Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009
“Will There Be a US Ambassador in Damascus by September?”
By Joshua Landis
Syria Comment, June 3, 2009
The State Department has indicated it has no plans for now to return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus.
This bland denial cannot be true.
If “Syria has agreed to let a delegation of US military commanders visit Damascus in the coming weeks,” as Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post states in his article copied below, there must be plans afoot to return a US ambassador to Damascus.
Syria has long insisted that the US must treat Syria with a modicum of civility and respect if it expects to make progress on outstanding foreign policy issues. Syrians state that the US cannot expect to humiliate and insult Syria while at the same time demanding cooperation.
Under President Bush, Washington wanted it both ways. The neocons insisted that Syria was to get no rewards and no recognition for cooperation. The pragmatists, however, recognized that they needed Syria’s cooperation on intelligence and security arrangements if Washington hoped to tamp out Iraqi resistance and save the lives of US military in Iraq.
Secretary Rice met Walid Moualem twice – once at Sharm al-Shaykh and a second time in Istanbul. She asked to send two generals to Damascus to jump-start intelligence sharing and security cooperation on Iraq. Syria was eager to oblige, claiming that cutting down al-Qaida and stabilizing Iraq were both in Syria’s national interest. But Syria also insisted that if America truly wanted cooperation it should treat Syria as an ally and not a rogue state. Syrian officials asked Washington to return an Ambassador to Damascus as a token of cooperation and civil exchange. Rice refused. Having normal relations was seen as a sign of “rewarding” Syria. The Vice President’s office put the kibosh on this.
The bottom line for Syrian officials in recent discussions with Feltman and Shapiro is that Syria will not give to the new US administration what it would not give to Bush. Put in other terms, Syria continues to insist on a modicum of civility from the US if there is to be real cooperation. The US should not insult Syria or try to embarrass it publicly. Differences should be worked out in private through normal diplomatic channels and not in the press.
This is why the language of Obama’s extension of the sanctions on Syria a little over a week ago was so upsetting to Damascus. Syria was denounced as a terrorist state and threat to US national security. Leaks to the Washington Post by unnamed sources claiming that Syria was reopening the Ho Chi Min trail of suicide bombers into Iraq were only too reminiscent of Bush era diplomacy and its underhanded media methods, designed to demonize and intimidate. Syrian officials believed that Washington had fooled them. It was not going to engage on the basis of mutual respect, the avoidance of public insults, and civilized diplomacy.
Syria’s response to Washington’s insult was to cut off intelligence sharing that Damascus had already begun. The acting military attache at the US embassy in Damascus had been given full privileges to meet directly with Syrian intelligence. This access and gesture of good faith was promptly revoked by Damascus. The result was the intervention by Senator Kerry, as described by David Ignatius in the Post several days ago. Secretary of State Clinton then called Foreign Minister Walid Moualem and the misunderstandings seem to have been patched up.
Mitchell is coming and we are told that the military delegation is coming. At the same time, US diplomats deny that plans are afoot to return an Ambassador or to normalize diplomatic relations with Syria. Kessler quotes an unnamed US official to say: “But there has to be action on both sides. It is not simply that the Syrians get to sit there and wait for us.” This is disingenuous. The Syrians are the ones who are providing intelligence and responding to the US interests for better security arrangements on the border. The Syrians believe that the Americans are expecting cooperation for nothing – that it is Washington which gets to sit there and wait for Syria to act. Syria has insisted for four long years that the least Washington can do is send an Ambassador and be polite. Doing so doesn’t cost American anything but to get off its high horse.
That is why I don’t believe State Department officials when they say there are no plans to send an Ambassador to Damascus. Besides, I had lunch with an “unnamed” foreign diplomat today who bet me that there would be the announcement of a US ambassador in Damascus by September.
Syria to Allow Visit of U.S. Military Leaders: Insurgency in Iraq Is Topic at Hand
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, Wednesday, June 3, 2009
After fits and starts, Syria and the United States have taken steps in recent days that could lay the groundwork for a greatly improved relationship, officials from both countries said yesterday.
Syria has agreed to let a delegation of U.S. military commanders visit Damascus in the coming weeks, when they will discuss joint efforts to stem the insurgency in Iraq. The Obama administration’s Middle East peace envoy, George J. Mitchell, is also planning a trip to Damascus this month. Mitchell, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in four years, will probe whether it is ready to engage in serious peace talks with Israel.
The visits were sealed in a phone call Sunday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, though Syria has not yet confirmed a date for the military visit. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said yesterday, “They agreed to have ongoing conversations about a full range of issues.”
