Across the Bay

Friday, May 11, 2007

Syria Selling Snake Oil

Whenever self-proclaimed "realists" start pontificating about the "centrality" of engaging Syria on Iraq, I always like to pull this quote from the doyen of Realism, Henry Kissinger:

The contemporary debate over ending the Iraq war has ascribed an almost mythic quality to the desirability of bilateral negotiations with Syria and Iran as the key to an Iraqi settlement. ... But only a few of the objectives of the United States, Syria and Iran can be fulfilled via bilateral negotiations. Syria's role in Iraq, for better or worse, is limited.

Indeed. Now what are the Syrians saying about this? By that I don't mean the ridiculous hilarities like Bashar Assad's "we're the main player in Iraq" or Imad Moustapha's "everyone trusts us in Iraq" and other wonderful comic fairy tales.

No I mean what are the Syrians really saying. Let's start with Bashar's latest rabid speech (which he delivered as he sentenced the Syrian dissident who came to the US to the harshest sentence any dissident has yet received):

Based on [our rejection of the invasion of Iraq], we did everything in our power to confront the attempts to liquidate the strongholds of resistance and to confront the projects of compromise which insult our people and which go against their interests.
In confronting this, our position was constant and our policy clear... We have rejected the occupation, declared the need for a timetable for withdrawal, and we have asserted the right of the Iraqi people to pursue resistance all while supporting the political process in Iraq on the basis of not excluding any component of the Iraqi people. And we have expressed our readiness to play our role in launching a national Iraqi dialogue.
Here we must be clear to understand what the essence is of Syrian cooperation. In short, we are working to help the Iraqi people to end their crisis, and not to help the occupation forces in getting out of trouble. All the political theatrics we see today are in truth working essentially to serve the occupiers for their domestic or international reasons.
The truth is that we have said in the past that the process is political and not military. (Emphasis mine.)

You'll note of course that there is no mention of border control or of Syria's role in facilitating the passage of jihadists across the border, or serving as a safe haven for al-Qaeda-type terrorists.

So what is the much-coveted Syrian "cooperation" in return for which engagers want to sell the house? The continuous support to the resistance! Oh, I see, it's help launch the Iraqi
national conciliation dialogue, because, you know, "Syria has credibility with everyone in Iraq." Right.

Reality is that Syria has zero assets inside Iraq. It has no influence over any Iraqi political group (here's a test, to contrast with Iran: name a single Iraqi politician that can be said to be "Syria's guy." Exactly.). This is why they tried to create a seat for themselves at the table by hosting a sham Baath party conference in Syria, where certain marginal Iraqi Baathi figures were co-opted. The result was that the Iraqi Baath party disowned them and attacked the Syrians for trying to create a splinter leadership. Also, in an interview with a Chronicle correspondent in Iraq, a former division general of the Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's most elite military corps, dismissed the widespread assumption that Syria's tribal links to the Sunni-led insurgents would give it leverage.

"We still remember how Syria sided with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, when they closed the Iraqi oil pipeline passing through its territory and provided Iran with ground-to-ground missiles to attack Baghdad," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Besides, the tribes are now fighting the very jihadists Syria is supporting and hosting.

But it was a former Syrian official talking to the pro-Syrian al-Diyar about the Rice-Moallem meeting that really best articulated Syria's tactics. Engagers, heed and take note:

Syria will be cautious in approaching dialogue with the US. It will express its desire for a continuation and expansion of dialogue, so that Syria is not accused of caving in to Iranian pressure. But it will be cautious so as not to give away everything for nothing, especially on issues relating to Syria's regional role and the security of the regime. Specifically to ease international pressure on Syria including from the tribunal, which remains an issue of anxiety for Damascus.

Syria's capabilities to help in the Iraqi security issue, which was the topic of discussion between Rice and Moallem, are very limited. The results of Syrian cooperation in this regard will be very weak, basically intercepting and preventing SOME infiltrators across the border. These results cannot be invested to achieve a real breakthrough in the crisis of Syrian-American relations, and there is a fear that the negative positions adopted by Syria and its allies in Lebanon and on the Palestinian side will overshadow whatever positive comes out of the Syrian plan to police the border with Iraq, in a way that would push for a new American toughness. There are pressing Lebanese and Palestinian issues and it's unlikely that Syria will go with the American agenda in Lebanon and Palestine. The most prominent such issue that is of vital concern for Syria's regional role is the Lebanese presidency, and the security plans supported by the US in the Palestinian territories which will limit the options of the resistance to pressure Israel.

What is there to say? This is precisely what we've been saying is the Syrian intention all along. Syria is an enemy state sponsor of terror, whose only foreign policy asset is terrorism, and whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the US. (I'll return to the Israeli angle in a later post.)

When Bill Nelson visited Damascus, he declared that he did so only because he (I think misguidedly) saw Syrian border control as a "slight crack in the door" to achieve "limited cooperation" in an otherwise blocked prospect of cooperation. On Lebanon he had a heated disagreement with Assad, who, in Nelson's words, gave him "the usual dog-and-pony show." On Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad (the "resistance" that the Syrian official refers to), Nelson said that he got nothing but the "standard party line." In other words, there were no prospects for any common ground whatsoever (this has been the result that every European and Arab -- including Iraqi -- delegate has got. And by the way, have you heard from Nelson lately on this?). It also fits well with another Kissinger reading: "Syria is primarily concerned with Lebanon and Palestine. The Syrian contribution in Iraq, one way or the other, is essentially marginal."

If there is no possible common ground (because, as I said, the policy objectives and interests are diametrically opposed), then diplomacy will, as it has repeatedly, reach nothing but a dead end, or worse.

Update: Eli Lake has the story on Iraq's tribal leaders cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda.