May 3, 2010 | Beirut2Bayside

The Obama Administration’s “Big Game”

Here's my piece from last Tuesday on the recent House hearing on Syria. It saw the first time that an administration official, in this case, Asst. Sec. Jeffrey Feltman, actually spell out what the administration's held as its Syria policy. Basically, it's all about “linkage.”

I should also note this piece by Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard. Abrams makes the following observation about the administration's position on Syria following the Scud crisis: “Having committed itself to the 'peace process,' the administration simply cannot afford to treat Syria as it deserves; Syria has too much clout now.”

What Abrams means by “clout” is that the administration is inadvertently affording Damascus free leverage because it's approaching Syria within the framework of the peace process. I had made the same point just a day earlier in my piece:

As some of us reasoned, Bashar al-Assad made his gamble with the Scuds calculating that this peace processing impulse would be the administration’s default position. If the US endgame is a comprehensive peace deal, one that by definition involves Syria, then Assad can buy immunity and even leverage, simply by declaring he wants peace.

Thus, Obama becomes trapped by his own “big game”. If Syria is deemed necessary for his regional peace/containment edifice, then the US will not be able to declare engagement a failure and suspend it, or else the entire edifice collapses. The result is the confused paralysis evident in the administration’s reaction to the Scud crisis: doubling down on engagement and the need to convince Assad that his “real” interests lay not with Iran but with the US.

I was referring to my own analysis on April 13. Commenting on the Scud story, I wrote:

Depending on how the Obama administration deals with the situation, the risk is that Assad will draw the lesson that he enjoys impunity – especially if Washington’s impulse is to address the problem by calling for resumed peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Furthermore, the Syrian president may calculate that, in the event of a conflict, the administration will ultimately prevent the Israelis from going all the way with Syria and, instead, pressure them into entering negotiations. If Assad senses that he is protected, expect him to push the envelope even further – at Lebanon’s expense, of course.

… In his conceptual framework, the peace process is just warfare by other means.