Lack of US-Syria Diplomacy Leads to Dangerous Isolation

On Syria, there is a back-story from which the US should learn, lest it be repeated again. For years, long before the killing by President Bashar al-Assad's government began, the US preferred a policy with Damascus of disengagement. It is unclear why the White House pursued this - with Syria, Iran and others - because it fails to correct the behavior of the intended recipient of US disengagement and fails to keep relational ties current in case bad behavior - like Syria's latest civil war - gets worse.

With Syria, our government's policy of disengagement was most apparent under President Bush setting the stage for today's US-Syria relations - although it's changed slightly under President Obama with the aggressive outreach by Arabic-speaking Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford. Much of the recent damage in US-Syria relations was accomplished under Bush. While Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that she would "talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime" because she was "not afraid to talk to anyone," in practice it is quite the opposite. Notwithstanding the potential gains that could have come from engaging Syria - at the time, vis-à-vis Iraq - gains that would have benefited the Iraqi people and improved US-Syria relations, the US severed all communication links with Syria.

The US, under Bush, decided to recall the US Ambassador to Syria Margaret Scobey in 2005, leaving a vacancy in official US diplomatic relations with Syria. I visited with the ambassador in Damascus shortly before her departure and it became clear that her interaction with Syrian government officials was not only minimal but it was painfully inadequate. With over 20 years as a Foreign Service officer in the region, basic language skills and cultural nuances eluded her. The State Department, not Ambassador Scobey, was responsible for this insufficiency as department protocol used to enforce limited parameters on language proficiency -- a counterintuitive policy when considering effective diplomatic mechanisms. (Perhaps it is no surprise then, with US-Egypt relations on thin ice, that Ambassador Scobey was the US Ambassador in Cairo during much of Arab spring tumult. There is a trend here.) The State Department, again under Bush, continued to fail to recognize Syria's role in calming Iraq. Ambassador David Satterfield, the State Department's top official at the time on Iraq policy, claimed in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that Syria was not part of the solution. In dismissing Syria, Satterfield disregarded potential liaising with, for example, Syria's Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, with whom I met not long after the invasion of Iraq to discuss opportunities for interfaith diplomacy. As Syria's most highly regarded Islamic leader, Sheikh Hassoun had the capacity and the legitimacy to assist in addressing salient sectarianism within Iraq. Ambassador Satterfield's decision to implicitly discount the grand mufti was detrimental not only to Iraq's future but also to US-Syria relations, laying some of the groundwork for today's severed relations. There is no excusing Assad and the deplorable humanitarian crisis that has unfolded. But the more you ostracize a state and its leaders, the more difficult it becomes to encourage them back from the ledge, and the easier it becomes for them to make even worse decisions. Why, because they have nothing to lose, no international relations to jeopardize, and no global reputation to undo. US stubbornness to engage a state with which it disagrees (see Iran) continues to cost lives and is an immoral and inexcusable policy tack when diplomatic and dialogic alternatives remain waiting in the wings. Whereas dialogue has the potential to impede bloodshed, US obstinacy does not.

Michael Shank is the US Vice President at the Institute for Economic and Peace. Michael is an Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, serves on the board of the National Peace Academy, and is in the PhD Program at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.