Duped by a Smile


Duped by a Smile

History warns against misreading Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Misconception can be fatal. “Hitler was always regarded by British politicians as if he were a brilliant but temperamental genius who could be soothed by kindness or upset by hard words,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan recalled after World War ii.

“It was this fundamental misconception about the nature of dictators that was … the root cause of much that went amiss in these tragic years,” he said (emphasis mine throughout).

Today, like 1930s Britain, American foreign policy is marked by “misconceptions about the nature of dictators.” A prime example is Washington’s rapidly evolving relationship with Syria.

“[S]ince the Obama administration took office with the intention of repairing America’s frayed relations in the region,” Time reported last week, “the much discussed—but rarely traveled—road to Damascus has suddenly been busy with American emissaries ….” The Obama administration has deployed more high-level American dignitaries to Syria in the last four weeks than the Bush administration did in the previous four years.

At the end of that Damascus Road, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is surely ecstatic. He has been baiting America for months, feigning cooperation, appearing willing to crack down on terrorists, apparently backing U.S. designs in Iraq—then, via a Guardianinterview, warmly appealing to the Obama administration to send an envoy to Damascus to heal relations.

Washington has swallowed the bait—hook, line and sinker.

President Obama kicked off this rapprochement last month by sending chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry on a tour through the Middle East, during which he stopped for a chat in Damascus. Two weeks after Kerry’s Syrian jaunt—during which he called upon the U.S. to ease sanctions on Damascus and heaped praise on Syria for opening a stock market and sending an ambassador to Iraq—officials from the State Department sat down for talks with Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha in Washington. President Obama himself signaled where he believes the U.S.-Syrian relationship is headed by authorizing the export of American parts to Syria for its aging fleet of Boeing 747 aircraft. This undermines the five-year-old Syrian Accountability Act that imposes sanctions on trade with Syria.

The rapprochement intensified further last week at a conference in Egypt when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took time to shake hands and exchange a few words with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. The next day, Clinton announced that she had scheduled two senior delegates to visit Syria for high-level meetings. Four days later, America’s highest level delegation in four years had landed in Damascus for talks.

No one is surprised to see the Obama administration rushing to make reparations with Syria. In his inaugural address, the president expressed his willingness to embrace and negotiate with rogue states prepared to “unclench their fist.” The problem is, Washington’s Syrian embrace is based on the fundamental misconception that Syria has an unclenched fist. This is clearly not the case.

First, Syria has yet to come clean about its dabbling with a clandestine nuclear program—much less stop it. This much-denied program was exposed in September 2007 when Israeli warplanes obliterated a North Korean-built, Iran-sponsored nuclear facility in al-Kibar. That facility may have been ruined, but Damascus has yet to prove that its ambitions for nuclear status crumbled along with it.

Speaking at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors last Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador George Schulte reminded everyone of the recent iaea report proving that soil samples taken from the bombed site contained uranium. He also reported that Syria banned UN nuclear inspectors from the site and from three other suspected nuclear sites. The iaea report, Schulte said, “contributes to the growing evidence of clandestine nuclear activities in Syria.”

To perceive Syria’s subterfuge and the mystery shrouding its nuclear program as an unclenched fist is ludicrous.

Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick wrote last Friday that the Obama administration

plans to ignore Syria’s support of Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese terrorism, its nuclear proliferation activities and its massive ballistic missile arsenal, as well as its strategic alliance with Iran. Rather than confront Syria about its bad behavior, the administration favors a policy based on making believe that in his hearts of hearts, Assad is a liberal democrat who aspires to peace, and hope, and change.

Syria’s nuclear program is a direct result of its relationship with Iran. Notice what Con Coughlin observed in the Telegraph after the September 2007 bombing:

Syria’s experimentation with nuclear proliferation has more to do with its strategic alliance with Tehran than any pretensions the Assad regime might entertain about becoming a nuclear superpower. In response to the West’s increasing pressure on Iran over its uranium enrichment program, Tehran has stepped up its military cooperation with Damascus, and has signed a mutual defense pact. That has resulted in the Iranians promising to provide the Syrians with their Shahab-3 ballistic missile system.

Eighteen months later, Syria’s alliance with Iran is still vibrant. Last fall, Egyptian Member of Parliament Ali Ibramhim labeled Syria a “vassal of Iran.” Even Syrian politicians readily admit that Iran’s tentacles run through the streets of Damascus. “Iran has a significant presence in Syria,” former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam admitted last December. “Iran is involved in the very heart of the regime—in its security agencies, in its military forces, in its economic institutions, and in its mosques.”

Beyond being wedded to Iran, Syria remains in bed with the region’s most notorious terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. The Obama administration will assuredly encourage Syria to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas and stop meddling in Lebanese affairs, but the reality is, this would be strategic suicide for the Syrians.

Syrian dominance over Lebanon is non-negotiable from the Syrian point of view,” Stratfor’s Reva Bhalla wrote Tuesday. “Lebanon historically has been Syria’s economic, political and military outlet to the Mediterranean basin, allowing Syria to play a dominant role in the region. If Damascus is not in control of Lebanon, then Syria is poor and isolated.”

Syria’s strategic need for dominance in Lebanon underpins its vital relationship with Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored terrorists with far-reaching and decisive influence in Lebanese politics. It would be naive for Washington to believe Syria will sever ties with Hezbollah. In fact, “with Lebanese parliamentary elections approaching in June, the Syrians need to ensure that their array of political allies, including Hezbollah, come out strong” (ibid., February 19). Despite rhetorical notions that Syria is unclenching its fist and clamping down on Hezbollah’s terrorist activities, it remains in Syria’s strategic interest to bolster Hezbollah as a political force in Lebanon.

Considered in the full context of Syrian actions and foreign policy, the Obama administration’s eager response to Bashar al-Assad’s smiles and platitudes reveals a tragic misconception.

During the 1930s, British politicians jetted back and forth between Munich and London, conducting negotiations, signing agreements and generally embracing Hitler’s promises of peace. Meanwhile, protected by the misconceptions of British leaders, Hitler trounced treaties, bullied and invaded neighbors, built defenses and churned out weapons.

History is repeating itself. Protected by the naive misconceptions of the American government, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to hide his nation’s clandestine nuclear activities, remains a staunch ally of Iran and its holocaustal strategies, and remains heavily invested in Lebanese politics, specifically the political growth and success of Hezbollah.

What’s truly sad is that Syria is one of a number of cases where America is hurtling down the fatal path of misconception!