Across the Bay

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Syria Illusions

Here's a pleasant surprise: an actually sober editorial on Syria in the Financial Times. Although the last graph on Iran and the SOFA is off, the editorial is overall quite decent in its reading of Syria and the many associated illusions and stupidities that are so much in vogue these days:

First France, and now Britain. The courtship of Syria proceeds apace. There is, of course, nothing wrong with engagement, as the Bush years have taught us. Ideally, however, robust diplomacy should be harnessed to a coherent strategy. That is what is lacking in the cosying up to Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Mr Assad owes his re-entry into polite geopolitical society in the first instance to Nicolas Sarkozy. The Syrian leader became persona non grata under President Jacques Chirac after the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, which was linked by United Nations investigators to Damascus. Syria, above all, was on the US black list, not just for backing Hizbollah and Hamas but because the regime facilitated the passage of jihadis into Iraq - even allowing recruiting in full view of the US embassy in Damascus.

Western reappraisal of Syria began in May, after Mr Assad gave his blessing to the Doha agreement settling - at least for now - the stand-off Damascus had helped create in Lebanon. But he would, wouldn't he? The deal gave Syria's allies, led by Hizbollah, which had just overrun West Beirut, veto powers over the elected Lebanese government. The Syrian gambit is to obstruct, if it cannot prevent, the UN tribunal on Hariri's murder.

Syria's tentative reopening of talks on peace with Israel, through Turkish mediation, does address a strategic objective of enormous importance to the region. For the Assad regime, however, it looks like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Syria has not changed its regional behaviour.

Mr Sarkozy, nonetheless, invited him to a summit in Paris and sat him in the front row on Bastille Day. Mahmoud Abbas, who has taken great risks to try for peace with Israel to no avail, was sat at the back alongside a Somali delegate. The message this sends to the Middle East is disastrous. Now, David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, has journeyed to Damascus to call Syria a potential force for stability. Damascus is gleefully exploiting these vain attempts to peel Syria off from its alliance with Iran.

This tactic is an evasion. It avoids the need for a real strategy to deal with Iran. Tehran, empowered by the US upending of the Sunni order in Iraq, now holds high cards throughout the region. It has just played one: encouraging its allies in Baghdad to endorse a new deal on US troops in Iraq. That seems to respond to the election of Barack Obama, who called during the campaign for talks with Iran. The need is to get Iran interested in regional stability, not a dalliance with Damascus premised on an illusion.