Across the Bay

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Folly of Talking to Syria

With all the kerfuffle and the excessive mindless repetition of one-liners and ill-thought out conventional wisdom in the media about how the US must "engage" Syria, the administration's position has been admirably sober, refusing to entertain such nonsense. But it's not just the administration. In fact, people who know the Syrian regime well and have dealt with it in the past, know not to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

First among those is French President Chirac, who has been burned repeatedly by the Assad regime.

In an interview with Le Monde the other day, Chirac was asked about Syria. His response was actually close to my own line of argument, especially with regards to Syria as a secondary player in this equation. Here's a translation of the relevant parts:

Should and can Syria weigh in on this situation in Lebanon?

I would be more inclined to talk first about Iran, whose position is more important than Syria's.
Furthermore, in the current conflict, Iran is partially responsible. The information at our disposal proves that sophisticated weapons and finance are being sent by Iran, most probably through Syria, to Hezbollah. That's a problem.

But we can discuss this with Iran. I would like to remind you that at the time of the elections in Lebanon, there was a point when we were wondering what the reaction of Hezbollah would be to these elections. Would they be contested? We had contacts at the time with Iran. And I must say that Iran was rather cooperative.

Do you think that the triggering of this crisis, on July 12, carries the mark of Iran?

I don't want to accuse anyone. I have the feeling that Hamas as well as Hezbollah did not take these irresponsible initiatives on their own. That's my impression.

As for Syria, I think that's a slightly different problem. Syria, it must be said, has a very minoritarian and very particular regime, which is at once judge and party, and which has taken badly to the obligation, after 30 years of occupation, of withdrawing its troops -- 15,000 men -- from Lebanon, with all the political, economic, and social consequences that that carried. I don't have the same feeling about Syria that I have about Iran.

What could do good for Syria, to protect itself and its population, especially with regards to quality of life, and development, is for it not to seek to extract vengeance from Lebanon. That risks becoming very dangerous for it.


With regards to disarming Hezbollah, is there then an agreement between France, the US and Israel?

On the need to fully implement [UNR] 1559, there is a general consensus.


We are not at all in the situation of 1982 or 1996. Things have evolved.


How to move forward without dialogue with Syria?

There was a time when I spoke to Bashar al-Assad. I used to speak to his father [as well]. In order not to hide anything from you, that dialogue was disrupted. It is he who wanted that [the disruption]. And I realized that nothing would come out of it [dialogue with Assad]. [I realized] that the regime embodied by Bashar al-Assad appeared to me hardly compatible with security and peace.

Chirac is not alone of course. Another diplomat who had the misfortune of having to deal with Bashar is none other than Martin Indyk. Indyk, in his capacity as peace processor, was once a supporter of engagement with Bashar. Until he realized, like Chirac did, that that was a fool's errand. He made an unequivocal switch and became a strong critic of Bashar. I posted on that twice last year if you care to get more background.

Indyk has once again come out against "engaging" Syria over the Lebanon crisis:

I think a lot of people have speculated that because of Hezbollah's close ties to both Syria and Iran, it is important to get those two countries involved as active players. Is the United States making a mistake in ignoring them directly?

There's no question Iran and Syria helped to light the fire that is now engulfing Lebanon and northern Israel, and if they want to be part of the solution, they could certainly help to douse the flames. But the question is: What is their price? If we were to ask Syria to help, that would be tantamount to an invitation to Syria to interfere again in Lebanon's affairs. And that would be tantamount to a betrayal of the millions of Lebanese who came out into the streets of Beirut and insisted that Syria stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs, that it takes its troops out of Lebanon. So talking is not the issue. The question is: What is the message to Syria? Is it is a message like [then Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger sent [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad in 1976, which was "Please intervene in Lebanon, it's a civil war"? If we invite his son [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to intervene to stop Hezbollah, then we are essentially handing Lebanon over again to Syrian control. I think that's an unacceptable outcome. So the message, I think, to Syria and to Iran, which can be delivered by Kofi Annan, or Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, or anybody else who wants to take the message is: "Beware. If you don't stop Hezbollah, then don't be surprised if this conflict engulfs you."
The idea that Syria or Iran should become the arbiters of Lebanon's fate is basically to reward the arsonists by giving them control of the place where the fire's burning.

Indyk's reading of the calculations -- including Syria's -- behind the crisis is also similar to mine. He even used the same word I used in all my interviews: "confluence of interests":

Why do you think Hezbollah actually started this whole round by abducting those soldiers, and thereby triggering this Israeli response?

