Across the Bay

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Schenker: Engaging Syria Will Not Work

One of the smartest Syria analysts, David Schenker, writes in the Weekly Standard, in no uncertain terms, that "it would be foolish to look toward Syria as part of the solution."

He lays out what I think is a definitive argument, one that I certainly sympathize with and have tried to advance.

I laid out how not only was the notion of "trying to pull Syria away from Iran" rather silly and baseless, but that the other notion, of having Arab states, namely Egypt and KSA, try to talk to Syria, has already been tried all throughout 2005 and most of 2006 and found a resolute failure, and one of the reasons why we are where we are now.

Schenker follows a similar line, only with the history of American engagement with Syria (something that Martin Indyk also talked about, as I noted in my post):

This policy prescription is ill-advised and poorly timed. Moreover, the strategy was tried and failed during President Bush's first administration. Washington engaged Syria in a robust fashion from 2001 through the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, sending no less than five senior-level U.S. delegations to cajole Bashar Assad to change his unhelpful behavior. Discussions during this period focused on Iraq--in particular on Syria's role in destabilizing the newly liberated country--but also touched on Syrian interference in Lebanon, provision of safe haven to Palestinian terrorist groups, and ongoing support for Hezbollah.

It's no secret that the administration was divided over the utility of this engagement, but, nevertheless, the effort was made in good faith. On a broad range of U.S. policy concerns articulated during these meetings, Syria was without exception unresponsive. And this was when things were going relatively well for the United States in the region.

Richard Armitage, who seems to have a short memory, was himself one of those who were repeatedly humiliated by Assad, along with his boss Colin Powell (which is why it was no coincidence to hear thug-caricature Imad Moustapha lament the loss of the Powell days). They were slapped in the face and embarrassed so many times, that to hear Armitage argue for more of the same was rather pathetic. Others who experienced similar repeated snubs, like President Chirac or Martin Indyk, have learned not to go down that dead end again.

Further echoing Indyk's argument, Schenker writes:

Granting Damascus a reprieve from its well deserved international isolation would undermine what remains of U.S. credibility with Syrian reformers and Lebanese demo crats. Reengagement would also practically invite a Syrian return to Lebanon. Even more problematic, as Assad has put it, "Syria is not a charity," and as such we can expect that Damascus would extract a high price for even temporary compliance with U.S. demands.

The price is not hard to envision. At a minimum, the Syrians would need the U.N. to bring the Hariri assassination investigation to a swift conclusion without implicating the Assad regime. Assad would also no doubt want a free pass from Washington for his ongoing repression of the Syrian people, and an end to the freedom agenda as it relates to Syria.

This is simply not an acceptable price for a completely uncertain product -- especially with a thuggish, spoiler and unreliable regime whose position in this case is itself secondary when compared to Iran -- as the French and US, and even Israeli, positions have made amply clear.

Moreover, Schenker puts his finger on a point that I have pushed repeatedly: Bashar's own political and ideological position. The premise of the cheerleaders is that Bashar really wants to be with the West, but has been "forced" to adopt a hardline position, such as his alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. This is not only total rubbish, it's historically baseless. This is not reality. As Schenker writes:

In any event, Syria's behavior--its bellicose statements about military conflict with Israel, its playing host only last week to meetings with Iran, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, and its attempts to rearm Hezbollah--do not suggest that Assad is looking for a deal.

Speaking of Indyk, he repeated his warning against talking to Syria in an interview with Ynet:

"I am a diplomat and a man who believes in dialogue, but at this stage I believe it is forbidden for the United States to hold direct talks with the Syrians" ...
"As someone who believes in dialogue and worked to advance Israeli-Syrian peace, I believe that the situation is different now. The United States was behind the Security Council resolution to withdraw the Syrians from Lebanon. A million Lebanese went to the streets demanding the Syrians leave," Indyk said, adding that speaking with the Syrians would amount to betraying the Lebanese people.

He added that Syrians would interpret negotiations with Washington as an invitation to reenter Lebanon.

Instead, Indyk said the only thing Damascus must be told at this point is a clear warning: "if Damascus doesn't stop its support for Hizbullah it will find itself entangled in the conflict it created."