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A clueless US Foreign Policy on Syria

By Jamil Sawda - posted Thursday, 6 January 2011

Barack Obama’s ill advised decision to appoint Robert Ford as US ambassador to Syria has signalled to the world how short-sighted current American foreign policy is at its core when it comes to dealing with a state like Syria.

Five years ago in protest at alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, the then Bush administration withdrew its ambassador from Damascus, freezing its diplomatic relations with Syria. It believed that Syria had a hand in the assassination because it wanted to retain its hegemony over Lebanon. 

A reversal of that position should not occur lightly, and should involve a benefit to the US.


Following the election of President Obama, 13 months ago, the President nominated a number of candidates to government appointments.   This included the nomination of an ambassador to Syria, which had been held up by the Senate.   Come December 30 2010, with the Senate in recess, the US president confirmed the nomination of a number of ambassadors, including that of Ambassador Ford.    Obama’s decision is undoubtedly going to anger many Republicans, but more importantly it highlights how remarkably fatuous this decision happened to be.

According to a leaked diplomatic cable dated February 2009 which recounted a meeting between US Embassy officials in Paris and former French ambassador to Syria, Jean-Claude Cousseran, the envoy advised the Americans urging that “...Washington should ‘get something tangible’ from the Syrian regime.   He cautioned that the Syrians were masters of avoiding any real concessions and were adept at showering visitors with wonderful atmospherics and delightful conversations before sending them away empty handed.”

No doubt the Frenchman was correct in offering sound counsel to the Americans, which Obama has completely ignored with his latest announcement seeking nothing tangible in return from the Syrians.   Administration officials have defended the president’s decision arguing that no other official can provide the outreach and communicate American perspectives to the Syrian regime than an Ambassador can.   Further to the hope that this appointment would constrain Syrian behaviour.

Such arguments are oblivious to the reality that in the diplomatic realm there are a plethora of ways to signal and get the message across to Syria without having to necessarily formalise and legitimise the resumption of normal diplomatic works.   This is considering that in the past five years since the previous US ambassador was withdrawn, Damascus has not budged on matters which the US considers of strategic importance – be it in Lebanon, Iraq, inter-Palestinian affairs, negotiations with Israel, Syrian cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah, and arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Then why reward Syria with the appointment of an ambassador, a desire the Assad regime has wished and called for over the past five years, when it is evident Syria has done little, if anything, in reverse when it comes to policies concerning, more importantly, Lebanon?   Apart from being forced by the international community to establish diplomatic exchanges in 2008 with Lebanon, a first since each country’s independence in the 1940s, Syria has remained intransigent on respecting Lebanon’s sovereignty, remaining cognizant of its attempts to create a renewed consensus for a full return to Lebanon.

Ford should have only been sent to Damascus in exchange for a solid concession from Syria on key areas of importance to the US or international community.   In this regard it could have been, an accommodation from Syria to allow the IAEA uninhibited access to inspect suspected Syrian nuclear sites, which it has explicitly refused to sanction; alternatively, disarm and deal with the heavily armed pro-Syrian Palestinian and militant factions operating along the Syria-Lebanon border; refrain from interfering in Lebanon’s domestic and foreign policy matters; or cease to undermine the works of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of Hariri.


In hindsight intensive outreach from senior US officials to Syria spanning the past five years has changed little.   Thus, it should be questioned how much Obama has to gain from upgrading the US diplomatic mission in Syria as any notion of unconditional constructive engagement with Syria, especially when Syria remains a suspect in the assassination of Hariri, is simply absurd.   Therefore, it is doubtful that this appointment will have any positive impact at all in modifying Syrian behaviour.

Adding to this is Syria’s campaign, fighting tooth and nail, to obstruct the STL, a tribunal which Washington vehemently supports, with Syria recently intensifying its efforts to undermine its works.   And yet, Obama proceeds to upgrade US representation in Damascus as if to signal to the Syrian regime that Washington would be appeased with any Syrian behaviour.

The Syrian regime got what it wanted; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to Lebanon, or most regional matters, it has the upper hand and capability to persistently stall Washington.   And with a lack of serious US assertiveness in dealing with Assad, the tide is once again shifting in Syria’s favour in regaining the upper hand in Lebanon and shaping the future of any Lebanese government.

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About the Author

Jamil Sawda works as a consultant to diplomatic missions and international organisations and has previously worked on the Iraq Desk at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. Jamil is a graduate from the Australian National University with a Master in Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies, a Master of Diplomacy and a Graduate Diploma in Strategic Affairs. Mr. Sawda is currently completing his doctorate on the diplomatic relation between Lebanon and Syria.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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