Criticism of Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Syria has grown yet more vociferous in the last few days following allegations that Hizbollah received a transfer of Scud missiles from the Syrian government. It’s unclear whether such a transfer happened – and what was involved, whether Scuds themselves, documentation, or funds – with denials coming from the Syrians and also from Hariri in Lebanon. The US is still reserving judgment, with various senators and administration officials expressing different levels of certainty about the whole affair. One definite trend, however, has been the chorus of voices calling for Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford (not yet confirmed by the senate), to be recalled, and a check to be put on the diplomatic advances that the administration has been making to Assad’s government in the last few months.
The problem with this is that isolating Syria makes the gulf between its interests and the West’s even wider. Journalists are fond of quoting Kissinger’s maxim that there can be ‘no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria’, and while the Scud allegations make one wonder whether there will, in fact, be war with Syria pretty much directly involved, there is a point to be made here. (Much as I hate to admit that a point can be made from another glib, reductive Kissinger quotation.) Syria’s strategic position and alliances make it the key to the two biggest ‘global’ issues in the Middle East, namely Israel/Palestine and the Iranian advance towards nuclear capability. Any feasible agreement on either issue will necessarily include Assad’s government and Obama’s attempts at engagement are a welcome departure from the unilaterally crusading approach of his predecessor. ‘Dispatching an American ambassador to Syria is a tool to send and receive messages and to gather political intelligence for our own use’, said Rep. Gary Ackerman in the US House Middle East subcommittee today (from here – worth checking out for some of Ackerman’s other remarks).
The cold shoulder that the Bush administration gave Syria since the Hariri assassination in 2005 – including recalling the US’s ambassador to Damascus – has had little effect on discouraging Syria’s links with Hizbollah or encouraging them towards engagement with Israel. An ambassador is an important step, not just in the direction of advancing Western interests in the Middle East but also towards cooperation and multilateralism in the region, essential if real solutions are to be found.