U.S. officials said the administration was not committing to drafting a formal plan for improving relations, but the two visits could form the building blocks of a new relationship. Although officials from U.S. Central Command have met their Syrian counterparts at regional security meetings on Iraq, military officials have been unable for years to have a thorough, joint discussion on the situation in Iraq.
“If we can move on the Mitchell agenda and the Iraq agenda, that will have a positive effect on the bilateral relationship,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issues publicly. “But there has to be action on both sides. It is not simply that the Syrians get to sit there and wait for us.”
Central Command officials did not respond to a request for details on who would travel to Damascus, but other U.S. officials said the officers would not be high-ranking.
Still, Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, hailed the military visit as a potential breakthrough. “The Bush administration used to accuse us of aiding the insurgents, and we used to say it was untrue,” he said. “We said we needed to sit together and discuss the issue, but they would not do that.”
With the Obama administration, “we have a very different context,” Moustapha said. “This administration wants to address all issues. We believe this is a very strong opportunity to cooperate with this administration.”
Moustapha said helping bring peace to Iraq is in Syria’s interest because it is harboring 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. “They will not leave until they think it is safe,” he said.
The United States has not had an ambassador in Syria since 2005, when the Bush administration withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon battling Syrian influence in that country. There are no signs that the Obama administration is close to sending an ambassador back to Damascus.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman has made two visits to Syria since President Obama took office, but until now there was little indication of a rapprochement between the two countries.
Indeed, Moustapha said the administration’s decision last month to renew sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act was “very problematic” and shows that it still can be “captive to Israel’s interests.”
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who first disclosed the military visit on The Post’s online feature PostPartisan late Monday, reported that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) played an important role in easing friction between the two countries after Obama renewed the sanctions.
“Bring it Aoun” By Elias Muhanna – SC’s own Qifa Nabki in The National is a must read.
Michel Aoun’s supporters revere him as a reforming hero, the only man able to repair a nation’s woes – and he agrees. Elias Muhanna on the overlooked core of Lebanon’s opposition.
“Hezbollah No. 2 wants Lebanon unity government” By SAM F. GHATTAS
BEIRUT (AP) — Hezbollah’s No. 2 leader, confident of victory in Lebanese weekend elections, said Tuesday the Iranian-backed group would invite its pro-Western opponents to join a national unity government if it wins.
Sheik Naim Kassem rejected accusations that a government of Hezbollah and its allies would try to implement an Iranian-style Islamic state. In an interview with The Associated Press, he shrugged off warnings about boycotts and insisted Western nations are willing to talk to the new government irrespective of who wins.
But the unity government proposal shows Shiite Hezbollah’s concern that if it tries to govern Lebanon outright, it could risk international isolation and possibly another war with Israel, much like the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza….
“After June 7, there will be a new scene,” said Kassem, who leads Hezbollah’s election campaign. He said Hezbollah and its allies “will work to form a national unity government. How much we will succeed is up to the other side.”
“Over the last decade and a half, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, has steadily moved front and center in the often vitriolic (and regularly under-informed) Western debate over the threat that ‘radical Islam’ is said to pose to the world at large.
Now, as Nasrallah appears ready to lead what could be a new majority in the Lebanese Parliament, the steady stream of accusations and threats have, somewhat predictably, turned into a deluge – with Arab states, Arab media and prosecutorial offices far and wide at the forefront of efforts to paint him as public enemy Number One.
A central reason for all the attention in the past, of course, has been that Nasrallah and Hezbollah have managed – for better or worse, depending on your perspective – to inflict a series of increasingly significant setbacks for US and especially Israeli interests: the ignominious, unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in May 2000, the failure of the Bush administration to vanquish Hezbollah and Syria in one go following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, and, of course, the July 2006 war – vigorously encouraged by the Americans and lost by the Israelis.
But Nasrallah has also become an object of particular focus and concern because, unlike many other Islamists, he has successfully staked a great deal of his power and prestige on a sustained appeal to reason in the all important battle for “hearts and minds.”
I also include this older article by the Leverett’s, which I had failed to publish last week. It is important.
“PRESIDENT OBAMA’S Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed. On its present course, the White House’s approach will not stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear fuel program — or, as Iran’s successful test of a medium-range, solid-fuel missile last week underscored, military capacities of other sorts. It will also not provide an alternative to continued antagonism between the United States and Iran — a posture that for 30 years has proved increasingly damaging to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
This judgment may seem both premature and overly severe. We do not make it happily. We voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and we still want him to succeed in reversing the deterioration in America’s strategic position. But we also believe that successful diplomacy with Iran is essential to that end. Unless President Obama and his national security team take a fundamentally different approach to Tehran, they will not achieve a breakthrough.
