Assad Lost in Translation: It is the Iranian, Stupid!

05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After a year of going back and forth in building up anticipation, Syrian President Bashar Assad almost borrowed Sarah Palin's analogy of "thanks, but no thanks to that bridge to nowhere" in reaction to President Barack Obama administration's tapping of a new ambassador. For Damascus it was too little too late.

Assad is scanning the nuances in American politics. For the Syrian regime, a truce with Washington is crucial for stability and survival. His elbow hit has been focusing on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, leaving out President Obama. He seems skeptical that Clinton is leading the administration chorus of slowing engagement with Syria and was dismissive of her statement before Congress affirming that Washington has asked Syria "to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran."

"We must have understood Clinton wrong probably because of bad translation or our limited understanding, so we signed an agreement to cancel entry visas," mocked Assad while hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on February 25 in defiance to US attempts to encircle Tehran.

Not long ago, he told the New Yorker, "Some say that even Hillary Clinton does not support Obama" and gave his insight about American politics by arguing that "the whole atmosphere is not positive towards the President in general", which means he thinks Obama's appeal is fading and the so-called "engagement hawks" in his circle are dwindling.

Assad also had a double sword message in the New Yorker arguing that "the problem is that the United States is weaker... you always need power to do politics." Here is the bottom line for the Syrians: they see the United States' influence is in retreat in the Middle East, battling a recession and bracing for a withdrawal from Iraq, which makes it more sensitive to a potential disturbance of Syria and Iran.

Tehran's grip over the Syrian economy and the country's military has increased since 2003 as the nascent Assad regime faced increasing isolation after the US invasion of Iraq. The outcome of the July 2006 Israeli War on Lebanon was convenient for Assad, prompting Israel to revert back to its basic policy of negotiations with Damascus to domesticate Hezbollah.

Assad's sense of confidence did not stem from this last summit with Ahmadinejad but from his evolving partnership with Turkey. Syria cancelled visa entry with Ankara before Tehran, in a clear sign of priority and concern of its strategic alliances. Ankara was the door to break his country's isolation, hence Tehran becomes less relevant but still beneficial. Assad managed to make his alliance with Iran an asset, not a burden, by hedging his regional policies in Iraq and Lebanon.

For the Obama administration, there were two signs for the viability of Syrian receptiveness for engagement: first, Assad's participation in the Annapolis peace conference in 2007 despite Tehran's public displeasure and second a vulnerable Syrian economy in desperate need for Western investment. Furthermore, Assad would not be involved in a regional war if Israel attacks Iran, since this regime, and all Arab regimes for that matter, resigned the business of conventional war a while back.

US envoy George Mitchell was mandated, at the Syrians' request, to discuss issues beyond the negotiations track with the Israelis, which eventually complicated his peace efforts. The Syrians became focused on lifting US sanctions and increasingly indifferent about a long process of naming an ambassador. The idea of Undersecretary William Burns visiting Damascus was floated two month at least before it actually happens, this engagement was happening at a slow pace for Damascus. Assad was offered an ambassador and a US help in accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in return for terrorism cooperation and coordination in Iraq, with no agreement on Iran and Hezbollah.

February has been indeed a make or break month for US-Syrian relations where all developments unfolded to set the stage for what would happen in the years to come, a warm-cold interaction of nullity between the two countries. Engagement with Syria either unfolds or not, no room for middle way in this region. So either isolation or engagement, unless complete, will come full circle again and again because somewhere in Washington there is still an inherent view that the Syrian regime is an element of stability and a scenario with no Syrian regime is a matter of uncertainty for US interests in the region.

All the US administration policies towards Syria and the Middle East appear to linked to a goal of sidelining Tehran and on the premise that the region can move forward in spite of the Iranians' attempts to disrupt and compel Washington to recognize their regional platform. Promoting a void Middle East peace process and a timid flirtation with Syria will not lead to resolving the core of the problem.

Whether in engagement or sanctions or war, Iran is the key to move the region backward or forward because of its leverage in disturbing the American status quo. While engagement with Syria is tactical but not transformational, Obama can still entertain this experiment for the sake of expediency.