Hussain Abdul-Hussain reports in Kuwait’s Arabic-language daily Al Rai that the Obama administration has quietly decided not to return an ambassador to Syria as promised. He quotes unnamed officials who say president Bashar Assad is blackmailing the United States and its neighbors while conceding nothing in negotiations.
“Assad had started to count the American eggs in his basket before offering anything in return,” said an administration official, according to Tony Badran’s translation from Arabic. “Assad fires a rocket here or there [in south Lebanon] and expects us to run to him. . . . This kind of security blackmail no longer works on the United States.”
Syrian blackmail, though, has been working for decades. Bashar Assad’s government, like that of his late father, Hafez Assad, is an extortionist gangster regime that demands—and usually gets—the diplomatic equivalent of protection money. “The basic line is ‘Do what we want or we will kill you,’ ” said Barry Rubin, author of The Truth about Syria. “Yet at the same time they hold out the bait of great progress if only their demands are met. They play the West at times like a master fisherman reeling in his victim.”
There’s a case to be made, albeit a weak one, for buying off rogue regimes if they’ll behave. The biggest problem with bribing the Syrians, aside from the fact that it encourages more blackmail later, is that Assad won’t even hold up his end of the deal. “The Syrians,” Lebanese blogger Mustapha explained on his blog Beirut Spring, “try to sell, for a high price, water for fires they cause themselves, then they don’t deliver.”
No matter what the Syrian government is offered—normal relations, a looser sanctions regime, trade agreements—it has never rolled back support for international terrorist organizations. Syria refuses to hold peace talks with Israel or close down the local branches of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Assad won’t stop obstructing the formation of a new Lebanese government nor will he shut down his terrorist pipeline into Iraq.
Lebanese politicians and journalists have been under siege by Syrian assassins and car bombers since 2005. Iraqis have been blown apart by Syrian-supported suicide-bombers since 2003. And Israelis have been under assault by terrorist groups backed by Damascus since the Assad regime came to power decades ago. “This is how Syria negotiates,” Lee Smith wrote in 2007 after Syrian agents blew up a bus on Mount Lebanon, “with its knife on the table and dripping with blood.”
“The impediment to real change in the Syrian regime’s behavior in a manner that would satisfy American decision-makers is structural and systemic,” wrote Tony Badran in NOW Lebanon. “Syria cannot abandon its support for violence and subversion, or its alliance with Iran, because those are the only tools allowing it to bolster its relevance above its political weight.”
Indeed, Assad and his father have made Syria an indispensable nation in the Middle East, despite its utter dearth of economic and military power, by exporting terrorism and suicide murder to neighboring countries. Henry Kissinger’s famous formulation, “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria,” would be negated at once if Assad ceased and desisted his support for Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi terrorist groups. Syria would become just another failed Soviet-style state with no more geopolitical power than Yemen.
The Obama administration has been a bit more accommodating of Assad than it should have been, but the same can be said for every American administration in recent decades. Barry Rubin warned about this possibility long before Barack Obama was even elected. “The next U.S. president might try to engage Syria and spend a year or so finding out that it doesn’t work,” he told me in 2007.
Bashar Assad does not play well with others, and he never has. Neither did his father. The Syrians, according to a U.S. official quoted by Abdul-Hussain, “don’t know the difference between normalizing relations and behaving like they’ve defeated the US in a world war.”
President Obama’s conciliatory nature meant a temporary rapprochement with Syria was likely, if not inevitable. Assad’s nature all but ensures it won’t last.