This is a genuine shame, for President Obama had the potential to do so much better for America’s position in the Middle East. In his greeting to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” on the Persian New Year in March, Mr. Obama included language meant to assuage Iranian skepticism about America’s willingness to end efforts to topple the regime and pursue comprehensive diplomacy.
Iranian diplomats have told us that the president’s professed willingness to deal with Iran on the “basis of mutual interest” in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” was particularly well received in Tehran. They say that the quick response of the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — which included the unprecedented statement that “should you change, our behavior will change, too” — was a sincere signal of Iran’s openness to substantive diplomatic proposals from the new American administration.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama is backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran. Administration officials have professed disappointment that Iranian leaders have not responded more warmly to Mr. Obama’s rhetoric. Many say that the detention of the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi (who was released this month) and Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim last week that America is “fomenting terrorism” inside Iran show that trying to engage Tehran is a fool’s errand.
But this ignores the real reason Iranian leaders have not responded to the new president more enthusiastically: the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Under these circumstances, the Iranian government — regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12 — will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.
In this context, the Saberi case should be interpreted not as the work of unspecified “hard-liners” in Tehran out to destroy prospects for improved relations with Washington, but rather as part of the Iranian leadership’s misguided but fundamentally defensive reaction to an American government campaign to bring about regime change. Similarly, Ayatollah Khamenei’s charge that “money, arms and organizations are being used by the Americans directly across our western border to fight the Islamic Republic’s system” reflects legitimate concern about American intentions. Mr. Obama has reinforced this concern by refusing to pursue an American-Iranian “grand bargain” — a comprehensive framework for resolving major bilateral differences and fundamentally realigning relations.
More broadly, President Obama has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran. On the personnel front, the problem begins at the top, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Clinton ran well to the right of Mr. Obama on Iran, even saying she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. Since becoming secretary of state, Clinton has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for “crippling” multilateral sanctions against Iran.
First of all, this posture is feckless, as Secretary Clinton does not have broad international support for sanctions that would come anywhere close to being crippling. More significantly, this posture is cynically counterproductive, for it eviscerates the credibility of any American diplomatic overtures in the eyes of Iranian leaders across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum.
Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department. Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.
In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.
Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, “an offer we can’t accept,” simply to gain international support for coercive action.
Understandably, given that much of Mr. Obama’s national security team doesn’t share his vision of rapprochement with Iran, America’s overall policy is incoherent. …. Administration officials argue, with what seem to be straight faces, that the Iranian leadership should be impressed simply because American representatives will now show up for any nuclear negotiations with Iran that might take place.
Similarly, some officials suggest that the administration might be prepared to accept limited uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as part of a settlement — effectively asking to be given “credit” merely for acknowledging a well-established reality. …… we think that it will take a lot more to persuade Tehran of America’s new seriousness.
Tehran will certainly not be persuaded of American seriousness if Washington acquiesces to Israeli insistence on a deadline …. President Obama himself said, .. that he wants to see “progress” in nuclear negotiations before the end of the year. More specifically, Secretary Clinton and Mr. Ross have been pushing the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany to intensify multilateral sanctions against Iran if Tehran has not agreed to limit the expansion of its nuclear-fuel cycle program by the time the United Nations General Assembly convenes in New York at the end of September.
This diplomatic approach is guaranteed to fail. Having a deadline for successful negotiations will undercut the perceived credibility of American diplomacy in Tehran and serve only to prepare the way for more coercive measures. Mr. Obama’s justification for a deadline — that previous American-Iranian negotiations produced “a lot of talk but not always action and follow-through” — is incorrect as far as Iranian behavior was concerned. For example, during talks over Afghanistan after 9/11 in which one of us (Hillary) took part, Tehran deported hundreds of Qaeda and Taliban operatives who had sought sanctuary in Iran, and also helped establish the new Afghan government. It was Washington, not Tehran, that arbitrarily ended these productive talks.
Beyond the nuclear issue, the administration’s approach to Iran degenerates into an only slightly prettified version of George W. Bush’s approach — that is, an effort to contain a perceived Iranian threat without actually trying to resolve underlying political conflicts. Obama administration officials are buying into a Bush-era delusion: that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership.
President Obama and his team should not be excused for their failure to learn the lessons of recent history in the Middle East — that the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics and that even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation. The notion of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it would leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall. These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah…..
To fix our Iran policy, the president would have to commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic. He would also have to accept that Iran will continue enriching uranium, and that the only realistic potential resolution to the nuclear issue would leave Iran in effect like Japan … Additionally, the president would have to accept that Iran’s relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah will continue, and be willing to work with Tehran to integrate these groups into lasting settlements of the Middle East’s core political conflicts…”