Don't expect progress from talking to Syria

Friday, February 19, 2010

THE NOTION that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad can somehow be turned from his alliance with Iran and sponsorship of terrorism is one of the hardiest of the Middle East. No number of failed diplomatic initiatives, or outrages by Mr. Assad, seems to diminish its luster. The latest attempt to test it comes from the Obama administration, which this week nominated the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and dispatched a senior State Department official, William J. Burns, to meet with Mr. Assad. "I have no illusions," Mr. Burns said afterward, "but my meeting . . . made me hopeful we can make progress together."

We don't disagree with the administration's selection of an ambassador or Mr. Burns's visit; both represent a modest delivery on President Obama's campaign promise of "direct engagement" with regimes such as Syria. But it's worth noting that Mr. Burns has done this before: He met with Mr. Assad in 2004 on behalf of the Bush administration. Earlier, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "engaged" Mr. Assad. So have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, and numerous European notables, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When he was Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert negotiated extensively with Mr. Assad through Turkish intermediaries.

Not a few have come away hopeful, at first. Ms. Pelosi memorably declared that "the road to Damascus is a road to peace." Yet none so far has produced the slightest change in Mr. Assad's behavior or in his unacceptable ambitions. Having carried out a campaign of political murder in Lebanon, including the killing of a prime minister for which he has yet to be held accountable, Mr. Assad continues to insist on a veto over the Lebanese government. He continues to facilitate massive illegal shipments of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, dangerously setting the stage for another war with Israel, and to host the most hard-line elements of the Hamas leadership. He continues to harbor exiled leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime and to allow suicide bombers to flow into Iraq for use by al-Qaeda.

Mr. Assad wants the United States to lift sanctions; he wants the European Union to grant Syria trade privileges; he wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and grant Syria the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; and he wants Syria's check on Lebanese sovereignty accepted. In exchange for all this, he is offering -- well, not much, it always turns out. He told one group of Western visitors that he would no more break with Iran than the United States would break with Israel. He says that Syrian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas is not on the table. He has promised to check suicide bombers bound for Iraq but has never done so.

The exercise of talking to Mr. Assad serves a certain purpose, since it allows a skilled diplomat such as Mr. Burns to lay out the administration's incentives for changed behavior as well as its red lines, and it might make Iran's paranoid leaders nervous. But anyone who thinks the Obama administration has come up with a way to change the Middle East through detente with Syria would do well to study the history of Mr. Assad's decade in power. That gambit has been tried, by more Western diplomats and politicians than can be counted, and the results are clear: It doesn't work.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company