Sunday, August 14, 2011

2009 State Dept cable: "Syrian officials, at every level, lie."

A fascinating 2009 memo released by Wikileaks as President Obama was actively trying to re-engage Syria shows that the White House has not been listening to State Department advice on how Syria acts diplomatically.


As the U.S. continues its re-engagement with Syria, it may help us achieve our goals if we understand how SARG officials pursue diplomatic goals. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any direct challenge to Syria's behavior and, by extension, his judgment. Bashar's vanity represents another Achilles heel: the degree to which USG visitors add to his consequence to some degree affects the prospects for a successful meeting. The SARG foreign policy apparatus suffers from apparent dysfunctionality and weaknesses in terms of depth and resources but the SARG punches above its weight because of the talents of key individuals. SARG officials generally have clear, if tactical, guidance from Bashar and they are sufficiently professional to translate those instructions into recognizable diplomatic practice. But in a diplomatic world that is generally oiled by courtesy and euphemism, the Syrians don't hesitate to be nasty in order to achieve their objectives. The behaviors they employ as diplomatic "force-multipliers" are the hallmarks of a Syrian diplomatic style that is at best abrasive and, at its worst, brutal.

SARG officials are sticklers for diplomatic protocol, although they are not experts on the international conventions from which it is derived. The SARG places a high value on protocolary forms that ensure respectful treatment of state officials (despite bilateral
differences) because such forms guarantee that the President and his representatives are shown proper courtesies by a world that is often at odds with Syria. (This focus on protocol underlies the continuing Syrian unhappiness over the absence of a U.S. ambassador.) Protocol conventions also reinforce the notion of equal relations between sovereign states and the SARG insists that communications between it and foreign embassies comply with traditional diplomatic practice.

In dealing with the U.S., the Syrians see every encounter as a transaction. The level and composition of the Syrian side of any meeting is carefully calculated in terms of protocol and the political message being sent; a lunch invitation must be interpreted as more than just the Arab compulsion to hospitality ) who hosts the lunch is as important as who attends the meetings. When it comes to content, the Syrians seek to gain the highest value deliverable for the lowest price or no price at all. During the re-engagement process, the SARG has attempted to extract high profile USG gestures in exchange for relief of operational constraints on the Embassy. The SARG has been uncharacteristically forward-leaning in allowing discussions on a New Embassy Compound site to develop as far as they have; actual closure on a land deal, owever, is probably contingent on U.S. delivery of a SARG desirable, e.g., the announcement that a U.S. ambassador will be sent to Damascus.

The President's self-image plays a disproportionate role in policy formulation and diplomatic activity. Meetings, visits, trips abroad that enhance his respectability and prestige are pursued; encounters that may involve negotiations or difficult debate are declined or delegated to subordinates. The President responds with anger if he finds himself challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting. He seems to avoid direct confrontation.

SARG officials at every level lie. They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie. While lower level officials often lie to avoid potential punitive action from their own government, senior level officials generally lie when they deem a topic too "dangerous" to discuss (e.g., Al-Kibar, IAEA) or when they have not yet determined whether or how to respond (FFN, Hezbollah arms supplies, etc).

Every Syrian diplomatic relationship contains an element of friction.  The Syrians are not troubled by discord; they seek an upper hand in any relationship by relying on foreign diplomats' instinctive desire to resolve problems. By withholding a solution, the SARG seeks to control the pace and temperature of the relationship. SARG officials artificially restrict their availability and can engage in harsh verbal attacks to intimidate and rattle foreign diplomats. SARG officials delight in disparaging their interlocutors behind their backs for allowing themselves to be cowed.

When Syrian officials don't like a point that has been made to them, they frequently resort to an awkward changes in subject to deflect perceived criticism. Syrian officials seem to think they've scored a verbal hit by employing a facile non sequitur, usually in the form of a counter-accusation. When the SARG's human rights record is raised with Muallim, for example, he often raises Israel's December-January Gaza operation r, more recently, asks if the U.S. will accept the 1300 Al Qaeda sympathizers in Syrian jails. The non sequitur is intended to stop
discussion of the unwelcome topic while subtly intimidating the interlocutor with the threat of raising a subject that is putatively embarrassing to him or her.
Again, the State Department seems to have a good handle on how to deal with Syria, and the President has refused to listen to the advice of their experts.  It seems that the administration's bizarre insistence on upgrading relations by sending an ambassador with Syria played into Assad's hands perfectly. Moreover, the White House's refusal so far to recall him also plays exactly into Syrian diplomatic wishes.