Across the Bay

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Molotov Cocktail and the Fire Hose

Jonathan Spyer once again pens an excellent analysis on Syria. Worth quoting in full:

The itinerary of newly minted US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is intended to give the American diplomat a chance to gain a broad picture of various regional perspectives - from Jerusalem all the way to Riyadh.

Mitchell's travel plans contain a notable gap, however. The new envoy will not - on this trip at least - be visiting Syria.

This omission is testimony to the ongoing disruptive role played by Damascus in the politics of the region. Mitchell's arrival this week coincides with the interception by the US Navy of an Iranian arms boat bound for the Syrian coast. The ship - which was later permitted to continue on its way - is reported to have contained armaments intended to find their way to Hamas.

Mitchell's bypassing of Damascus has, of course, been noted by Syrian officials. Still, Damascus remains generally optimistic regarding its chances of emerging from isolation to renewed dialogue with the US and its new president. The method to be used to achieve this will be the tried and tested Syrian practice of holding a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a fire hose in the other. That is - Syria will offer itself as the indispensable mediator for the solution of problems which Damascus itself has helped to create, and for which its clients and allies are directly responsible.

Syria's approach toward the situation in Gaza offers an example of how this process is supposed to work. Damascus, of course, played no mediating role during the recent fighting. Rather, it offered enthusiastic verbal support for Hamas.

President Bashar Assad was the first to congratulate the Damascus-based Hamas leadership following the conclusion of the latest round of violence. The Syrian leader hailed the "victory" of the "resistance."

In the aftermath, however, the Syrians have been keenly noting emerging calls in the West for "engagement" with Hamas. These are no longer confined to the world of think tanks and advocacy groups.

This week, a French-sponsored amendment at a meeting of EU foreign ministers sought to commit Europe to support any unity government achieved by the Palestinians. This would have offered implicit backing for engaging with a government including Hamas. The amendment was defeated. But the calls for engagement with Hamas will not go away, and are being heard insistently - and not only in Europe.

Such calls are music to the ears of Syrian officials. They consider - correctly - that any attempt to engage with Hamas will need to go through Damascus, where the group's leadership is domiciled. And if you want to "deliver" Hamas, what better way than to make friends with (and offer incentives) to the people who provide them with a home. President Sarkozy, who called Assad this week and visited Damascus last September, is already persuaded.

So the petrol bomb and fire hose method has already succeeded in landing France. The issue for the Syrians is whether the same method may now be applied to the bigger game in Washington.

The current situation is not comfortable for Syria. The country faces an ongoing investigation into the nuclear facility destroyed by Israel in September 2007. The tribunal on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due (finally) to begin to function in March of this year. The burgeoning alliance with Iran and the backing for Hizbullah and Hamas cannot by themselves protect Syria from these dangers.

Damascus needs friends in the West who can be brought to believe that hopes for regional stability depend significantly on not pushing the Syrians too hard. Mitchell is - for now at least - not coming to call. But there is evidence that any displeasure on the part of the new administration at Syria's role as cheerleader and arms conduit for Hamas may be short-lived. Recent reports suggest that Syria may be in line to be the first real-life beneficiary of President Obama's new policy of engagement with anti-Western forces in the region. The administration's thinking, such reports suggest, is along by now familiar lines. Namely, that Syria, as the weakest link in the pro-Iranian alliance, should be showered with incentives to tempt it away.

If the administration does indeed intend to adopt such an approach to Syria, then Damascus's response is likely to be to offer just enough hope so that the optimists in Washington and Paris stay optimistic - and therefore pliable.

Syria is familiar with the dictum that there are none easier to convince than those who want to believe. The widespread excitement at Assad's decision to send a message of congratulation to Washington following Obama's victory offered a touching example of this.

So with this in mind - don't be surprised to see the prospect of renewed indirect negotiations with Israel being dangled again. The process of indirect negotiations in Istanbul was called off by Syria in the course of Operation Cast Lead. But for Syria, the "peace process" card is endlessly replayable. And since it appears that the new US administration subscribes to the view of the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the region, it may acquire particular worth in the period now opening up. The petrol bomb and fire hose school of diplomacy, as pioneered in Damascus, has a long way to run.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

That Ol' Assad Anti-Semitism!

I've regularly highlighted the consistent legacy of rabid anti-Semitic statements by Bashar Assad, from his fabulous statements to the Pope in 2001 shortly after inheriting power, to countless priceless nuggets throughout the years, including his profound thoughts on Roger Garaudy, and not least, his stupendous speech in Doha yesterday.

Now Bashar has combined his sophisticated antisemitism with razor sharp political acumen. Pulling a regular Ahmadinejad, Bashar told the German Der Spiegel that the German government really has to get its act together:

"We can see the feelings of guilt evoked by your past. And we also see they influence Germany's Israel policies. They shouldn't anymore," the Syrian president said.

Just terrific. But you see, he and Ahmadinejad don't really have anything in common. Bashar, after all, is a "secular," "Western-educated" thug. Not just your average run-of-the-mill thug. As the genius "experts" on the Syrian-Iranian alliance tell us, he can't possibly have anything in common with Ahmadinejad in terms of world view. No, nothing at all.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Syria and the Gaza Crisis

Here's my latest Policy Briefing on Syria's destructive role with Iran in the Gaza crisis.

More to come, including commentary on the Doha gathering and Assad's psychopathic speech there (and the important Lebanese rejection of the gathering's statement on withdrawing the Arab peace initiative).

