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Syria: Taking the Wrong Fork in the Road

Syria’s secret construction of a nuclear reactor and its revolving door policy for terrorists entering Iraq to kill US soldiers was not enough to deter Obama’s engagement policy. Lt. Colonel James Zumwalt, USMC (ret) - Family Security Matters [caption id="attachment_11605" align="alignright" width="120" caption="Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt"] Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt[/caption] Ultimate authority for making US foreign policy lies with the President. It includes an obligation to define the national interest and the strategies for achieving policy goals. Congress can influence how the President exercises that authority as both branches play an important, albeit different, role. But today we suffer the consequences of members of Congress acting independently to make foreign policy rather than to just influence the direction in which the President seeks to take it. As members of Congress, some believe they have a role as a self-appointed "Secretary of State." This role empowers them to meet—against the advice of the President—with a foreign head of state, thus endangering the US national interests he has defined. In the case of Syria, numerous trips have been taken by US congressional leaders over the years, effectively sending mixed signals to dictator Bashar Assad. The people of Syria are now paying the price for these congressional jaunts.  [caption id="attachment_11606" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Syria Map Hand"]Syria Map HandSyria Map Hand[/caption]  The parade of US congressman to visit Syria began in December 2006. They embarked upon these trips against the advice of President George Bush who refused to enter into direct discussions with Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Heavily influenced by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Assad allowed Syria to become a highway for transporting terrorists into Iraq. He also supported Hamas and Hezbollah, providing the latter with safe harbor. First to arrive in Damascus was Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla) who, following a one hour meeting with Assad, announced the Syrian leader appeared willing to work with the US in controlling his country’s border with Iraq. Expressing the danger of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Nelson claimed Assad "took note." The senator claimed his efforts opened "a crack in the door" for further discussions. The "door to Damascus" only seemed to work one way through which a long line of unwitting US congressmen would pass in false hopes they—more so than their President’s foreign policy—could impact on Assad’s behavior. Unauthorized visitors following Nelson through the door later that month included Senators John Kerry (D-Mass), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa; later D-Pa). The trio opposed Bush’s policy of not speaking to Assad, believing engagement with Syria and Iran could progress towards peace in the region. In their defense, this was also the finding of the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group. But such an engagement theory was based on a flawed premise. In March 2007, a Republican congressional delegation led by Frank Wolf (R-Va) made an unsanctioned trip to meet with Assad on a fact-finding mission. They insisted they fully supported Bush’s policies and in no way were attempting to conduct foreign policy. In April 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca) became the highest ranking US official to visit Syria since a 2003 trip by Secretary Colin Powell. Pelosi claimed "The road to Damascus is a road to peace." It did not take long for Pelosi to demonstrate why politicians should not engage in rogue efforts to conduct foreign policy with rogue states. Following a three hour meeting with Assad, she announced he was "ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel" and a return of the Golan Heights. Having visited Israel two days earlier, Pelosi then made a statement that surprised Israeli officials. She told Assad Prime Minister Olmert wanted the message relayed that Israel is ready for peace talks with Syria. It was a botched message. Israel quickly denied any change in their foreign policy that considered Syria "part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East." The bottom line on Pelosi’s visit, however, was that efforts by the Bush Administration to isolate Assad for his bad behavior were undermined by receiving a visit from the US Government’s third ranking official. Even The Washington Post recognized "Ms. Pelosi’s attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish." It is important to examine what occurred in Syria in the aftermath of these rogue efforts by US congressman to dialogue with Assad. One month after Pelosi’s visit, Syria launched an accelerated crackdown on free speech and peaceful activism, arresting several dissidents. Six received harsh sentences, some up to 12 years in prison, simply for signing a declaration for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations. That same month, in a sham election, Assad was confirmed to serve a second seven-year term in office. The only candidate on the ballot, he received 97.2% of the vote. With a straight face, a Syrian official claimed afterward, "This great consensus shows the political maturity of Syria and the brilliance of our democracy." But most telling in the wake of the parade of politicians that traveled the road to Damascus was what happened on September 6, 2007. Israeli aircraft entered Syrian airspace to destroy a nuclear reactor secretly being built by Assad with North Korean assistance. While providing Assad with international credibility with their visits, Pelosi and company claimed to be blazing the road to peace. The Syrian dictator, however, was heading in a different direction, paving a road to make the Middle East a much more dangerous place. The lack of impact these rogue efforts by wayward politicians had was reflected in a December 2007 Department of Defense document. It reported 90% of all foreign terrorists entering Iraq entered through Syria. Evidently, these terrorists were traversing Pelosi’s "road to peace" to get there. Despite Assad’s hypocrisy, when President Barack Obama took office, he embarked upon the road of engagement. Senator Kerry pursued this initiative, hoping to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. A number of visits by Kerry and the 2010 announcement Obama had nominated an ambassador to Syria (Bush had withdrawn the US ambassador in 2005), despite the fact the country was still sponsoring terrorism, we again were promised renewed hope of cooperation. Kerry hailed it as an "important moment of change" in relations. Obama’s overtures were met with a continuing flow of terrorists transiting through Syria to Iraq. Meanwhile, a 2009 UN nuclear agency reported traces of uranium were found at the site of the covert nuclear plant destroyed by Israel. Kerry and the Obama administration naively believed trying to establish a personal relationship with Assad would improve relations. They failed to grasp the flawed premise they could court Assad with reason and fairness. Because he served as Iran’s puppet which, in turn, guaranteed his survivability, Assad could never be dissuaded from supporting Tehran. As numerous visits to Syria by US politicians over the years, both authorized and unauthorized, achieved no change, one visit did have an impact—yet Pelosi and company remain surprisingly quiet about it: the visit of the Arab Spring in March 2011. The day after protests broke out in Syria, Kerry commented, "I personally am very, very encouraged. I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship." The Syrian people lacked any similar encouragement about their leader. Assad’s brutal suppression of their mostly peaceful anti-government demonstrations should have dispelled any further infatuation with the dictator or hopes he was a man of reason. With Assad’s survivability challenged by his own people, Iran is making good on its guarantee to him by sending covert forces into to help quell the rebellion. For Tehran, the ouster of Assad would be a major setback. Three months into Assad’s slaughter of his people, US congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) visited with the Syrian leader. Afterward, he reported Assad "is highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians. What I saw in Syria in terms of the open discussion for change demanded by the people and the desire for national dialogue is a very positive thing." Incredulously, yet another politician left Syria singing an Assad love song. Syria’s secret construction of a nuclear reactor and its revolving door policy for terrorists entering Iraq to kill US soldiers was not enough to deter Obama’s engagement policy. Now, after witnessing Assad’s domestic brutality for five months generate a civilian death toll approaching 2000, Obama finally has taken a stand in calling for Assad to step down. However, based on the silence from his congressional visitors, Assad believes he still has many friends in the US Congress. Therefore, absent the rebels knocking on his front door causing him to flee, he will not step down of his own volition. It has been a long, circuitous road through Syria for US foreign policy. Under President Bush it sought to isolate Damascus against the wishes of US congressional members pressing for engagement. Ironically, five years later, with engagement having failed, the man who heralded it—President Obama—has returned to Bush’s policy of isolating Assad. Syria represents a road with a fork in it—one leads to peace; one does not. Various US congressman spent years naively traveling the former, only to later learn Assad was traveling the latter. These congressmen should now be acknowledging they were wrong in believing Assad could be rationally engaged—yet they remain silent. At least by doing so, the President can now speak with one voice. Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (ret) is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam War, the US invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields" and frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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