Syria's Path to Islamist Terror

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Syrian Terrorism

While the Obama administration and congressional leaders may justify renewed engagement with Syria with their desire to jumpstart the Middle East peace process, they ignore the very issue that lies at the heart of the Syrian threat to U.S. national security: Syrian support for radical Islamist terror This may seem both illogical and counterfactual given past antagonism between the 'Alawite-led regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is overwhelming evidence that President Bashar al- Assad has changed Syrian strategic calculations and that undefinning terror is crucial to the foreign policy of the country.

BACKGROUND

On February 14, 2005, a huge bomb killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri as his motorcade drove through Beirut. All eyes fell on Damascus.1 Syria's leaders had motive: Hariri was a prominent Lebanese nationalist who opposed their attempts to grant Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud an unconstitutional third term. The Syrians had the means to carry out such an attack: Their army had occupied Lebanon for more than twenty-nine years. Syrian military intelligence (Shu'bat al-Mukhabaratal-'Askariya) operated freely throughout the tiny republic and maintained operational networks there.2 Assad had actually threatened Hariri: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt reported that at a meeting with Assad and Hariri a few months before the latter's murder, Assad told him, "Lahoud is me ... If you and [French president Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon," a remark Jumblatt interpreted as a death threat to Hariri.3

Following the assassination, Syria became an international pariah. U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan dispatched a fact-finding mission. This mission resulted in the establishment of an international, independent investigating commission headed initially by German judge Detlev Mehlis.4 U.S. president George W Bush and French president Jacques Chirac, two leaders whose views of the Middle East seldom coincided, agreed to isolate Syria diplomatically5 The State Department withdrew its ambassador, Margaret Scobey, and maintained only a lowerlevel diplomatic presence in Damascus. Under immense pressure, the Syrian army finally withdrew from Lebanon. But, over subsequent months and years, as Assad detected chinks in the West's diplomatic solidarity - and as U.S. members of Congress began to defy the White House and again engage with Assad - the Syrian regime began to put cooperation with the U.N. investigators on the back burner. Today, Syrian cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the successor to the more ambitious Investigation Commission, is negligible.

OBAMA'S APPROACH TO SYRIA

Barack Obama campaigned on a platform which made engagement central to his foreign policy. "Not talking [to adversaries] doesn't make us look toughs - it makes us look arrogant," he declared during his campaign.6 In his inaugural address, he declared, 'To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."7

The Syrian regime signaled that it would accept Obama's offer, so long as the White House's hand preceded the unclenching of the Syrian fist. In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East."8

While the Syrian regime had yet to cooperate with the Hariri investigation, cease its sponsorship of and support for terrorism, stop interfering in Lebanon, or stop helping Hezbollah build up its rocket force, the Obama administration wasted little time in easing pressure on Damascus. This rush to dialogue was undertaken in order to create a more conducive atmosphere for engagement. On March 7, 2009, the State Department dispatched Jeffrey D. …