Across the Bay

Monday, February 05, 2007

CFR in Limbo

The Council of Conventional Wisdom, aka. The Council on Foreign Relations, published one of its regular round-ups and analyses on Lebanon: Lebanon in Limbo.

Apparently, CFR couldn't resist but insert a line in there inevitably involving "diplomacy" and "Syria." These words are like knee-jerk reactions for purveyors of conventional wisdom, that they don't even bother to stop and think about what the hell it is they're saying.

Even after reminding everyone of Syria's involvement in the assassinations in Lebanon, and how the international tribunal, that would try Syrian suspects, is at the heart of the crisis in Lebanon, CFR's analyst offers this gem:

[I]nternational actors are scrambling for a solution. One widely offered proposal involves U.S. diplomacy with Syria. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), just returned from a trip to Damascus, told a CFR audience such engagement could achieve limited cooperation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Geoffrey Aronson, who participated in informal Israeli-Syrian negotiations, echoes this sentiment in an interview with’s Bernard Gwertzman.

I won't try to explain to the poor gentleman who wrote this garbage how, if indeed the issue is the tribunal that would bring Syrian officials to trial over their role in the assassinations, no amount of "diplomacy," no matter how "creative," will matter, let alone work.

But I will take issue with the reference to Bill Nelson, as it's clearly deceptive and misleading.

As you know, Nelson recently met with Assad. Only CFR, and everyone else it seems, didn't really pay attention to what he actually said about that meeting. Nelson was open about the fact that he had a heated quarrel with Assad over Lebanon. That he got nothing of value from Assad on Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Lebanon. That the only reason why he even bothered (regardless of the wisdom of his decision or its uselessness) was the possibility for "limited cooperation" ("slight crack in the door" as Nelson put it) on the Iraqi border issue. This has nothing to do with Lebanon. It was made clear in fact, that the talk about Iraq is not a matter of quid pro quo on Lebanon, and that the US fully supports the Seniora government, which Assad is trying to undermine.

In other words, it has nothing to do with what CFR turned it into. As for Aronson's interview, for the life of me I can't figure out its relevance at all. Besides, we saw the nature and extent of Syria's "constructive influence" with Hamas in that hilarious, embarrassing fiasco in Damascus the other day.

Furthermore, I was recently told by a well-placed source that even John Kerry surprised Assad on Lebanon.

Assad, as evident from reading his statements and that of his functionaries and cheerleaders, was gambling that Democrats will revert to what Imad Mustapha and others (like regime flack Sami Moubayed) have dubbed "the perfect working relationship" or the "golden era"; in reference to the Clinton era, i.e., the time when the US essentially placed Lebanon in Syria's bloody hands.

But according to my source, Kerry allegedly told them that "for the US, the Seniora government is a matter of national security." The Syrian leadership was shocked, according to the source. Now, whether it's true or spiced up, the point is the same: the notion of cutting a "deal" with Syria on Lebanon is out of the question. And it has nothing to do with the Bush administration. Just look at what the Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia are doing, and what the Europeans are doing. As a European official recently told me, the notion of Syria restoring its previous position in Lebanon is out of the question.

Walid Choucair summarizes the European position on this issue rather well in al-Hayat, echoing much of what I have been saying on this blog:

European diplomatic sources say that despite differences in Europe on the relation with Syria and opening dialogue with it -- since France has reservations about opening channels for dialogue, as previous experience has shown that merely talking to the Syrians makes them believe that they could flex their muscles and continue their unacceptable policies in Lebanon -- the contacts made by some [European] countries with Damascus did not change the general European position which calls on [Syria] to cooperate with the decisions of the international community. The sources add: "It's true that Britain, Germany, and Italy consider that the goal of talking to Damascus is to stress the need for it to change its policy in Lebanon and to stop supporting its destabilization, and to encourage it to take constructive steps in this regard and to cooperate with international resolutions. However, the delegates of these states, when they undertake this mission, they end up reaching the same conclusion France reached, and some return with great disappointment with Damascus.

I have said as much in the past, and I was told by various sources, including European officials, what Choucair has written: all the European delegates who went to Syria, "got absolutely nothing." (Here's Angela Merkel today, for instance, slamming Syria on Lebanon.)

Here, let me go back to address the problem with Nelson's selective approach. Nelson explains his logic thusly (emphasis mine):

Logic instructs us we cannot succeed in stabilizing Iraq without the cooperation of all of Iraq's neighbors. And so, rather than simply making demands of governments who often do not share our interests, our effort should be focused on finding those limited areas where our interests overlap and developing them.

The diplomatic dialogue would not have to give up anything on areas where we disagree with Syria. But it most certainly can include the discussion of the costs to Syria of continued conflict, such as the imposition of additional sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act. And it should be coordinated with the diplomatic efforts of our allies.

That's all great and swell, but things are different with murderous thugs who view "engagement" (even if "limited" to Iraq) as a green light to retake Lebanon. The reality is that Assad knows this and has repeatedly said that it's all or nothing. Either a "package deal" (because "all the issues are related") or no deal. By package deal he means 1- control of Lebanon, 2- lifting the isolation (which also means terminating the Hariri investigation and tribunal). Renewed, perpetual, process with Israel would be an added bonus under this category, that would bestow additional dividends.

Too bad then that our "creative diplomacy" won't work, because Assad is not interested in our diplomacy. He's interested in his. That's why every delegate to Syria got nothing. For the Assad regime, the biggest threat is the tribunal, and the first priority is the restoration of his hegemony over Lebanon. Both are non-starters for the entire world, including the Arab states like Saudi Arabia which has washed its hands clean of Assad.

That's why, contrary to CFR's view, it's not just the Bush administration but its close European (France) and Arab (Saudi Arabia) allies that are advising against "engaging" Syria, especially over Lebanon.

I'll take their advice over CFR's.