U.S. messages to Syria may not be getting through

Monday, April 26, 2010

BASHAR AL-ASSAD is proving to be an embarrassment for the Obama administration. In pursuit of President Obama's policy of "engagement" with U.S. adversaries, the State Department has dispatched several senior envoys to Damascus for talks with the Syrian dictator. It has also nominated a new ambassador and repeatedly expressed the hope for a step-by-step improvement in relations. So far Mr. Assad has responded by holding a summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, at which he publicly ridiculed the U.S diplomatic initiative. In secret, he has stepped up an illegal and dangerous transfer of weapons to Hezbollah's forces in Lebanon.

Most recently, Mr. Assad has been accused by Israel of handing Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which would allow the Iranian-sponsored group to attack every major city in Israel with one-ton warheads. If it occurred, the transfer would, as the State Department said last week, "pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon." So the administration has found itself in the awkward position of simultaneously defending the engagement policy, urging the Senate to confirm ambassador-nominee Robert Ford -- and appearing to threaten Damascus with military action.

"If these reports turn out to be true, we are going to have to review the full range of tools that are available to us in order to make Syria reverse what would be an incendiary, provocative action," Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, moments after making a strong pitch for the first U.S. ambassador in Damascus since 2005. Administration officials have suggested that the Scuds may not have reached Hezbollah in Lebanon; in that case the strong statements may be preventative. What is known for sure is that Syria has facilitated the transfer of thousands of rockets and missiles to Hezbollah since 2006 in blatant violation of the U.N. resolution that ended that summer's war in Lebanon. So why persist with the "engagement" policy? "President Assad is . . . making decisions that could send the region into war," was Mr. Feltman's answer. "He's listening to Ahmadinejad. He's listening to Hassan Nasrallah. He needs to listen to us, too."

That's a reasonable argument; we don't agree with Republicans who say the dispatch of Mr. Ford, a capable professional diplomat, would amount to a "reward" for Mr. Assad. Still, there has been no shortage of communication: Senior U.S. officials have summoned the senior Syrian envoy in Washington four times since Feb. 26 to talk about the weapons transfers to Hezbollah. What's been lacking are tangible steps by the administration to accompany more engagement with more pressure, such as more sanctions against Syrian officials and companies. The problem isn't that Mr. Assad is not getting the U.S. message. It's that he sees no need to listen.


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