To help with the “diplomatic” track……
President Obama’s new senior adviser for the anti-ISIS campaign once suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might change his policies on collaborating with Iran and terrorist groups if President George W. Bush’s administration would only end its “hostile policy” towards him.
Rob Malley made the argument in the context of defending then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), after she came under fire for meeting with Assad during a visit to Damascus in April 2007.
Malley, who was not in government service at the time, described Pelosi’s visit to Syria as “perfectly legitimate” and called the criticism from the administration and others “absurd.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama has appointed Malley, a member of his national security staff who took part in the Iran nuclear negotiations, as his senior adviser for the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
The effort to defeat the terrorist group is interweaved with the future of Assad; the Obama administration insists that he must go – arguing that the dictator serves as a magnet and recruiting aid for the jihadists.
Earnest said Malley’s role will include ensuring interagency coordination of efforts, including “our reinvigorated diplomatic track toward a political transition in Syria, and an end to its civil war, which continues to fuel ISIL.”
Eight years ago, Malley – working at the time as Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) – viewed Assad as someone the U.S. should engage, not shun.
Damascus was a destination for Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, but Pelosi became the most senior U.S. politician to meet with Assad since the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador two years earlier to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing widely blamed on Syria.
Amid ensuing criticism of her trip, Malley in an op-ed defended Pelosi and argued that rather than try to isolate and rebuff Syria the U.S. should promote peace talks between Assad and Israel.
“[T]he mere sight of Israeli and Syrian officials sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state’s right to exist, and putting Syrian allies that oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position,” Malley wrote.
(At the time, those “Syrian allies” included Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, all sworn enemies of Israel. Iran and Hezbollah remain two of Assad’s closest allies today.)
“Rigidly rebuffing Syria is a mistake fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity,” Malley wrote.
“Syria’s response is that it will continue to assist militant groups, maintain close ties to Iran and let the U.S. flounder in Iraq for as long as Washington maintains its hostile policy and blocks peace talks. It also could change all of the above should the U.S. change its stance.”