Obama Official, Clinton Defend U.S.-Syria Ties

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the U.S. policy of engaging with Syria against criticism from Congress following allegations that Syria transferred missiles to Hezbollah terrorists.

“We believe it is important to continue the process to return an ambassador” and engage with Syria, Clinton said today in Tallinn, Estonia, where she’s attending a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “It’s a tool that we believe can give us extra leverage, added insight, analysis and information with respect to Syria’s actions and intentions.”

Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, faced questions yesterday at a House panel hearing from Democrats and Republicans who questioned the logic of President Barack Obama’s efforts to send an ambassador to and engage with a regime the U.S. accuses of weapons proliferation, links to terrorist groups and ties to Iran.

Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee for the Middle East and South Asia, compared sending an ambassador to Damascus to appeasing Adolf Hitler before World War II.

President George W. Bush withdrew the last U.S. ambassador in 2005, following Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

‘Kick in Teeth’

It’s “rewarding Syria for kicking the U.S. in the teeth,” Burton said, referring to the administration’s decision in February to name career diplomat Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus, after a reported meeting between leaders of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

Clinton said the administration has expressed directly to the Syrian government “in the strongest possible terms our concerns about stories that do suggest there has been some possible transfer of weapons technology into Syria with potential purpose of then later transferring it to Hezbollah inside Lebanon.”

She said that the U.S. “would like to have a more balanced and positive relationship with Syria,” and would like Syria to refrain from destabilizing Lebanon and to contribute to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Achieving those goals will be easier if the two countries are engaged, Clinton said. “We will continue pressing our concerns and we think having an ambassador there will help us.”

‘Not Reward’

“This is not some kind of reward for the Syrians and the actions that they take which are deeply disturbing,” Clinton said.

Feltman also defended the decision, saying the Obama administration believes diplomacy can change Syria’s behavior. “An ambassador is not a reward; it’s a tool,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already listening to the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah, Feltman said, and he “needs to listen to us, too.”

Ford hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate, and House members said they would share grave concerns with their Senate colleagues about the wisdom of sending an envoy to Damascus.

Feltman said that refusing to send Ford wouldn’t further U.S. goals; it would make influencing Syria harder.

Benefit of Ties

Syria’s government “says it wants to live in peace in the region,” Feltman testified. A senior U.S. envoy in Damascus would in time have a chance to persuade Syria that “it’s in Syria’s interest” to seek peace with Israel, respect the sovereignty of neighboring Lebanon and uphold human rights of its people, he said.

Feltman declined to answer in open session whether the U.S. has evidence to confirm Israeli claims that Syria has been smuggling long-range missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israeli President Shimon Peres on April 13 accused the Arab country of supplying the militant group with Scuds, ground-to-ground missiles with a range of hundreds of miles.

“If these reports turn out to be true, we have to review” the full range of efforts to reverse Syria’s actions, Feltman said.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, told Feltman he doesn’t “think your approach has any merit at all.”

Feltman said that, while a change isn’t possible overnight, the administration can send a strong message through diplomatic channels.

‘Dangerous’ Path

“It’s important to make the case to Syria why the path they’re on is so dangerous,” Feltman said. “Syria is not Iran,” he said, noting that Syria is a secular state and that the Obama administration doesn’t see the Syria-Iran alliance as immutable.

Citing “growing rapprochement” between Syria and Saudi Arabia, Feltman said, “the Syrians try to hedge their bets.” It’s in the interests of U.S. allies, including Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, that the U.S. improves relations with Syria in an effort to change its behavior.

Also yesterday, Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Representative Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, introduced a resolution in Congress calling for tightening restrictions against Syria, strict enforcement of sanctions related to the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and a reevaluation of the decision to send an ambassador to Damascus.

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