Across the Bay

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Massimum Engagement

Caution: what you're about to read will shock you.

As you know, Italy's Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema recently joined the distinguished club of diplomats who went to "talk" to Syria, got nothing, got humiliated, got their words twisted, were told one thing in the meeting only to hear something else at the press conference, said they heard encouraging signs on border control only to be met with increased smuggling of arms and fighters, and so on. In other words, he was treated to the typical, quintessential experience of what it is like to engage Syria. He got the full monty.

So, it's fair to say, as a European source told the Italian news agency AKI, D'Alema's visit "was not very encouraging." Noooo! You don't say! But the previous attempts were so much more encouraging, no!?

Let's see: The British Nigel Scheinwald went and got nothing, then the German FM Frank Walter Steinmeier went and got nothing. They were then followed by Sen. Bill Nelson who got absolutely nothing. Actually check that: he got, in his words, "the usual dog-and-pony show" and "the standard party line." Then the EU's Javier Solana was sent on behalf of the EU, and guess what? He got nothing. The Saudis got nothing and since the Riyadh summit (where they told Bashar what was expected of him in no uncertain terms) they have not had any contact with the Syrians. The Egyptians got nothing. The Arab League's Amr Moussa got nothing. And so on and so forth.

As such, I must say, I was truly shocked to hear that after being publicly humiliated by the Syrians, à la Colin Powell, D'Alema's visit was "not very encouraging." That came out of the blue.

But what is telling about all these failed "engagements" (there is no other kind with Damascus) is that they reveal Syria's real priorities and goals. Here's the hint about those priorities: they have nothing to do with the Golan. It's all about re-dominating Lebanon.

What was the universal message of all these envoys that was met with Syria's rejection (coupled with terrorism in Lebanon)? Lebanon is off limits.

For instance, when Solana carried the unified message of the European Union in his very brief stop in Damascus a couple of months ago, he reportedly gave Bashar the following option: cooperate on all the UNSC resolutions on Lebanon (including the obligations to stop smuggling weapons and fighters, demarcate the borders, exchange embassies, cooperate with the tribunal) and in return you'll get restored ties with the EU, the EU Association Agreement (i.e. economic incentives), and renewed peace process with Israel over the Golan. But, Assad was told, Lebanon is the litmus test.

As is obvious, Bashar blew Solana off.

D'Alema's message was reportedly almost exactly the same as Solana's. He is said to have told the Syrians that 1- the tribunal is a fact that's not going away and the Syrians best cooperate (or, as D'Alema reportedly told them, "face the consequences on your own"). 2- Lebanon's independence is under the protection of the international community (i.e., Lebanon is off limits). 3- cooperate with UNSCR 1701 on smuggling weapons and fighters across the borders, and with the other resolutions (1680 on border demarcation and diplomatic exchange, 1757 on the tribunal, and 1559 on ceasing Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs).

In return, he reportedly told the Syrians, the EU will help end Syria's political isolation and sign the Association Agreement as well as restart talks on the Golan.

In response, the Syrians sent more arms and fighters across the border, humiliated D'Alema at the press conference by making very different statements from what they had told him in private (according to D'Alema's aides), and twisted his words, leading the Italian Foreign Ministry to issue a clarification of what was actually said.

What is the lesson from all this? Talking to Syria is useless. There's nothing to talk about. Our interests and theirs are diametrically opposed. This is precisely why France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: "We are ready to talk with all personalities and representatives of groups who are in favor of Lebanon's unity, its autonomy and its territorial integrity. This clearly means we don't have to talk to Syrian leaders."