In its first heady days of power, the Obama administration plunged into the turmoil of the Middle East with high hopes. "Engagement" was the key word. The new president would hold out the hand of US reconciliation to the Muslim world in general, and to Iran and Syria in particular.
The Muslim world has been less than impressed with Washington's achievements in the region so far, and the administration's recent sharp words to Israel, and even sharper demands on her, have failed, at least so far, to change the perception of US ineptitude and weakness of purpose. The most obvious result of the recent cooling of US-Israeli relations has been the call from Jordan's King Abdullah this week for even tougher action against Israel.
As for the hopes of US-Iranian reconciliation, they were rebuffed from the word go by President Ahmadinejad. It is sometimes forgotten that in March 2009 Barack Obama broke new ground by addressing a video directly to the Iranian people on their New Year (Nowruz). In it he spoke of a new beginning and emphasised that his administration was committed to diplomacy.
He repeated the exercise a few weeks ago. But this time, although still offering Iran's leaders engagement with the United States. his tone was a deal less conciliatory. “We are working with the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable," said Obama, "because they refuse to live up to their international obligations.”
And indeed, subsequently, he has done just that. His new and recently-announced nuclear policy specifically excludes "rogue states" like Iran from his new pledge of no initial nuclear strike, while at this week's nuclear summit in Washington he has succeeded in getting international agreement, with China notably demurring, to new United Nations sanctions against Iran for its persistent refusal to stop enriching uranium.
Where Syria is concerned, the Obama administration has persisted, well beyond the point of realistic expectation, with the belief that somehow the engagement policy will bear fruit. During her confirmation hearings in January 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she and President Obama: "Believe that engaging directly with Syria increases the possibility of making progress on changing Syrian behaviour." Among the new administration's core demands would be ending support for terrorist groups; cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency; stopping the flow of weapons to Hizbollah; and respect for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence."
Sixteen months later, it is difficult to see progress on any of these areas. One American commentator recently suggested that the administration's policy of "engagement" appears to be morphing into "appeasement", as its efforts to woo Bashar al-Assad are repeatedly rebuffed. Yet the administration persisted. It was in January that President Obama decided to restore full diplomatic relations with Syria after a four-year gap. He appointed diplomat Robert Ford as US ambassador to Damascus.
Only three days ago the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee approved Ford's nomination, although three Republican senators registered their objection. At or around the same time, Israel's President, Shimon Peres, announced that Syria was delivering "accurate" Scud missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon. The statement was backed by a Kuwaiti newspaper report of the transfer of truckloads of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbollah, in a shipment sanctioned by the Syrian government. Shortly after the allegation was made public, United States officials confirmed that Syria was supplying Hizbollah with ballistic missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel's cities.
As an immediate result senior Republican politicians are to press the US Congress to block plans to reappoint an ambassador to Syria. A full floor vote on the projected appointment may be delayed while the Israeli allegations are investigated.
Shimon Peres's use of the word "accurate" to describe the missiles being delivered to Hizbollah in Lebanon is interesting. The most advanced missile in the Scud series – the Scud D – has a shorter range than the Scud C (300 km as against 550 km), but carries a much greater payload and is accurate to within 50 metres as against the Scud C's 700 metres. Both would be capable of reaching Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, from the Lebanese-Israel border.
"Scuds are weapons in a league of their own," say Israeli security specialists. "This will be the first time that any terrorist-guerrilla group can boast of possessing ballistic missiles of the kind that are usually contained within the arsenals of organised armies."
Mind you, Israel's Arrow 3 anti-missile defence system, the result of numerous successful US-Israeli tests against Scuds and more sophisticated missile systems, would on the face of it be more than capable of offering a high level of protection against any such Hizbollah attack – but that is hardly the point. Syria does not seem inclined to abandon its decades-long ambition of achieving some sort of hegemony in the region.
Like his father before him, it seems that President Bashar al-Assad views the Middle East as divided into two camps: collaborators and rejectionists – those prepared to consider peace with Israel and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, and those who will have no truck with concessions for the sake of peace. The return by Israel of the Golan to Syria dominated Bashar's father's thinking, and it remains a dominant factor in Syria's current political stance, but equally dominant is the old "Assad Doctrine" – the idea that the Arab nations could extract maximum concessions from Israel only by acting in concert. Implicit in the Assad Doctrine is the assumption that Damascus will play a leading role in such Arab negotiations.
Which might explain both Syria's persistent adherence to the Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis, and her continued rejection of Obama's moves towards "engagement".
But Obama's patience is not inexhaustible as his changing attitude to Iran has demonstrated. This latest evidence of Syria's recalcitrant adherence to the policy of terrorism may yet evoke a change in Washington's approach.