Sen. Cardin, Senior Jewish Lawmaker, Meets Syria’s Assad, Sees Few Signs of Change

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in limbo because of the political division between Gaza and the West Bank, many analysts are touting the potential for breakthroughs on the Syria-Israel track.

A senior member of the Jewish delegation in Congress, fresh from a trip to the region that included a meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad, says maybe – but don’t count on it.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who led a delegation representing the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said the problem is that Assad, while wanting closer ties to Washington and a greater regional role, still isn’t willing to change his behavior – a critical requirement for achieving those goals.

“Syria is basically allowing the rearming of Hezbollah;  Assad continues to allow Hamas to operate in his country,” Cardin said. “He has developed a very close relationship with Iran, which is inconsistent with trying to improve relations with the United States.”

Assad also “will not acknowledge that Iran is interested in becoming a nuclear power,” Cardin said. “That makes the discussions much more difficult.”

Cardin’s conclusion?  “I left thinking that President Obama offers new opportunities for Syria to achieve some of its goals, but unless it changes its behavior, those opportunities will be lost. It was a helpful meeting; our message was delivered. But frankly, I see no signs of change.”

Cardin also met with outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the people vying to replace him – Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.  “All three agree there could be peace with Syria; the framework is known. But the view is that Syria still does not WANT to make peace,”  he said.

Netanyahu, the likeliest new Prime Minster, “has sharper elbows” on the issue, he added.

Cardin, a pro-Israel centrist, said he was favorably impressed with Netanyahu’s plan for focusing on economic development in the West Bank instead of negotiations for the quick creation of a Palestinian state.

“I came away thinking it was a more workable policy than I had heard in previous meetings,” he said.  “He describes a pyramid; you have to start with the easier areas first, you don’t jump right to the top.”

But he conceded the plan’s major difficulty lies in the question of whether any Palestinian leader is likely to accept it.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.