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April 27, 2011

Get serious on Syria, Bam

By

The bloody crackdown in Syria is just the lat est sign that Team Obama's "engagement policy" toward the Middle East bad boy hasn't paid off.

As President Obama himself might say: It's time for a change.

Sure, there was a chance Washington's softly-softly approach could've persuaded Damascus to relax its embrace of Tehran (which has expanded its influence across the Middle East with Syria's help). Or maybe advanced the Middle East peace process -- perhaps bringing an end to hostilities between neighboring Syria and Israel.

Our diplomatic efforts might've reduced Syria's long-standing support for Hamas or Hezbollah (which has increasing influence in Lebanon -- and even in Latin America).

Obama's overtures could've gotten Basher, er, Bashar Assad to come clean on his undeclared nuke program (which is being supported by the North Koreans).

And, of course, our policy might've made the regime think twice before launching its all-out effort to crush local shoots of the Arab Spring, using the feared mukhabarat (secret police), special forces and tanks.

But our policy -- which many always saw as naive -- didn't produce any of those results.

OK, Team Obama tried since taking office -- testing Syria's intentions by extending some small carrots to Damascus.

Notably, in January (in a recess appointment), Obama sent back the first US ambassador since President George Bush recalled his envoy in 2005 after Syria was fingered in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

The president also lifted some economic sanctions in 2009 despite Syria's continued presence on our State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Plus, Washington sent some political high-rollers in Damascus' direction for cups of tea with Assad to improve relations, appealing to the regime's ego as a pivotal player in the region.

Actually, even now, the United States' official response to the growing death toll in Syria has been so far limited to a few fusillades of rhetorical flourishes and a reported diplomatic demarche or two to the Syrian ambassador.

So, what to do now?

First, after about six weeks of demonstrations and violence in Syria, it's time to recall the US ambassador. While a largely symbolic gesture, it at least sends a stronger signal of condemnation than we have as of yet. Other countries should do the same.

Such a step isolates Assad and deprives him of the domestic and international seals of approval he covets, particularly in times like these when Damascus is looking for friends.

And, while getting a resolution of condemnation through the UN Security Council might be tough, it'd showcase the situation, deepen the "isolation" message and put countries in the awkward spot of siding with Syria.

We can also keep the heat on with "information operations" (via international broadcasting and the Internet) to keep the news flowing about goings-on in Syria. That also might rouse other Arab states to action.

Next, revoke any easing of trade sanctions Washington has given to Damascus, and place restrictions on the movement of the Syrian leadership. Freeze more Syrian assets, too.

We should also look at bringing Europe, which is Syria's No. 2 trading partner, and Turkey along on sanctions and other measures. Arab states would be tougher to get onboard -- but some aren't fans of Syria and may sign up.

Syria is perhaps the most complex problem in a region full of hotspots. But its strategic status and penchant for trouble makes it one we need to get right.

Yes, there are risks to taking action against Syria -- but there are also risks in our current approach of relative inaction, which has proven feckless.

Don't hold your breath, but increased pressure and isolation makes the most sense as leverage for the moment. Anything less only aids and abets an increasingly rogue, dangerous, anti-US regime.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in The New York Post

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