Across the Bay

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Losing Ways of Thugs

I recently reiterated my long-held and often-stated belief that people are mistaken if they think that they could entice Assad with carrots to change his behavior in Lebanon. Instead, I wrote, "Assad thinks he can get it all in Lebanon, through blackmail, without budging from his intransigence." The Ghanem assassination was the bloody expression of this position.

Here's a good editorial in NOW Lebanon today that addresses the possible repercussions:

So this is what we have. A Syrian regime that everyone knows is behind the violence in Lebanon; that rejects even those offers it might turn to its advantage; that provokes instability in Iraq, the Palestinian areas, and other places; and that is plainly a major threat to the region. What on earth, then, is everyone supposed to do to stop this schoolyard bully?

The Syrians might ponder the inevitability of that question before slapping the wife again. The Israeli air attack against a Syrian military facility, while it was sold as the bombing of a nuclear site, remains obscure. But what wasn’t obscure at all was how virtually no government in the Arab world could muster even the slightest outrage with the attack. If it was against a nuclear site, then the Syrians are just pining for regional pariah status.
In other words, a retributive machine may have been set in motion that could, through a combination of US, European, and Arab annoyance with Damascus, do President Bashar Assad’s regime much harm.

Then there is the Hariri tribunal. Few doubt that the main Syrian goal in devastating Lebanon is to work out an “arrangement” with the international community on the tribunal. What Assad doesn’t get, however, is that the more he intimidates and murders Lebanese while ignoring UN resolutions asking Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, the more everyone will see the tribunal as the only lasting source of leverage over Syria. Why? Because all other methods of bringing Syria into line have quite simply failed. So, rather than making the tribunal less likely, Assad is doing the precise opposite, much as the Syrian regime did when its allies’ efforts to thwart approval of the tribunal in Lebanon led to its endorsement under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

If Assad is suicidal, then who are we to stop him? But, because we are like that beleaguered wife, we wish he would pause and think this through. The only way Syria’s regime will save itself is to turn into something worth saving. For now, it is confirming on a daily basis that it is worth terminating. Sooner or later the Arab world and the international community will discover what to do with Syria. And by then it may be too late for this impulsive Syrian leadership to avoid the worst.

For more on this theme, see these recent pieces by David Schenker: First, this report for the JCPA on Syria's role in regional destabilization. Second, this piece in the Weekly Standard on Bashar's chronically terrible track record:

Policies pursued by the Asad regime, particularly since 2003--from Iraq, to Lebanon, to the Palestinian Authority--have been highly provocative. Syria under Bashar has actively worked to undermine stability in four of five neighboring countries. And now, revelations about the Syrian nuclear program threaten to ignite a war with Israel.
While Bashar and his ruling Alawite clique retain hold on power, Syria's regional and international position has declined dramatically under his leadership. This has occurred not because Bashar departed from the problematic policies of his father, but rather, because these policies have been pursued without regard to changing regional and international dynamics. Hafiz Asad was no panacea, but he was cautious. His son Bashar is reckless.
Syria had been trucking with North Korea for some time, receiving technical assistance from Pyongyang on its missile and chemical weapons programs, drawing little international attention or sanction. But as with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraq, Bashar apparently went too far.

Finally, Dennis Ross explains what Israel gained from its strike against Syria:

Israeli military officials to whom I have spoken have become convinced that Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, has begun to believe that he could fight a limited war against Israel. Using as many as 20,000 rockets -- with some chemically armed as a reserve and a deterrent to prevent Israel from striking at the strategic underpinnings of his regime -- he appears, at least according to many in Israel's intelligence community, to believe he could fight a war on his terms. He was impressed by what Hezbollah did in the war with Israel in the summer of 2006 and believes he, too, could win by not losing in a limited war.

Israel has been looking for ways to convince Assad that he is miscalculating; that he will not be allowed to fight a war on his terms; and that he had better not play with fire. This summer, Israel has conducted military exercises designed not just to improve Israel's readiness but to convey a message to Assad. The raid not only blunts Syria's nuclear development but also reinforces the Israeli message of deterrence. In effect, it tells President Assad that Syria has few secrets it can keep from Israel. For a conspiratorial and paranoid regime, this is bound to keep its leaders preoccupied internally trying to figure out what Israel knows and doesn't know.

Beyond this, the raid sends the message that Israel can hit what it wants -- no matter how valuable and sensitive to the regime -- when it wants, and Syria is powerless to stop it. Here the silence from the Arab world, even if a function of Israel's silence, can provide small comfort to President Assad. No one in the Arab world much cares if Syria suffers blows to its prestige and losses to its military capabilities.