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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Where is Obama's support of Syrian democracy?
The Obama administration remains mum regarding Syria's uprisings, and the reason may be Assad's policies towards Israel.
Last Modified: 06 May 2011 11:31
Despite Israel's presence in the Golan Heights, the Obama administration still hopes that Assad will agree to a Syrian-Israeli peace deal [GALLO/GETTY]

As Bashar al-Assad reverts to his family pedigree and continues what has become a brutal, methodical, and systematic crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy protesters, it seems hard to account for the Obama administration's rhetorical gentleness toward him.

Consider: The Syrian regime of Assad pere et fils has been an implacable enemy of Israel since its Baathist inception 40 years ago, and has long played host to an alphabet soup of anti-Israel Palestinian resistance groups branded as terrorists by the US. Indeed, the Assad regime has been a charter member of the US government's small and exclusive list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979. And even if many of the groups harboured by Syria have long since faded, the Syrian government has maintained its credentials by hosting, as it continues to do, the external leadership of Hamas.

As if that were not enough, Syria has long served as the critical logistical lynch-pin in what Washington sees as its unholy tri-partite alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, facilitating the movement of missiles and other weaponry from the former to the latter, and leveraging its relationship with the extremist Shia movement in order to exercise an "illegitimate" influence in Lebanon and to marginalise those Lebanese actors most favourable to the West.

When US troop losses in Iraq were at their height, Assad's Syria was alternately accused of passively tolerating or actively facilitating the movement of the foreign extremists. These extremists were responsible for a disproportionate amount of al-Qaeda sponsored violence there, and perhaps a majority of the suicide bombers responsible for many thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties.

Nor is Washington's perception of the Syrian threat limited to the conventional sphere. Having long warned of Syria's efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons and the missile systems to deliver them, American concerns were heightened yet further. Indeed, in September 2007 Israel destroyed a mysterious site alleged to house a North Korean-supplied Syrian nuclear reactor.

With all of this as background and prologue, one asks, how is it that the Obama White House still treats Bashar al-Assad's latest outrages with such equanimity? By contrast, though hardly eager at the outset to see Tunisia's Ben Ali or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak consigned to the dust-bin of history, the administration was comparatively quick to call for them to step down in the face of far less brutal repression than what we see now in Daraa, Banyas and Douma. No sooner had Libya's Muammar Gaddafi begun to do what Bashar has been doing for some time than the Obama administration decreed him no longer legitimate, and openly demanded his ouster.

Those close to the American president have made no such pronouncements in the case of Assad. Yes, they have deplored his brutal tactics, but have neither openly questioned the legitimacy of his government, nor called upon him to step down. And under circumstances where the administration would be expected to quickly implement what few sanctions remain to be exercised against Syria, and to do so with an air of self-congratulation, the Americans, as of this writing, are still "exploring" such options. Indeed, it was only days ago that Secretary of State Clinton was combining cease-and-desist calls against Syrian repression with a public description of Assad as a "reformer".

Obama's reasoning

This is not to suggest that the US, alone or with others, can or should take the types of action in Syria which the international community has taken in Libya. Without putting too fine a point on it, both the military and regional political circumstances do not support such a course. But even absent doing anything truly effective, it's not as though this administration is shy about making purely rhetorical pronouncements which it is transparently unable or unwilling to translate into action. Obama ultimately showed no such compunction in demanding an end to Israeli settlement construction. He also saw no contradiction in stating that Gaddafi's downfall was an aim of US policy, while making clear that he did not feel it necessary for the US to take the concerted action necessary to achieve such a result.

In light of all this, the current US attitude toward Bashar al-Assad's regime remains mystifying. It is a case of the dog which didn't bark - which excites speculation as to why. 

My personal theory is that the Obama administration's almost pathetic effort to leave a door open to future dealings with a Syrian regime which may well, in the end, survive the current popular uprising is a mark of the political desperation with which it views its failed efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

At the outset, this administration operated on the sensible notion that further demonising Syria would not be helpful in achieving administration goals in the region, and that relentless, implacable hostility should give way to some form of constructive engagement. The administration also reportedly believed that a Syrian-Israeli peace deal, in addition to its intrinsic merit, would serve to break up the entente with Iran and Hezbollah and, by weakening Hamas, would help to promote a settlement of the Palestinian question, as well.

Thus, as dubious as the administration's aspirations for the Assad regime might have been previously, they are even more so now. It is hard to see how a shaky Syrian regime, having lost legitimacy both regionally and in the eyes of its own people can make a peace with Israel which would survive itself. And even to the extent it would still be both able and willing to do so now, it is harder still to see how this would usefully contribute to an Israeli-Palestinian deal - or, for that matter, to a reliable change in policy which would seriously address the US obsession with Hezbollah. 

Syria-Israel peace deal

The only explanation appears to be that the Obama administration still holds out the hope, however unlikely, that Bashar al-Assad could yet agree to a Syrian-Israeli peace deal which would serve to compensate for its utter failure to achieve Israeli peace with the Palestinians.

But if this is the case, the Obama people should think again. For those in the region, justice for the Palestinians is the central concern vis-à-vis Israel - not recovery of the Golan. A just settlement of the Palestinian issue is the key to a broader regional peace, and to whatever hopes one might harbour for Israel's long-term ability to establish an accepted place for itself in a region which may soon evolve along a path which would otherwise make it far more conducive to a constructive relationship with Israel than has been the case in decades past.

In 1988, Meron Benvenisti, the Israeli political scientist, politician, journalist and activist wrote a highly insightful article concerning the first intifada. In it, he pointed out that the uprising in the occupied territories had brought home a central reality which Israeli politicians had tried for decades to deny or to ignore. In attempting to reach peace deals with regional states and in thinking and speaking of an Arab-Israeli, rather than an Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, Israelis had attempted to deceive themselves about the essential nature of the problem. 

Inescapably, he said, the core issue was the Palestinians. Absent agreement with them, peace with the surrounding states, even if it could be achieved, would serve the Israelis little. The nature of its future relations with the Palestinians, he said, was the central - indeed, the existential - question for Israel.

Thus, in the end, it matters little what rhetoric or what marginal policy tools the Obama administration employs with regard to the current uprising in Syria. But if their current actions betray an attempt to wilfully ignore the central issue of justice for Palestinians, they are making a big mistake.         

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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