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Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s uncomplimentary nickname is “the giraffe.” But while he is prone to stick his neck out, others get it in the neck for not making him happy.
Word on the street is that the Syrian regime is angry at its various agents and international affairs’ officials for predicting that the Obama administration would bend the knee before Damascus, that is would seek engagement based on an American perception of having been defeated by Syria.
Now, however, the U.S.-Syria engagement may be over even before it began. With a tough report on Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, Defense Department leaks about Syria’s deep involvement in still promoting terrorism in Iraq, and the renewal of sanctions, Damascus can’t be too happy.
Experience shows how Syria responds. Or as one Lebanese expert put it, “A Syrian official is incapable of talking without making threats.” Syria’s regime is going to want to show the Obama Administration how tough it is. Stepping up aid to terrorists going into Iraq is probably the first sign of this. Doubtless, the Syrians are pulling out all the stops (an English expression which in this case means spending a lot of money and planning a lot of violence) to make sure it wins the Lebanese elections.
This could begin a cycle of escalation which will force the Obama administration to abandon illusions-and many people in the U.S. government don’t have any–about winning over Syria and tearing it away from its ever-closer alliance with Iran.
Here’s one thing to watch for: when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes to Washington the top priorities will be Iran’s nuclear drive and negotiations with Palestinians. Will President Obama put any emphasis on Israel going back to negotiations with Syria in the near future? If you don’t hear about that issue-or much about it-that could be a signal that U.S.-Syria engagement is dead before it really got started.
That would be an important first step in the education of Obama, leaving at least three more vital ones, regarding Israeli-Palestinian, Iran, and radical Islamist issues to be covered. But at least that would be a start.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/.