It seems odd that, having failed to accomplish anything productive involving Iran during the first year of his presidency, Obama is now making overtures to Iran's terror-sponsoring ally, Syria.
Obama has not only nominated an ambassador to Syria after a five-year break due to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and speculation over Syrian involvement, but has also dispatched Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Damascus for talks.
The official explanation is pretty much what you'd expect:
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Ford is "a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East. His appointment represents President Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people."
Gibbs adds, "If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern."
Tony Badran writes in the Jerusalem Post:
Administration officials leaked to the media, on background, that the Burns visit was intended to "isolate Iran" by wooing Damascus away from Teheran and other allies, particularly Hizbullah and Hamas.
Good luck with that. Iran and Syria are cozying up at this very moment. Via Gateway Pundit:
Hassan Nasrallah (far right) has made few public appearances since 2006.
Hezbollah terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah made a rare appearance today in Syria at a dinner with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The BBC reported:
The head of the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has made a rare public appearance in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Sheikh Nasrallah attended a dinner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He is under an Israeli death threat and makes very few appearances in public. When he addresses Hezbollah, he does so by video from a secret location.
Both Syria and Iran provide the group with financial and military support.
Mahmoud met with Assad in Syria.(ISNA)
So, having failed to "woo" Iran in any way whatsoever after a year of appeasement, Obama's new stroke of brilliance is to "woo" Syria.
Tony Badran adds:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that the resumption of high-level contacts with Syria has proven the administration's "willingness to engage." But this begs the question: Which audience is Washington trying to impress? And how would these impressions actually further American interests in the Middle East?
Important actors in the region are unnerved by the fact that the administration appears incapable of hearing the most pressing concerns of its anxious allies. Consider Clinton's recent trip to the Gulf. The secretary spoke of imposing more sanctions on Iran and repeated her earlier statement about extending a US defense umbrella to protect Gulf allies. In doing so, however, she failed to convince America's primary Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, bluntly told Clinton that sanctions were an inappropriate response to the urgency of the Iranian threat. This was not the first time this past year that he publicly rebuked the administration over one of its chief initiatives.
What Washington's allies want, instead, is a coherent US strategy. The administration has responded with tactical maneuvers that American allies regard as sideshows. Instead of wasting time on secondary measures such as engaging Syria, the administration should be focusing on what everyone across the Middle East agrees is the most pressing objective: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability, and weakening the influence of the Iranian-led regional axis.
American media outlets friendly to the White House praised Barack Obama's efforts to move closer to Syria, describing it as a step toward driving a wedge between the different parties in that axis. However, more sober observers recalled that Washington has tried to pry Syria away from Iran for over 25 years, to little avail. The argument mistakenly turns the Syria-Iran dynamic into a subcategory of the peace process, when the relationship was always broader and more ambitious in scope.
That is partially why the leaked justifications for the US opening to Syria sounded so unconvincing. They were designed to play up engagement with a relatively weak regional player like Assad as something that would make Iran nervous, though exactly how was never explained.
There is incoherence in the Obama administration's position. For example, the administration is spinning its engagement of Syria as a move aiming to achieve two sets of outcomes - those achievable in the short term and those in the long term. However, moving Syria away from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas - propositions Damascus has repeatedly dismissed - are only described as Washington's long-term objectives. If so, how will the US approach today isolate Iran, whose centrifuges continue running?
The administration is setting a perfect trap for itself by giving Syria the time and space to pursue its actions without American benchmarks to verify if engagement is working. This will be exploited to the fullest by Assad. The US would do well to abandon the ill-advised "short-term vs. long-term" approach that allows Syria to obtain rewards for minor concessions while allowing its regime to pursue a policy of destabilization.
Further complicating matters, while Burns was visiting Syria, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Syria was developing a covert nuclear program with North Korean help. This came a few days after a report disclosed that North Korea and Syria had resumed cooperation on "sensitive military technology" in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In a sign of what's in store for the Obama administration, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem declaredthat Damascus would continue to ignore IAEA calls for cooperation.
Washington can still pull back from the trap. Until now it has conceded little of substance to Syria. Until Assad gives something up that the US can take to the bank, the administration must maintain the existing sanctions regime, some conditions of which are due for renewal in May. Moreover, it should avoid supporting Syria's application to the World Trade Organization, as has been rumored it might do.
The Obama administration's Iran policy is in disarray and its signature Mideast initiatives are in shambles. Running after the Syria mirage too hastily, without ensuring that Assad will satisfy American exigencies in return, may only make matters worse. What the administration most urgently needs is an integrated strategy, not disjointed initiatives that will only end up favoring its enemies.
Obama's foreign policy is indeed in disarray. The world view that he and Hillary Clinton bring to the process is flawed to begin with. It begins with an unhealthy dose of moral relativism that presupposes that the wishes, desires, and wants of Syria and Iran are no less valid nor worthy of credence than those of the United States -- even when their wants include wiping out other peaceful nations in the region and maintaining a tight grip on their own people at home.
Obama's actions in the Middle East continue to favor Islamic terror-sponsoring states. It is difficult to discern whether that is due to sympathy for Islamists borne of Obama's early life experience in Indonesia or simply because the appeasement mindset is forever trying to oil the squeakiest wheel. It is probably a bit of both.
And so yet another terror-sponsoring regime will bask in the glow of Obama's diplomatic overtures, and will have the fun of choosing which of those overtures to accept and which to brush off like so much lint.
America's peaceful, democratic allies must look at all of this and wonder at the injustice of it.