Diplomatic Diary: Lessons For The Future

Maybe it's too soon to tell whether or not Colin Powell's latest visit there made any difference. Or maybe it's the same old hollow words, the same old empty gestures that have made the Middle East so frustrating for so long.

Either way, it's worth taking another look at where we stand with Syria in the post-Saddam world. After all, in the absence of any big discoveries of Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, the reason for going to war in Iraq has boiled down to this: reforming the region.

Here's the condensed story so far. The United States overthrows Saddam Hussein with astonishing speed. The region recoils in horror. The Bush administration warns Syria to take note and change its bad old ways--its backing of terrorist groups, and, according to U.S. reports, its assembling of chemical and biological weapons. Syria thinks it's next for invasion. Washington says it's not, but still wants Syria to take note and change its ways. Syria breathes a big sigh of relief.

Powell's trip to Damascus at the weekend was meant to catch that sigh of relief and drive the message home in "candid" ways that Syria really needs to reform itself. Syrian officials claim they are already on that path to reform, and that Washington's bluster is just a mountain of misinformation.

Perhaps Syria is engaged in significant internal reforms. But judging from the early reaction to Powell's message, they are not the kind of reforms that really matter to the Bush administration. Take the most critical part of the message: Powell's warnings about Syrian support for terrorist groups. A senior State Department official told reporters that President Bashar Al Assad spent "three solid hours" listening to Powell talk about the "new strategic environment" (in other words, thousands of American troops on his doorstep). Of course, that environment includes the fresh attempt to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the real warning was not to go down Saddam's path towards oblivion.

President Assad's response was just what Powell wanted to hear. Syria has been one of the main sponsors of anti-Israeli terrorism, hosting the Damascus offices of murderous groups such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. "Specifically with respect to offices of organizations in Damascus, we could not understand why they saw the presence of these offices and their leaders and their organizational structure as of any benefit to Syria any longer," the senior State Department official said President Assad was told. "They indicated some closures...and also with respect to other things that they do such as appearing on public and other sorts of television and essentially being very public, that would stop."

Yet according to the initial reports, it was business as usual in those offices after President Assad said they had been closed. While there was some evidence of the groups taking a lower profile (mostly by sending fewer staff to work while the American journalists were in town), nobody inside those organizations acknowledged that life had changed much in the new strategic environment. Indeed, Syrian officials were far more interested in talking about the Palestinian situation than any new anti-terrorist measures. Why? Because they don't view those Palestinian groups as terrorists, merely as freedom fighters struggling against Israeli occupation.

Changing that view of terrorism was supposed to be the most important part of the war on terror and the war in Iraq specifically. But even when it comes to Al Qaeda--which is hardly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--the Syrians have a patchy record.

American officials have been at pains to stress that Syria has cooperated usefully in the war against Al Qaeda. In particular, they cite information from Syrian intelligence that allowed the United States to foil a planned attack on the U.S. Navy's Administrative Support Unit in Bahrain last year. Syria's intel saved many American lives, the officials have said. That judgment was underscored by the latest State Department report on global patterns of terrorism, released last week. In the official assessment, "the Government of Syria has cooperated significantly with the United States and other foreign governments against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and individuals. It also has discouraged any signs of public support for Al Qaeda, including in the media and at mosques," said the report.

However, speaking after publication of the report, officials said that was not the full story about Syria and Al Qaeda. Cofer Black, the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, told reporters last week: "We clearly don't have the full support of the Syrian government on the Al Qaeda problem. They have allowed Al Qaeda personnel to come in and virtually settle in Syria with their knowledge and their support. "They have been helpful and we are appreciative of this help, no question about it. But it's not the whole loaf and we want the whole thing and nothing else."

That's an alarming acknowledgment from one of the Bush administration's most senior anti-terror officials. Alarming not because of what it says about Al Qaeda. But alarming because of what it says about the limitations of American policy. You might think it was obvious that the U.S. was determined to capture and kill Al Qaeda operatives. You might also think it was obvious from President Bush's warnings that anyone harboring terrorists would meet the same fate as the terrorists themselves.

Yet the Bush administration believes that Syria is harboring Al Qaeda operatives. At the same time, it also hopes that Syria will learn the lessons from the war in Iraq and change its ways. Whatever happened to learning the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? Does this suggest Syria may not be that pliable even after witnessing the fate of Saddam.

After he left Damascus, Powell said the U.S. would be monitoring very closely to see if Syria would stick to its word and close down its terrorist offices. "We'll be watching on all of these issues," said the senior State Department official, "to see whether or not they are serious in creating a better relationship with us on a new foundation, not just some incrementalism from the past."

Syria's seriousness will face intense scrutiny, for sure. But just as much scrutiny should be placed on the impact of U.S. policy in the region. Because if Syria fails to mend its ways on terrorism, it is hard to see how the Bush administration can hold onto its hope of reforming the Muslim world.

Diplomatic Diary: Lessons For The Future | News