The Corner

Rush Hour on the Road to Damascus

We’re just over a month into the Obama administration, and already American politicians are so deep into “engagement” with Syria that maybe it’s time to start wondering about the wedding date. Post-inauguration, four congressional delegations have gone to Damascus to call on Syrian President Bashar Assad, one at the end of January, and three in the past week.

The star engager of the moment is John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who dropped by Damascus on Saturday to sit in an inlaid chair and talk for more than an hour with Assad. Apparently they did find some common ground. They share an aversion to the policies of former President Bush–who had the audacity to try to lever Syria’s Baathist tyranny out of Lebanon and impose penalties on Syria for such activities as providing illicit banking services for Saddam Hussein, suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and harboring such major-league terrorists such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

But hey, with today’s new “smart” diplomacy, there’s nothing here that can’t be cured by an extended hand from President Obama and a nice long chat with John Kerry. On Saturday, Kerry emerged his audience with Assad to gush about their talks as “very long, frank, candid and open.”  We have arrived, Kerry told CBS News, at “an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation.”

Right. Except it’s America that’s changing, not Syria–sidekick to Iran, and paragon of “smart” tyranny.

In tandem with the congressional stampede to Damascus, the Obama administration has already waived sanctions on Syria to allow for repair of Syrian state-owned Boeing airliners, allowed a transfer of funds from the U.S. to a Syrian charity, and is planning talks this coming week aimed at restoring the diplomatic ties that Bush broke off following the Hariri murder in 2005. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked up prospects of Syria becoming a “constructive regional actor.”

It’s a lovely notion, except that Syria’s regime has survived for decades by facilitating mayhem in the region, and then offering its services as a broker to fix the problem. Sure, Syria will talk. Assad in his munificence granted an audience to Jimmy Carter in 2008, and to Nancy Pelosi when she arrived, scarf-on-head, to go nut-shopping in the Damascus souk in 2007.

But what is Syria doing to bring on this Obamavision of transformation? Better ask what Syria is not doing–starting with Assad’s refusal to allow any further inspection of the site of Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar, built with North Korean help, and destroyed by an Israeli air strike in September, 2007. Buried at the bottom of an Agence France Presse account of Kerry’s meeting was the fascinating footnote that the diplomatic flurry in Damascus has been “clouded” by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report confirming the discovery at Al Kibar of “unexplained uranium particles.”

Unexplained uranium particles? Note to future U.S. delegations: “Transformation” takes many forms. When you pack your bags for talks in Syria, bring yer lead-lined underwear.

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