Once Bashar al-Assad started firing on unarmed protesters in the spring of 2011, the Obama administration felt a foreign policy win slipping through its fingers. U.S. officials had spent months engaging the Syrian leader in indirect talks with Israel over a deal in which Syria would begin disengagement with Iran in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The prospects of the deal, which would ostensibly split up the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah triumvirate, were apparently so attractive for the United States that American representatives quietly continued engagement with Assad well into his brutal crackdowns of 2011, with the belief that they could retain his usefulness. Secretary of State Clinton, even after the uprising began, continued to call Assad a “reformer.”
Once Assad’s crimes became too great to ignore, Obama and Clinton began to make statements against his brutality. That did not mean the end of engagement, however. Then-Senator John Kerry’s staff and other officials maintained contact with the Syrian government to try and convince Assad to stop the killing and listen to the demands of his people. Given his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his personal relationship with the Assads, Kerry was Obama’s best hope for moderating the Syrian leader’s domestic response and for salvaging the coveted deal with Israel.
In the first few months of the uprising, Kerry’s approach led Assad to the conclusion that the United States viewed his government as indispensable. Regardless of public condemnations from Obama and Clinton, Assad felt that he still had a special place with the administration. Though the Israel deal fell through, Assad’s feeling of a “special status” with the United States was reinforced through various episodes, including Obama’s backing off of his red line over chemical weapons, the soft U.S. approach in the Geneva peace conferences, and the recent limited air campaign against ISIS, which ruled out Assad regime targets and has hurt the opposition forces backed by the United States. Indeed, the United States continues to exhibit a willingness to work—or at least coexist—with Assad, despite its claims to the contrary.
The United States took the same soft approach to Iran in an attempt to secure a nuclear deal. Reports about multiple letters sent from Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei, plans to establish a trade office in Tehran, and the repeated extension of nuclear talks despite the absence of any real breakthrough sends a message to the Iranian government that it too is viewed as indispensable. …
Bassam Barabandi is a former Syrian diplomat and advisor to the Syrian American Council. Tyler Jess Thompson is an international lawyer and policy director for United for a Free Syria.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.