Across the Bay

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bashar, Iraq, and Other Funny Stories

I'm sad to say that my friend Josh Landis continues to put up posts narrowly concerned with one thing: saving the Asad regime (which in his mind means saving Syria from chaos). As a result, his policy recommendations have become increasingly nonsensical and marred by sophistry and paradox.

In his latest post, Josh repeated the same old paradoxical, cliched and tired lines, and offered a bizarre set of proposals, all aimed at one thing -- saving Bashar -- but presented as "US interests."

Take for instance the unsubstantiated (and quite problematic) claim that Syria is seeking to limit Iran's role in Iraq. Or, worse still, the argument that the US should use Syria to counter Iran in Iraq!

If you really boil it down, what Josh is proposing is recreating Syria's Lebanon experience in Iraq. In fact, I'd argue that that is really the framework that's guiding his reasoning. Good plan, Josh! Let me elaborate a little bit on the Lebanon experience, and why Josh's analogy is hopelessely slanted toward the regime's version of reality. In Lebanon, the Syrians were fanning the flames, by arming all factions. They were a party in the war. For Asad, the war in Lebanon was as much a domestic war as it was a foreign war. The sectarian issues and the Palestinian issues were all related to dometic matters. The deal that some Lebanese agreed to in 1976 was for an Arab force and an Arab umbrella for a settlement. Instead, that morphed (as it did again with the Taef) into a Syrian hijacking of the country, and turned the country into a battleground for Syria's wars with its Arab competitors. If this is what Josh has in mind for Iraq, then good luck! The notion that Syria's itnervention in Lebanon in 1976 brought stability is a Syrian regime myth.

The argument is not only reprehensible, it's quite ridiculous and is really a throwback to the 70's and 80's, where this regime is stuck (and Josh along with it). It's a laughable version of Saddam's role as buffer to Iran, that fails to take into account the different variables involved here.

Bashar has no weight whatsoever in Iraq. The notion that Iraq should be placed (without its consent!) in such a deadly triangle is really absurd and unnecessary. Does Josh have in mind a recreation of the "special and brotherly ties" that Syria had with Lebanon in Iraq!? Why would the Iraqis limit themselves to this kind of bilateral relations with a country whose regime has done nothing but assist in their killing, and whose regime is isolated by the entire universe, except for Iran!? Why would Iraq place itself in such a precarious situation, beholden to the interests of two of its regional neighbors, and limit its maneuverability? This is especially so if we agree with Josh's bizarre statement that Syria is at odds with Iran (has he missed the fact that the country that has expressed most solidarity with Syria has been Iran? Has he missed that Hizbullah is Syria's last remaining ally in Lebanon? Has he missed the Saudi angle and Saudi-Iranian relations, and the fact that the Saudis would like to see Bashar go and that he's declared war on their man in Beirut, Saad Hariri, after killing his father?). Why would Iraq, and certainly the US, hamstring themselves with such a narrow option? Why would the US put Iraq in Syria's hands!? (Perhaps, one should also add that the model being fostered in Iraq is radically opposed by Bashar, especially given he's an Alawite. How would the success of that model reflect on demands by Kurds and Sunnis in Syria, and the survival of Bashar's narrow grip on power? Etc.)

The US, naturally, has not done so. Instead, and perhaps Josh missed it, we have the Cairo conference. Let the Iraqis come together, under a broad regional, not narrow bilateral, umbrella. Let Sunni Arab states, not a pariah Alawite family regime, give the Sunnis both the push and the reassurance they might've needed.

This was supposed to be the case in Lebanon. A broad regional and international umbrella to get the parties to talk and reach a compromise. That was called the Taef. Syria hijacked it, inserted itself as a primary actor (in a triangle with Israel), and prevented any other Arab or international initiative that denied it primacy and the final say in Lebanese affairs. Josh wants to essentially recreate that in Iraq! The funny thing is, Bashar has no weight whatosever in Iraq. Even funnier still is the fact that Josh himself had shot down this same argument in the past. He is just no longer aware of the fact that he's talking from both sides of his mouth.

In past posts, Josh told us that the Sunni tribes in the Jazeera region in eastern Syria are really semi-autonomous. That Bashar really has no control over them (this is when he was busy saying that Bashar really has nothing to do with the fighters slipping into Iraq, and that it's out of his control). That they feel more Iraqi than Syrian, etc. Now, all of a sudden, Bashar matters!?

If indeed they are in close contact with their Iraqi cousins, and support Allawi, as Josh says, then the agreement will be reached irrespective of Bashar! If the Sunnis, based on whatever agreement they may reach in Cairo, and based on a conviction to join the process more fully, especially in the upcoming elections, decide to cease partially or fully the insurgency (I'm not counting the foreign element here), then their cousins in eastern Syria will surely stop as well. Bashar is immaterial here, based on Josh's own post!

