Israeli-Palestinian talks (though granted, those talks have faltered for reasons quite independent of Syrian policies).
In Egypt, the division among the administration was reflected in conflicting statements issued by the White House (which couldn't make up its mind what it wanted) and the State Department (which wanted to try to save Mubarak's regime). In Syria, Singh shows that the State Department itself is bothered by the fact that Assad is a repressive thug, but not bothered enough to actually do something about him.

There is no conflict about Assad. For now, at least, the Obama administration is content to give him a free pass. One has to wonder what he did to deserve it.

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