Well, this is speculation of course, but I think their original intention was to take another ride on the Palestinian cause. Basically what they were doing was kidnapping soldiers so they could demand not only their own prisoners, of which Israel is holding three, they also demand that Palestinian prisoners be released too, showing that they're supporting Hamas, and that they were supporting the cause of getting Palestinian prisoners released. From [Hezbollah leader] Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's reactions and statements since, it's clear that he did not expect this would result in the kind of escalating conflict they are now engaged in. I suspect the Iranians had their own reasons for wanting to create a diversion from their nuclear program on the eve of the G8 Summit. So there was a confluence of interests here. And the Syrians would understand that his could make them players again since they would calculate exactly what's happened: That people would look to Damascus to calm the situation down just as previous American administrations have done every time Hezbollah clashes with Israel.

I was looking at [former Secretary of State] George Shultz's memoirs the other day, and he recalled how President Reagan had sent a note to Hafez al-Assad in 1985 asking him to resolve the TWA hijacking problem, which he did.

Yes, but the context was different. I was involved [in the Clinton administration] with Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher and [Special Middle East envoy] Dennis Ross in several efforts to deal with the situation in Lebanon after Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel. That was in 1994 and again in 1996 [TB: note Chirac's reference to 1996 above]. And we went to Damascus and got Syria to curb Hezbollah. But the context there was one in which we were engaged in promoting negotiations between Israel and Syria on a peace deal, and Syria had 15,000 troops in Lebanon. And we could go to them and say: If you want us to continue negotiating the peace deal with Israel, you have to stop Hezbollah. The context is very different now. Now, the Syrians have withdrawn their troops from Lebanon, not because of our demands but because of the demands of the Lebanese people. And to ask them now to help solve this problem is to invite them to play a role again in Lebanon, which would be a betrayal of the Lebanese.

Indyk also had the exact same reaction to Bashar as Chirac: he was unreliable. "But what was clear was whatever he said to me, there was no follow through on any of the things." Here I'm also reminded of the quote by Anthony Cordesman in my previous post. But this is classic behavior by the Assad regime. That's the modus operandi, and that's why thinking that the solution lies with Syria is incredibly silly and detached from historical reality.

As Indyk notes, Syria is complicit in this latest act of violence -- what I called a "regional coup" led by Iran, and to which Syria is hitching itself as Iran's Arab client. Hence the silliness of the incredibly ill-informed notion that Syria can be "weaned away from Iran back to the Sunni Arab fold." First of all, as I wrote before, not only is the concept of a "Sunni Arab fold" itself baseless, but the idea that Syria was ever part of that -- whatever that is -- is equally ludicrous. Syria sided with Iran against the Sunni Arab states back in the late 70s and 80s. It had an arrangement with Iran in the 90s in Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah over and against the central government. As for the current alliance, it dates back to at least 2003. It wasn't a coincidence that the first people the Syrians jumped to after they killed Hariri were the Iranians. Sharaa made an appeal to the Iranians the following day after the murder. It was the plan at least since the passing of UNR 1559, if not before. This is not a "sudden" alliance of convenience. This is a strategic choice that has been made at least 3 years ago that is only being consolidated now, as Andrew Tabler noted:

"Obviously Iran and Syria have strengthened their relations over the last nine months," says Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based researcher and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. "And their ideological correspondence has come along with suitable iconography. So, before the Syria-Iran defense pact was about to be signed in mid-June, we started seeing these posters with Bashar, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. You used to have to go to the Bekaa Valley or the south suburbs of Beirut to see posters of Iranian leaders. Now we get them in the middle of an Arab capital."

Thus the Iranians have started to invest heavily in what some are calling the Shiitization of Syria, a country with a roughly 70 percent Sunni majority. "There are reports of entire villages becoming Shia," says Tabler. "And we know for sure that they're fixing up Shia shrines and building Shia mosques, even in majority Sunni towns."

Similarly, a dissident Syrian analyst, Fayez Sarah, recently spoke about this issue. Commenting on the (incredibly thin, and heavily filtered through the NYT's own projections) report in the NYT that the US was seeking to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, Sarah expressed his conviction that all these rumors were "far from reality":

