It seemed like a really good idea at the time. President Obama had a clever strategy to cool down and stabilize the smoldering Middle East. This was not about friendly gestures to old foes and tough talk to old friends. The plan was something else entirely. I, too, thought it was worth a try. The idea was to quietly put the focus on Syria, the common denominator in so many areas of American interest in the region.
For years, Syria made every problem worse for the United States and its allies. Changing that could bring a giant jackpot: If Damascus could come into line with Washington, it could help bring peace to Iraq. It could help isolate Iran and raise the cost of Tehran's nuclear defiance. It could secure a functioning, democratic and moderate regime in Lebanon. It could strengthen Palestinian moderates, and ease the path to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention between Israel and Syria itself.
Unfortunately, like much of what Obama has tried in the region, the new approach to Syria is failing spectacularly. Since Obama started his campaign to improve relations with Syria, trying to peel it out of its close embrace with Tehran and persuade it to stop supporting radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Damascus has all but laughed at U.S. efforts. It is now hugging Iran even more tightly and showering ever more resources on its allied militias throughout the region.
That doesn't mean that American overtures have had no impact. Seeing Washington's policy change, U.S.-friendly forces in Arab countries have reconciled with a thuggish regime they reviled. Syria is looking stronger than it has in years, and Washington has received nothing in return for its efforts. In Lebanon, leaders of the once pro-American, anti-Syria forces have been traveling to Damascus to pay tribute to the man they had blamed for killing family members and hijacking their country. Syria has continued supporting Hamas, the bitter enemy of the more moderate Palestinian party Fatah.
The latest news from Syria shows a reversal so serious for Washington and its allies that some are describing it as a "game changer" that could precipitate another Middle East war.
It turns out Syria has just transferred some of the most advanced armament yet to its radical friends in Lebanon, the Iran-created Shiite militia Hezbollah. The Scud rockets can reach practically all of Israel, and Hezbollah -- whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel -- has proven time and again that its weapons are not for show.
When Israel worries about Iran's nuclear program, the scenario it considers more likely is not a direct attack from Iran, but nuclear materials in the hands -- or the warheads -- of Iran's allies, Hezbullah and Hamas.
Observers had already expressed deep worry when the leaders of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas gathered for a rare face-to-face meeting in Damascus last February. The editor of the Arab daily Al-Quds al Arabi called the gathering a "war council."
Israeli and Lebanese civilians have already had a taste of what can happen when Hezbollah and Israel go to war. Less than four years ago, Hezbollah men infiltrated Israel, kidnapping and killing a number of Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces struck southern Lebanon, looking for the kidnapped soldiers -- who had been murdered -- and trying to destroy a vast arsenal kept by Hezbollah in the middle of densely populated areas. The war, as wars are, was a horrific experience. Hundreds of thousands of people on both sides were displaced as their homes came under fire, and many died.
In 2006, Hezbollah fired almost 4000 missiles at northern Israeli cities. Its Katyusha rockets had a reach of about 60 miles. The new Scuds can travel more than 400 miles, reaching Israel's main airport and all its major cities. The prospect that a warhead could carry crude nuclear materials from Iran should give the entire world pause.
Another war would be a tragedy, but it is becoming more likely.
Since coming to office, President Obama has eased economic sanctions on Syria. While keeping Syria on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, it has eased the label of international outlaw from the regime, and it has named a new ambassador for the first time since the Hariri assassination sent U.S.- Syrian relations into a deep freeze. The Senate may block the upgrading of diplomatic ties. But the Obama administration, too, should quickly review what once seemed like such an excellent idea.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes on international affairs.