Road to Da­m­as­cus re­quires Syria’s con­ver­sion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears to have set its sights on Syria as part of its ef­forts to turn over a new leaf on Mid­dle East pol­icy. Re­cent days have seen a spate of diplo­matic over­tures by Wash­ing­ton to the regime of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Th­ese ini­tia­tives have ranged from an ad­min­is­tra­tion autho­riza­tion of spare parts for Syr­ian air­craft to the very pub­lic visit to Da­m­as­cus of Sen. John Kerry, the new chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

Th­ese over­tures rep­re­sent a ma­jor shift in Amer­i­can pol­icy. Af­ter all, it was just five years ago that Congress passed the Syria Ac­count­abil­ity and Le­banese Sovereignty Restora­tion Act (SALSA), a com­pre­hen­sive ef­fort to pres­sure Da­m­as­cus to cease its sup­port for U.S.-des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, with­draw all its forces and se­cu­rity per­son­nel from Le­banon, cease the de­vel­op­ment of weapons of mass de­struc­tion (as well as longer range mis­siles), and end “all sup­port for, and fa­cil­i­ta­tion of, all ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties in­side Iraq.” It did so pri­mar­ily by tar­get­ing Syria’s abil­ity to im­port goods with more than 10 per­cent U.S. con­tent - an am- bigu­ous de­scrip­tion that has helped dis­suade sev­eral Euro­pean com­pa­nies from deal­ing with Da­m­as­cus, based on their fears of com­mer­cial reper­cus­sions from the United States. In the process, the law has taken on the sta­tus of a de facto in­ter­na­tional boy­cott - al­beit a weak one.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent diplo­matic car­rots, there- cian Rafiq Hariri. This changed with France’s 2007 elec­tion of Ni­co­las Sarkozy as its pres­i­dent. He re­versed the pol­icy of his pre­de­ces­sor in fa­vor of a diplo­matic ap­proach to Da­m­as­cus.

But Mr. Sarkozy’s en­er­getic ap­proach con­sisted mainly of giv­ing car­rots in the present in ex­change for prom­ises of fu­ture mod­er­a­tion.

And freed from in­ter­na­tional re­place his coun­try’s ag­ing com­mer­cial fleet.

At the time, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion weighed in to stop the deal, which in­volved prod­ucts with more than 10 per­cent Amer­i­can con­tent. Not so now: Syria’s trans­port min­is­ter, Yarub Badr, re­cently told re­porters that the Com­merce Depart­ment, in an ap­par­ent lib­er­al­iza­tion of sanc­tions pol­icy, has As­sad regime would there­after work to nor­mal­ize its re­la­tions with Le­banon and make real progress in the peace process with Is­rael. The re­sult­ing gains, how­ever, have been min­i­mal — and can be re­versed eas­ily.

Wash­ing­ton, how­ever, can suc­ceed where France has failed. With a United Na­tion­sspon­sored tri­bunal set to probe Syria’s com­plic­ity in the Hariri as­sas­si­na­tion, and with new In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency rev­e­la­tions about Syria’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, Da­m­as­cus is un­der siege. Real en­gage­ment with Syria will need to ex­ploit this fact.

And if the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­ter­ested in truly bring­ing the world’s last Ba’athist state back into the fold, it will need an ap­proach that ties the loos­en­ing of in­ter­na­tional penal­ties to con­crete Syr­ian ac­tions — rather than one that sim­ply re­wards its ruler in hopes that he will come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Matthew R.J. Brodsky is a Legacy Her­itage Fel­low at the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he spe­cial­izes in Syr­ian and Le­banese af­fairs, Arab pol­i­tics and po­lit­i­cal Is­lam.

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