What we have here, as I've said before, is another Arafat. He has control, he doesn't have control. He blackmails, but he doesn't deliver. Are you expecting anyone to put Iraq's fate in the hands of Syria's version of Arafat?! The entire world, including the French, have given up on Bashar because he never delivers. Be it out of weakness or out of malice. Bottom line, he never delivers.

Josh's intention becomes clear when he says that Bashar wants to hasten the US exit (we know, I've said this before that this is Bashar's driving concern, which is why he made sure to let killers pass through, and that "cooperation" with the US was nothing but a joke. Just read Indyk). Bashar made his strategic choice. Now Josh wants to get him to reap the rewards from the US, but for the wrong strategy! It seems the motto for the Syrian regime these days is "too late!" The Cairo conference already renders that route obsolete and unnecessary. If anything, should the Iraqi Sunnis agree to the Cairo compromise and join the process, any continuation by Syria to allow Jihadis through would only isolate it more. He wants to give Bashar an undeserved "carrot" (it's more like a whole carrot cake actually! and for what?) for something that can be largely achieved without him (and in the case of the tribes, it indeed has nothing to do with him and his family/regime), and through a maneuver that, if successful, would force him to comply anyway, or face more isolation and other measures. (Addendum, 11/24/05: I just spotted this excellent op-ed by Michael Young where we seem to be in agreement on this point: "Iraqis are nearing the final phase in the legitimization of their new political system, with elections next month to a new Parliament; the Arab countries, for various reasons, are aware of the need to find a durable settlement to the conflict, which will turn up the heat on those states, such as Syria, that continue to allow foreign Islamists to enter Iraq through their borders.")

Speaking of isolation, it's quite something to read Josh's comments on Lebanon. Syria is isolated for its lack of cooperation on UN resolutions. Its regime is facing sanctions. Yet, Josh finds it logical to allow it to assume a major role in Iraqi domestic politics, and still be able to pressure it elsewhere! Yes, very effective pressure, that! It's the kind that Bashar has been begging for (through Flynt Leverett). But he is quick to acknowledge Lebanese fears about Syria using that kind of deal to declare open season in Lebanon! Thanks, Josh but Martin Indyk has already told us that. The notion that the US should undermine whatever it's doing on the Lebanese angle through Josh's proposals on Iraq is ludicrous. Josh wants to insert a fake separation here, but he knows that it's a bogus proposal. If the UN Security Council imposes sanctions on the regime, how can they be effective if Syria is made a major player in Iraq!? Am I missing something here? How is that unrelated?! How can one pursue pressure in that case?!

Josh knows it's bogus, and the obvious implication is to drop the entire Mehlis affair. But he hasn't hidden the fact that he believes this whole Hariri and Mehlis business should just be swept under the rug. It's, as he once implied, "boring." I'm sure Bashar couldn't agree more. That's why it never really factors in his posts. In his mind, this is all US-Syrian haggling at the bazaar.

What really bothers me though is some of the disingenuousness in the language. For one, Josh is making it seem (like the regime propaganda) that all this is because of Lebanese lobbyists and Neocons (of course) badly influencing US decisions. We've heard that before. The result, of course, is a variation on the ridiculous, but popular (just ask Farouq Sharaa and Buthaina Shaaban and the regime's "reformer" Dardari) claim that a cabal of Jews and Israelis are running all US policy. If it weren't for Israel, my God, the US and Syria would be locking lips. Now, especially after Bashar's speech, Lebanon has been added to that list of evil spoilers. Now the Lebanese are the ones scheming to ruin Syria and influencing the US decisions! I would laugh, but it's actually a pathetic and dangerous proposal. For instance, Josh is now advertising a truly horrendous, and breathtakingly stupid conspiracy-mongering piece on Mehlis from Counter Punch. That's Juan Cole and Justin Raimondo territory.

But the notion that the US shouldn't be blinded by "Lebanese interests" (like those supposed "Israeli interests" I presume) and should pursue its own interests (as if the two are by default mutually exclusive) is so disingenuous. What Josh proposes instead is for it to be driven by Bashar's interests (not by Syrian interests -- as the empowerment of this fourth-rate kleptocratic thugocracy is certainly not in Syria's interests). Leave Lebanon aside. Forget this Mehlis mumbo jumbo. To sell us this in pseudo-Scowcroftian rhetoric of "American interests" is quite disingenuous. To claim some sort of objectivity here is unconvincing. Josh is coming from a very particular "native" perspective here, that has internalized the fear that if Asad falls, the Alawites will eat it. Therefore, his objective is extremely narrow, and that is to make sure Bashar survives. Everything else is secondary. As for Lebanon, it's way, way down on the list. That's precisely why Josh's fellow traveler, Flynt Leverett advised the US to leave Syria in Lebanon (Josh wants to add Iraq! When have you heard of a fourth-rate thug being offered two neighboring countries!?). Leverett too is driven by the necessity of Bashar's survival, albeit for very different, not quite altruistic, reasons.

Unfortunately, this has blinded Josh from the obvious sophistry in his positions. I hope he realizes that.

Update: Ammar Abdulhamid joins this party.