Obama Ends His ‘Engagement’ Policy With Syria by Recognizing the Opposition

By Patrick Goodenough | December 12, 2012 | 4:48 AM EST

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, a strong advocate of engagement with Syria, holds talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus on November 8, 2010. (Photo: SANA)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s announcement Tuesday recognizing the Syrian opposition movement as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people marks the most drastic policy shift yet in relations between Washington and the 41 year-old Assad regime, and buries finally a policy in which Obama’s administration initially tried to engage with Damascus.

In an interview Tuesday with ABC News, Obama said the newly formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was “now inclusive enough” for the U.S. to take the “big step” of recognizing it formally.

Obama said the move brings responsibilities for the opposition group, which should “make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women’s rights and minority rights.”

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An estimated 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began with street protests in March 2011. U.S. recognition follows similar decisions by European allies including Britain, France, Germany and Arab Gulf states.

The president’s approach to Syria in 2009 was encouraged by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).  His calls for engaging Assad echoed those made in 2006 by the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.

The group recommended that the U.S. engage both Syria and Iran as part of a broader change in strategy on Iraq. Then-Sen. Barack Obama welcomed the recommendation and said he hoped Bush would consider it seriously

Once in the White House, Obama in mid-2009 and early 2010 sent Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and undersecretary for political affairs William Burns to Damascus, urging Assad to move away from Iran.

Assad responded, just days after Burns’ visit, by defiantly hosting a solidarity meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

As Kerry continued to visit Damascus for talks with Assad – three times in 2010 alone – Obama named an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years. President Bush had withdrawn the last one to protest the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, suspected to have been killed by Assad regime elements and Hezbollah.

After Senate Republicans put the brakes on the nomination of Ambassador Robert Ford, Obama appointed him during a congressional recess in late 2010.

Three months later, Syrians protestors inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt began to take to the streets demanding political reforms. Even as the regime crackdown began on March 15, 2011, Kerry continued to express optimism that the U.S.-Syria relationship would improve.

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event on March 16, in reply to a question. “My judgment is that Syria will move. Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

In an interview later that month Clinton noted that some members of Congress regarded Assad as “a reformer.”

As the repression worsened, the administration condemned the regime but disregarded Republican calls for Ford to be recalled as a gesture of protest.

In April 2011 Obama imposed sanctions against senior regime figures – but not the president himself – and the following month issued an executive order targeting Assad for sanctions directly.

Clinton said in July Assad had “lost legitimacy” and Obama in August called on him to “step aside.”

Ford was eventually withdrawn from Syria in October 2011, with the State Department citing threats to his safety.

Through the “Friends of Syria,” a grouping of more than 50 countries including the United States, Clinton and other diplomats have been working to encourage a united and broadly-representative opposition to Assad.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), a coalition of opposition groups loosely affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army, struggled to fulfill that role, paving the way for the formation at a meeting in Qatar last month of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the group Obama recognized on Tuesday.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow