This may seem both illogical and counterfactual given past antagonism between the 'Alawite-led regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is overwhelming evidence that President Bashir al-Asad has changed Syrian strategic calculations and that underpinning terror is crucial to the foreign policy of the country.
On February 14, 2005, a huge bomb killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri as his motorcade drove through Beirut. All eyes fell on Damascus. Syria's leaders had motive: Hariri was a prominent Lebanese nationalist who opposed their attempts to grant Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Émile Lahoud an unconstitutional third term. The Syrians had the means to carry out such an attack: Their army had occupied Lebanon for more than fifteen years. Syrian military intelligence (Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariya) operated freely throughout the tiny republic and maintained operational networks there. Asad had actually threatened Hariri: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt reported that at a meeting with Asad and Hariri a few months before the latter's murder, Asad told him, "Lahoud is me … If you and [French president Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon," a remark Jumblatt interpreted as a death threat to Hariri.
Following the assassination, Syria became an international pariah. U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan dispatched a fact-finding mission. This mission resulted in the establishment of an international, independent investigating commission headed initially by German judge Detlev Mehlis. U.S. president George W. Bush and French president Jacques Chirac, two leaders whose views of the Middle East seldom coincided, agreed to isolate Syria diplomatically.
The State Department withdrew its ambassador, Margaret Scobey, and maintained only a lower-level diplomatic presence in Damascus. Under immense pressure, the Syrian army finally withdrew from Lebanon. But, over subsequent months and years, as Asad detected chinks in the West's diplomatic solidarity—and as U.S. members of Congress began to defy the White House and re-engage with Asad—the Syrian regime began to put cooperation with the U.N. investigators on the back burner. Today, Syrian cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the successor to the more ambitious Investigation Commission, is negligible.
Obama's Approach to Syria
Barack Obama campaigned on a platform which made engagement central to his foreign policy. "Not talking [to adversaries] doesn't make us look tough—it makes us look arrogant," he declared during his campaign. In his inaugural address, he declared, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The Syrian regime signaled that it would accept Obama's offer, so long as the White House's hand preceded the unclenching of the Syrian fist. In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East."
While the Syrian regime had yet to cooperate with the Hariri investigation, cease its sponsorship of and support for terrorism, stop interfering in Lebanon, or stop helping Hezbollah build up its rocket force, the Obama administration wasted little time in easing pressure on Damascus. This rush to dialogue was undertaken in order to create a more conducive atmosphere for engagement.
On March 7, 2009, the State Department dispatched Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in more than four years, to Damascus for talks with Syria's foreign minister. The Obama administration called an abrupt end to the moratorium initiated during the Bush administration forbidding U.S. officials' attendance at Syrian embassy functions in Washington when it sent Feltman and senior National Security Council aides to Syrian National Day festivities. Feltman's participation in the renewed engagement was particularly symbolic given his previous posting as ambassador to Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution of 2005 when he led the diplomatic charge to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence and troops.
On June 24, 2009, the State Department announced that it would once again nominate an ambassador for the U.S. embassy in Damascus. Just over a month later, the Obama administration announced that it would ease sanctions on Syria. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly explained that "Senator [George] Mitchell [the president's Middle East envoy] told President Assad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible."
While the easement did not include those sanctions imposed by Congress in the wake of Hariri's assassination, they, nonetheless, reflect the White House's desire to bring Syria in from the cold. Nor will Congress necessarily act as a check on this enthusiasm to roll back even those sanctions. Less than two years after Hariri's assassination, senators Arlen Specter (Democrat of Pennsylvania), Bill Nelson (Democrat of Florida), John Kerry (Democrat of Massachusetts), and Christopher Dodd (Democrat of Connecticut) traveled to Syria to promote engagement. Four months later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also visited Asad for the same purpose, declaring, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace."
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