Commentary: Syria is the graveyard for U.S. Mideast plans

Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald.
Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

If there is one place that exemplifies the embarrassing failure of Washington’s plans for the Middle East, it is the blood-soaked soil of today’s Syria.

As Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ruthlessly grinds his opponents into the dust, it is hard to believe that just a few months ago Damascus looked like the place where the United States, with a few carefully-calibrated moves, might find a gate leading to a more peaceful and stable Middle East.

When Obama came to power, Damascus stood out as the intersection point for all of America’s problems in the Middle East. Turning Assad to America’s side looked like a clever way to transform the region. Assad, many believed, was a “reasonable” dictator; a moderate in a sea of hardliners. In 2008, Assad was isolated. Since 2005, his relations with the rest of the world had entered a deep chill following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many believed his regime had ordered.

This country, among others, had withdrawn its ambassador. But Obama, believing the now-laughable myth that Assad was a moderate, decided to restore relations.

Washington planned to persuade Damascus to walk away from its closest ally, Iran, and to stop supporting radical groups classified as terrorist organizations by the United States and Europe. Syria had long become a sanctuary and a principal weapons supplier for the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas and the Shiite militants of Hezbollah, which have engaged in furious battles with rivals at home and rejected any compromise with Israel, undermining any chance of long term regional stability.

A little diplomacy would entice Assad from the dark side. If all went according to plan, Syria would help the world get Iran to shut down its illegal nuclear program. Assad would help isolate Iran, weaken terrorist groups, and make peace with Israel. He would stop helping those killing American soldiers in Iraq, and work with Washington to craft a better Middle East. Interestingly, helping bring democracy to Assad’s brutally repressive Syria did not figure prominently in the American plan.

On Dec. 30, President Obama, appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years. Obama sent Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus as a recess appointment, temporarily dodging the required legislative approval.

Many in Congress thought that Obama — in what was becoming a familiar pattern — was giving too much to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, easing sanctions with nothing to show in return.

This all happened just a few months ago. It sounds like a memory from a different era. Ford, needless to say, did not persuade Assad to do anything. Washington accomplished nothing in the months before the current revolt.

Now the mask has come off the tyrant and America’s Middle East plans lie in ruins.

Of course, nobody could have predicted that the so-called Arab Spring would break out. Once it started, however, Washington’s inconsistent efforts to manage the fast-changing events have earned it few friends.

Obama, who came to office determined to build good relations with Arabs, has presided over a confusing response to the uprisings. Granted, the challenge of responding to such cataclysmic change is enormous. But the results so far are not encouraging.

In an astonishing turn, a new poll shows that Obama is less popular in the Arab world than George W. Bush was. A poll by the Arab-American Institute shows his favorable ratings below 10 percent. In Egypt, site of Obama’s famed 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, only 5 percent have a good opinion of the U.S. president.

Not only was the pre-Arab Spring a failure, but Washington’s response to the uprisings also fell flat. First it was the repeated U.S. change in positions when the Egyptian regime was under pressure, then it was a quick move to join a military effort to overthrow Libya’s dictator. In Syria, it seemed confused about whether it preferred the devil it knows, no matter how diabolical.

Neither the previous nor the future Arab leaders know if they can trust the United States. But it is not too late. Uncertainty in Middle East produces anxiety in Washington. But Washington needs to make clear on whose side it stands. Enough equivocation. The murderous Syrian regime deserves only repudiation and those working to bring it down deserve America support. Non-military assistance now could help influence the country’s future.

We don’t know what will come after Assad, but we know Assad must go. Anything else would be another embarrassing strategic and moral failure for Washington.

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