Across the Bay

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Arafat on Steroids: Syrian Style

I've long commented on Bashar being "the Syrian Arafat": a killer and a chronic liar who will say just about anything, but whose promises are worth absolutely nothing.

This characteristic has become something of a common knowledge among people who have dealt with him, from French President Chirac to former processor Martin Indyk. But it's also known even among Arab leaders. One famous line that has circulated in the Arab press is that an Arab diplomat said of Bashar that his father never promised much, but delivered on what little he did promise. Bashar talks a lot, but never keeps his word. (One could list the instances, be it the myriad ones involving Colin Powell, or the famous recent ones regarding forcing the renewal of Lahoud's mandate and then his "pledge" not to harm Hariri, etc.)

This is what's behind Walid Jumblat's recent statements on Bashar as a liar whose guarantees mean nothing. Jumblat was talking to Turkey's Erdogan, and told him flat out that it would be a mistake to mediate with Syria, because Bashar is a killer and a liar with no credibility even among Arab leaders.

But this is part and parcel of that thugocracy in Damascus, and it marks even its lowest functionaries, who lie just as they breathe. This is most evident on the issue of "peace" with Israel. The Syrians have been lying through their teeth, saying just about anything in order to get the Israelis to bite, believing that renewed talks with Israel would be their way out of their isolation and would bestow some sort of international legitimacy on the regime, restore their domination over Lebanon and end the international inquiry and tribunal into the political murders they committed in Lebanon.

But of course, these people are masters of duplicity. So Bashar would tell European papers that talks could be done in 6 months, and Walid Moallem insinuates ambiguously that they may not have preconditions -- a big lie which the regime let the media spin out of control -- but then when the hapless Arlen Specter was asked whether in his talks with Assad he indeed got a serious answer on the issue of preconditions, Specter's reply was hilariously telling: "it got kind of fuzzy." Of course it did.

Barry Rubin masterfully analyzed this phenomenon in a piece on Farouq al-Sharaa.

The other big delusion is that talks will somehow "pry Syria away from Iran" -- the most ridiculous notion around today. The Syrians are more than happy to let idiotic pundits and journalists in the US and Israel make all kinds of assertions on this issue. They're perfectly pleased with people blaming the "US-imposed isolation" as leaving Syria "no choice" but to enter in a "marriage of convenience" with Tehran (see Moustapha's satisfaction with the terrible Michael Slackman of the NYT). All rubbish by the way. But here's the funny part. The Syrians themselves have been clear that this is not reality. Their alliance with Iran is old and enduring, and has only been solidified and strengthened, and as far as the Syrians are concerned, it has brought dividends, and will never be abandoned. Syria's "economy tsar" Abdullah Dardari even said that if the EU thinks that by signing the Association Agreement with Syria it would distance it from Iran, then it [the EU] is "silly and naive." Syria, as I have repeatedly said, has long made its strategic choice.

It gets better. Enter "thug-caricature" Imad Moustapha, the loudest bull horn -- and gargantuan liar -- about Syria's "peaceful" and "constructive" goals with regards to Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. Moustapha, I remind you, is the author of a thuggish May 25 op-ed in al-Hayat against PM Seniora and Walid Jumblat.

Moustapha was interviewed by Nir Rosen, and uttered what is perhaps the best argument against the idea that Syria could be pulled away from Iran to become "more moderate":

The Syrian Iranian relation is not about Syria adopting positions proposed by Iran. It’s the other way around. Iran under the Shah cooperated with Israel. We have historical policies about Israel and the resistance that have not changed. It’s not like we were lured by Iran to support policies we had not supported before. We supported resistance before Hizballah existed. If God forbid Iran will change its position Syria will not.

I urge you to read Barry Rubin's piece and then once again read Moustapha's statement. It's a classic example. (The Assad dynasty's scribe, Patrick Seale, openly admitted this on Israeli radio recently: talking to Syria will not distance it from Iran, as some Israeli geniuses seem to think.)

This is what many have been saying. Syria's interest is a continued state of belligerence, even as it wants to be locked in a permanent peace process, but never actually reaching a permanent peace. This is the bluebrint of what they were doing in the 90s, during the much-vaunted "Madrid era": they were simultaneously talking and using terror, while cementing their annexation of Lebanon (the real goal, not the Golan). They are, as Bashar himself put it, two sides of the same coin. Moustapha just explained it further (repeating a top-down memo that's been put out before by the regime and its officials): even if Iran (as in Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" Iran) changed its policies toward Israel, Syria will not. Syria has been attacking Israel well before Iran and Hezbollah (which is true), meaning that Iran has nothing to do with Syria's hardline position, and Syria will continue to maintain that hardline position (as it did when it sabotaged the Saudi initiative in 2002 by eliminating any mention of normalization) in the future regardless of Iran, because that suits its interests (so please, to all aspiring luminaries, don't pretend to know Syria's "real" interests better than how its leaders define them). As I recently wrote:

Bashar knows his own interests and has been pursuing them rationally as he defines them and according to his worldview. Subversion and anti-Americanism is his interest! The idea that US diplomats can show him where his best interests really lie is not diplomacy. To believe that one can show him the "true" nature of his interests is missionary work. Christian missionaries failed spectacularly in the ME and this approach will fail also.

What is amazing about Moustapha's statement isn't the substance: that much is old news to serious observers. What is striking is the "we don't give a damn" attitude, where Moustapha and the Syrians can make such statements and not care whether people will read them. The Syrians, like Pavlov's dog, have been trained that their actions and words have no consequences. They can have their cake and eat it too. They can kill, assassinate, support al-Qaeda and a myriad terrorist group (this is what Assad essentially said to Specter), and at the same time, people (like said Specter) will still say "we should talk to them," "they are serious about peace," "peace is in Syria's real interest," and "Syria really wants to be with the West" and other such silliness.

That, as Barry noted, was the amazing twist that "doubled consumption of the product." People see and hear only what they want to see and hear. The Syrians know this, have perfected the scam, and they play their interlocutors for fools. In fact, they don't even bother to cover their lies or conceal their threats anymore. To paraphrase caricature-thug Imad Moustapha's proverb: the lying murdering thugs live off the stupid and the insane.