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Obama Talks, Syria Mocks

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
March 15, 2010
Weekly Standard

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The Obama administration has from the start seen Syria as a leading case for engagement. Barack Obama said so during his presidential campaign (announcing he would meet Bashar al Assad without preconditions) and repeated this policy view again last summer:

We've started to see some diplomatic contacts between the United States and Syria. There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us, and we think that there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues. But, as you know, I'm a believer in engagement and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front.

The engagement with Syria continues apace. Here are the key elements.

* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.

* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).

* The president has also removed the American block to Syria's attempt to join the World Trade Organization.

* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.

* Syria's deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.

So there is certainly "progress on that front," to use the president's words. But when does "engagement" become "appeasement"? The case of U.S. policy toward Syria suggests that, here at least, the two approaches may not be far apart.

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