Across the Bay

Friday, August 25, 2006

Myths of Engagement and the Golan

The following was posted by Michael Young on the NYT select blog. It essentially follows up on all the ideas put forward by people like David Schenker, myself, and Michael himself, and deftly summarizes the facts in a tight argument.

August 20, 2006
Engage Syria at Your Own Peril
By Michael Young, Lebanon

BEIRUT — In recent weeks, a bevy of American commentators, many of them former officials, have recommended that the United States, in order to resolve the problem of Hezbollah, engage Syria. You have to wonder if these luminaries have a memory, because history has shown that this would bring nothing on the Hezbollah front, and would almost certainly mean the end of an independent Lebanon.

Several rationales have been put forward to justify talking to Syria. Doing so, one argument goes, will give Syria an incentive to break with Iran and cut off the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. Another view is that all Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really wants is recognition, and by giving him that the United States might be able to push for a negotiated resolution of the Golan Heights imbroglio, possibly leading to Syrian-Israeli peace. Yet another view is that Assad represents a secular regime in an increasingly “Islamist” region, so it would be a good thing to get him on “our” side.

All these arguments are either spurious or fail to take into account Syrian behavior in the past. Take the relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. It is under Syrian hegemony in Lebanon that Hezbollah built up its weapons arsenal. This served two main purposes for Syria: to pressure Israel from south Lebanon, providing Syria with a low-cost means of keeping its foot in the door for future negotiations; and it expanded the Hezbollah threat in the eyes of the international community, which then looked to Syria as the only actor able to control Hezbollah — requiring Syria to stay in Lebanon.

How realistic is it to assume Assad would change this strategy? Syria will not give Hezbollah up and risk becoming irrelevant. If anything, the Syrian president is likely to encourage Hezbollah to periodically behave menacingly along Lebanon’s southern border, so that Syria could be called in to “moderate” its conduct. It would be a good cop-bad cop routine.

What about Iran? Syria won’t give up on its relationship with Iran because it gains too much from it. The relationship is not what it was in the 1980’s; today Syria is a subordinate partner, and Assad has accepted this because Iran offers him a way out of his regional isolation as well as a credible military deterrent against outside threats. Why surrender this? For vague promises that Israeli might resume talks on the Golan? Because the European Union just might revive its association agreement with Damascus — though Syria has refused to adopt the economic and political reforms needed to make the agreement viable?

Mainly, Assad will not abandon his Iranian alliance because it offers him an opportunity to pursue regionally destabilizing policies that buttress his own regime. When Palestine goes up in smoke, when Lebanon collapses into war, when Iraq faces further violence, Assad sees events that allow him to keep his harsh security apparatus in place and silence and imprison domestic adversaries; that encourage timorous Arab states not to rock the Syrian boat; and, yes, that make American pundits and former officials advise that the road be taken to Damascus to “engage”.

As for the Golan Heights, those who think Assad is capable of negotiating a peace agreement with Israel are deluding themselves. The Syrian president would love a process of negotiations that would shield him from the United States, but his regime could never take the consequences of a final deal. The security edifice of Assad’s regime requires a state of war with Israel, and that edifice is essential to protecting Alawite rule in Syria.

The argument in favor of the Syrian regime’s alleged secularism is equally vacant. It is Syria that has dispatched most foreign Islamists into Iraq, and that has armed or supported Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Islamists — Sunni and Shiite. After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, the Syrian regime embarked on a massive expansion of mosques and religious schools, both to better control Islamic currents and to regain some legitimacy. Consequently, Islam has grown in Syria, and while it has yet to challenge the regime, Assad has warned his critics and foes that if he were to fall, the Islamists would take over. Once again, that perennial tactic of creating a problem, then using it as a barrier against change.

But perhaps the best reason to isolate Syria is Lebanon. Assad’s deepest desire is to re-establish Syrian hegemony here. One reason for this, aside from Lebanon’s ability to again grant Syria regional relevance, is the United Nations’ investigation of Rafik Hariri’s murder. All the signs are that Syria will be accused of the crime, which could bring down the Assad regime. By dominating Lebanon, the Syrian president could stifle the investigation, which relies heavily on Lebanese judicial cooperation.

More generally, Assad would exploit any Western opening to seize power in Lebanon through his Lebanese allies, against the majority that forced a Syrian withdrawal last year. If this were to succeed, who would be the Praetorian Guard of that new order? Hezbollah. The party could, thus, preserve its autonomy, eliminate its domestic adversaries, and thrive under Syria’s sympathetic eye. This factor alone explains why Syria would never accept to diminish Hezbollah’s power. As Syria plots a return to Lebanon, it has no intention of harming its main ally in that venture.

This is no time to engage Syria. If anything, it is time to warn Syria that, because it sits at the nexus point of regional instability — in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and even Jordan — it had better alter its behavior, or the United States may seriously think about ways of finding an alternative to Assad. This needn’t be done through a war, of course. Yet unless the U.S. finds credible means to force “behavior change instead of regime change” in Damascus, it might soon find that war is inevitable.

The part about the Golan is of particular importance given all the nonsense being spewed by cheerleaders, apparatchiks, and the like that Bashar really wants to sign peace on the Golan. Rubbish.

A post with my own comments follows.