"The US does not have a strategy or political movement to dislodge the Syrian-Iranian relations at this stage." The reason is very simple in his view. "The US is not in agreement with Syrian policy on the level of principles, just as it is not in agreement with Iranian policy, to the same degree." "This does not mean that the US cannot benefit from a dispute, or to try to generate conflict between Iran and Syria," but that is an entirely different matter in his opinion. As for the role of some Arab states in isolating Syria from Iran, he sees that "in the past period many Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were pushing to isolate Syria from Iran, but practically, none of this happened. On the contrary, what happened was that Syria strengthened its relations with Iran to a degree that could be described as a grand strategic alliance on the political, economic, military, and even cultural level. In fact, it's to a degree that it can be said that the Syrian-Iranian relations are at their highest level since establishing relations between the IRI and Syria in 1979." Sarah adds, "the overall result of the efforts of some Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, was that they failed in separating or diminishing the relations between Syria and Iran." He stressed that based on their political behavior and their statements, "they are not ready to lower the level of their exisiting relations." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, all the brilliant proposals of the "experts" have indeed been tried. In fact, the entire last year was spent on doing just that. That misplaced effort, based on that faulty premise, is itself part of the reason why we are now in this crisis. It was a waste of precious time that allowed Syria to regain some of its balance in Lebanon, and the cajoling of Hezbollah, itself also based on this premise, resulted in what we now have. In other words, the proposal is a proven failure, and not, as Tom Friedman put it, "worth a shot." (By the way, Friedman even admits that splitting Syria from Iran is unlikely, yet he thinks it's "worth a shot." That's not how you do diplomacy, I'm afraid. Just ask Chirac and Indyk.)

So now that it seems that the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians (all of whom were threatened in some way by Bashar, by the way) finally realized what's going on, and that Bashar was using them, and the notion of Syria playing the role of "mediator" between the Arabs and Iran (a role the Syrians now want to play with the US. Does that sound like they're ready to break off with Iran, or that they're playing their typical double game!?) to facilitate the Iranian-led shift in the regional balance of power, where he thinks he would be the pivotal Arab state, we're asked to dump these traditional allies and empower the weak link in the Iranian axis at our allies' expense! That's "brilliant" diplomacy!

Finally, Indyk added the following:

And there's something else that people who think the solution lies in Damascus should bear in mind. The relationship between the son and Hezbollah is different to the relationship that existed between the father and Hezbollah. For Hafez al-Assad, Hezbollah was a tool in his hand to remind Israel that if they didn't negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, he could hurt them in Lebanon. And he used that—it was like a tap that he could turn on and off.

The relationship between Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah is very different. He is dependent on Hezbollah to maintain Syrian influence in Lebanon because he no longer has the troop presence that gave him control of Lebanon. He is dependent on Hezbollah to defend against an Israeli ground attack through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley into Syria. And therefore, his ability to curb Hezbollah is much more limited, if it's there at all.

Not just that, his relationship with Nasrallah is also important. Bashar actually idolizes Nasrallah and shares his ideology (not an Islamic state, but the idea of pan-Arab, pan-Islamic "resistance" to the US and Israel). This was noted by Dennis Ross in an article last year:

Hearing Bashar describe Hizballah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as a democratic figure who understood broad social and public forces and from whom he could learn a great deal—as I did in 2000 [TB: That's 2000!]—reflected what appeared to be Bashar’s genuine admiration for Hizballah. Bashar even invited Nasrallah to speak at a ceremony in his family’s village on the first anniversary of Hafiz’s death.

Michael Young also commented on this issue in a post at Reason's Hit and Run yesterday:

One wonders if those peddling the idea have any memory at all: it was under Syria that Hezbollah became a military power, and what the Syrians will demand, or maneuver to achieve, in exchange for "helping" would be onerous. They will want the international investigation of Rafiq Hariri's murder to be dropped, to save their regime that ordered the crime; and they will want oversight power over Lebanese affairs, which, with an armed Hezbollah as Praetorian Guard, would effectively mean they would again rule the country.

Or, as one anonymous Western ambassador put it to Neil MacFarquhar: "Essentially you are asking them to connive in their own demise... Persuading Hezbollah to commit hara-kiri doesn’t make sense from Syria’s point of view. It would mean the loss of their No. 1 card, not only in Lebanon, but with Israel."

Syria neither has the will nor the capacity to do anything. It is in the same bunker as Hezbollah and Iran, and that's where Assad wants it to be. He believes that's the winning horse, and all the statements of the Syrian officials point in that direction. Besides, Iran is the real reference for Hezbollah, not Syria. Even the cheerleaders admit this. And Syria is but a client of Iran at this stage. So the address for Hezbollah's masters is not Damascus, but Tehran. Syria is just hitching itself to Iran's star and trying to maximize its gains as much as possible at the expense of the Lebanese government and parliamentary majority, Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian territories, and the Sunni Arab allies of the US, Egypt, KSA, and Jordan. Actually falling for their bluff is utter folly.