Syria has an unmatched streak as a state sponsor of international terrorism, as documented by the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism, expected to be released soon. The United States has designated Syria a sponsor of state terrorism for 30 straight years, ever since Congress first required that such offenders be listed, beginning in 1979.
No other state shares this serial distinction. To put this odious streak in perspective, President Carter was in the Oval Office and eight-track tapes were still in vogue when Syria debuted as a charter member of the terrorist list.
The State Department list is not chiseled in stone. Other states have fallen off the list after changing their behavior. For example, Libya had its sponsorship-of-terrorism designation rescinded in 2006. But Syria has never shown a willingness to relinquish terrorism as a core element of its statecraft, whether it is used to suppress political dissidents at home or further its regional ambitions.
In addition to supplying Hezbollah with sophisticated weapons in Lebanon, Syria continues to permit Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups to maintain offices in Damascus. The regime has a lengthy track record of allowing jihadists to transit Syrian territory en route to unleashing suicide attacks against American soldiers in Iraq. In recent years, Syria also increasingly has aligned itself with Iran, itself another longtime sponsor of state terrorism.
In response, the Obama administration has sought to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. On paper, this policy approach appears tempting, especially because the theocratic regime in Tehran and the secular Ba’athist regime in Damascus appear to make strange bedfellows. But Tehran and Damascus share similar regional aims that underlie their ideological marriage of convenience, especially with respect to menacing Israel and interfering in Lebanon. With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beside him at a February news conference, President Bashar Assad openly mocked U.S. efforts to split the two allies.
Despite Syria’s history of sponsoring international terrorism, diplomats of late have been practically tripping over themselves en route to Damascus International Airport in the hopes of promoting better relations. The initial rush began nearly two years ago, with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2008 invitation for Mr. Assad to attend his Pan Euro-Mediterranean initiative and France’s annual Bastille Day ceremony during the same trip. Since taking office, the Obama administration has sent its own emissaries to Damascus, including the State Department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns in February.
U.S. diplomatic outreach efforts to Damascus are not new. President George W. Bush also sent high-level officials to Damascus, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in February 2001 and May 2003. But those missions ended after it became clear that Mr. Assad had no intention of moderating Syria’s behavior, despite repeated assurances to the contrary.
Senior Obama administration officials are quick to point out that “engaging” Syria is not the same as “embracing” the regime. Fair enough. As a practical matter, though, this distinction is often lost because Syria is adept at playing the optics of engagement. Every visit by a senior U.S. government official is considered a political victory by Mr. Assad because it helps reaffirm the legitimacy of his regime.
Nonetheless confident that his engagement policy eventually will gain traction, Mr. Obama nominated career diplomat Robert Ford as ambassador-designate to Syria in February. His Senate confirmation, however, has stalled recently in light of disturbing reports about Syria supplying increasingly advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.
Herein lies the rub. The problem with the Obama administration’s Syria policy is not lack of communication, per se. Syria has an embassy in Washington, and the State Department can haul in Syrian diplomats anytime it wants, as it already has done on several occasions. The problem, rather, is Syria’s bad behavior, most of it related to terrorism, and the fact that the administration has yet to outline a compelling strategy to change such behavior.
On this point, the State Department’s annual report serves as a useful reminder about the nature of the Syrian regime. A state does not make the list for three consecutive decades because its sponsorship of terrorism is incidental to its policies. On the contrary, terrorism lies at the very core of the Assad regime. It is this harsh reality that makes well-intentioned efforts to engage Syria problematic in the absence of any compelling strategy to induce constructive behavioral changes.
James H. Anderson is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He was director of Middle East policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.