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If you listened carefully this past week, you could almost hear the sound of champagne glasses clinking together loudly in Damascus, as Syrian President Bashar Assad undoubtedly raised a toast to celebrate Washington’s latest act of groveling before his autocratic government.
Just days after Assad’s regime had engaged in a war of words with the Jewish state, threatening America’s closest ally in the region, Barack Obama decided to respond by conferring upon him yet another undeserved diplomatic gift.
In a truly breathtaking display of weakness, the U.S. State Department indicated it was ramping up its “dialogue” with Assad and had agreed to send a high-level American diplomat – Undersecretary of State William Burns – to pay him a courtesy call in the Syrian capital.
Incredibly, when asked about the matter last Friday at the daily State Department press briefing, spokesman Phillip J. Crowley told reporters that the Burns visit “reflects our growing interest in working constructively with Syria and the leaders of that country.”
Now isn’t that sweet.
The Obama administration would like to “work constructively” with a government that is allied with Iran, supports Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists, and has aided the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq to do battle with American servicemen.
Good luck with that one, Mr. Burns.
Indeed, it was just two weeks ago, on February 3, that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made the following “constructive” comments to reporters: “Don’t test the determination of Syria, you Israelis. You know that war this time would move to your cities.”
Muallem’s remarks raised eyebrows even among the Western press, with ABC News noting that, “The threatening language implied Syria would be willing and able to target Israeli population centers with long-range missiles in a conflict. It was the first time such a threat had been made.”
But that brazen act of intimidation on Syria’s part barely seemed to register with the White House, which appears determined to rush headlong into a warm embrace with Muallem’s boss.
Another compelling sign of the sea-change in American policy came last month. On a visit to Damascus, Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell reportedly notified Assad that a new American ambassador to Damascus will soon take up his post.
This will mark the first time the U.S. is sending an ambassador to Syria since February 2005. At the time, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled diplomat Margaret Scobey after the Syrian government allegedly ordered the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But now, five years later, all that is forgotten, as Washington intensifies its inexplicable romance with this brutal regime.
To be sure, one could argue it is in America’s interests to attempt to pry Syria away from its Iranian allies, particularly in light of the mounting tension with Tehran over its nuclear program.
And there is no doubt that were Syria to change tack, and abandon its extremist policies, it would have a profound impact on the stability of the Middle East.
But that is precisely where Obama is making such a terrible and foolhardy mistake.
Attempts to woo Damascus into the so-called moderate Arab camp date back to the Clinton administration, and they have produced nothing but frustration and failure.
Here is just one example: back in May 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Assad and declared that Syria had promised to close the offices of terror groups such as Hamas which were operating in downtown Damascus.
Nearly seven years later, that simple and very basic promise remains unfulfilled.
The fact is, Syria is firmly ensconced in the rejectionist camp, and no amount of cozying up to Assad or kowtowing to his demands is going to change that.
Moreover, the message Obama is sending is both hazardous and counterproductive, as Damascus has done nothing to deserve the gestures and attention that it is getting from Washington.
If anything, the Syrians will see that they can persist with regional mischief-making while still reaping some handsome diplomatic rewards in the process.
Only a firm stance, which directly links American gestures to verifiable changes in Syrian behavior, can possibly hope to elicit any modification to Damascus’s policies. But such an approach does not currently appear to be in the offing.
Instead, Assad and his cronies will continue to enjoy a good laugh at Obama’s expense, as they surely marvel at how the last remaining superpower beats a hurried and ill-conceived path to their door.
As for the rest of us, we can only look on in wonder and distress as America’s position and role in the world are weakened still further. And that, of course, is no laughing matter.
Michael Freund, whose Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the third week of each month, served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999. He is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.