Here's a sample of some of pearls of wisdom dispensed by Bashar, in a vintage Assad speech, glazed with his hallmark anti-Semitic touch:

"If the starting point of what we will decide today is based on our standing beside our people in Gaza in the face of the new Nazi Israeli Holocaust, in addition to our conviction in the justice of the Palestinian cause and the legal rights of the Palestinian people.. then this would not be complete without our understanding of the essence of the problem which resides not only in the occupation per se.. but in the nature and character of the enemy which we face, based on decades of various experiences with it which have vacillated between wars and failed peace attempts. This enemy which has built its existence on massacres.. and consolidated its continuity on violation and destruction.. and sketched out its future on mass extermination.. is an enemy that only speaks the language of blood.

And therefore, it only understands the language of blood. And the Arab blood that has been spilled since the establishment of Israel.. was for its [Israel's] owners the necessary fuel for their machine in the stages of the establishment of the pure Jewish state, which cannot be near, unless the process of displacing non-Jews from Palestine or exterminating what remains of them in it is completed.. Therefore, what is happening in Gaza is not just a reply to rockets.. If there were no rockets they would have created them and fired them in order to find a pretext.. Rather it is a link in a long chain that aims to attain the Palestine that they imagined or pretended to be a land without a people, after other states patriate them [the Palestinians] or by finding a substitute homeland for them.. Therefore, if we do not read the reasons well.. we would not be able to produce anything except lacking and temporary solutions, meaning ones that would quickly collapse."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Assad, Jalili, PFLP-GC, and the Rockets from Lebanon

As expected, a few rockets were lobbed into Israel today. While no one has claimed responsibility, it's fairly clear a- who's behind it, and b- why.

The threat of rockets from Lebanon was delivered early on in the fighting when the Lebanese Armed Forces dismantled eight Katyusha rockets set for firing into Israel. The Lebanese authorities at the time openly suspected this to be the work of the Syrian proxy, the Damascus-based PFLP-GC.

Then, as the fighting went on in Gaza, the Iranians sent a delegate to Damascus, Saeed Jalili, to discuss the Gaza situation with the Syrians and the Palesitinian factions based there. After the meeting, the PFLP-GC's secretary general, Ahmad Jibril, declared that "new military fronts will be opened and the circle of war will be widened as long as the Rafah crossing remained closed."

Three days later, the PFLP-GC is once again suspected of being behind the rockets fired into Israel today. The PFLP-GC is even threatening targeting US interests (one more reason why Syria will remain on the US list of state sponsors of terror). Hezbollah, who are denying any responsibility, naturally knew about it and turned a blind eye, in order to conveniently maintain deniability, but also to try and avoid a massive Israeli retaliation, which speaks to the success of Israeli deterrence post-UNSCR 1701.

So why did they fire the rockets, and why now?

The Israeli operation in Gaza has clearly dealt a massive, crippling blow to Hamas. There was therefore a need to prevent a humiliating defeat for the Iranian-led "resistance" axis.

Nevertheless, opening a full-blown new front in Lebanon is not as easy as one might think given the known Israeli response, recently articulated as the "Dahiyeh doctrine."

So, as Jonathan Spyer wrote today in the Jerusalem Post, the rocket fire from Lebanon "is the first indication that Hamas's friends may be considering intervention to help their ally in its predicament. The performance of Hamas in the conflict so far gives little cause for celebration in the Iranian-led camp."

But there's another angle here as well. Hamas's humiliation (and that of its backers Syria and Iran) was going to be compounded by the fact that Egypt was still the main broker of any new security arrangement, a fact that Hamas couldn't get around -- despite all the anti-Egypt rhetoric emanating from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Since one central goal of the war (i.e. of Syria and Iran) was the undermining of the Egyptian position, this would've been tantamount to adding insult to injury.

Here's where the "engagement" fetishists should pay attention. Into this complex picture -- with the regional balance of power in play -- stepped the freelance crisis solver du jour, the international man of mystery, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a particularly ill-advised move, Sarkozy went to Syria and asked Assad -- a mere subsidiary of the Iranian campaign -- to intervene with Hamas. Sensing the possibility of freely-donated leverage, Assad did the obvious and came out fully in support of Hamas, and declared that if France would ensure that all of Hamas's demands were secured (which would be an existential threat to Egypt), including lifting the siege and opening the Rafah crossing (i.e., affording Hamas the charade of declaring "victory" for the "resistance" axis), he would gladly "see what he could do" with Hamas.

Therefore, it was no surprise that the Damascus-based Hamas rejected the proposal put forward by Egypt (with the French tagging along). Not only would the humiliation be hard to swallow, but since Sarkozy gave Bashar an opening, then it would behoove the Syrian terror-sponsoring dictator to try and up the price and see what more he can get from the hapless French. What better way to set the stage for the incoming Obama administration, and screw the US-allied Egyptians?

A day later, the PFLP-GC fires rockets from Lebanon and even threatened to target US interests!

Bashar, therefore, is trying, in typical Syrian fashion, to opportunistically scavenge some gains by selling his usual snake oil. In other words, once again badly-conceived flashiness sold as "diplomacy" results not in security and stability, but more conflagration and the potential sabotage of allies. There's no "regional" framework here. There's an Israeli and an Egyptian framework involving the PA -- period. Martin Kramer explained it well:

It is the PA, for example, which could be reinserted at the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah (as already demanded by Egypt).
...
Legitimation of Hamas could seal the fate of the "peace process," and give "resistance" the reputation of a truly winning strategy. The United States will have to assure that all contact with Hamas runs exclusively through the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Turks, and above all, the PA. Europe and the United States must stay well out of the diplomatic reach of Hamas, until it meets the Quartet conditions—a highly improbable prospect.

This also means that once more, the advice of the ICG should be safely discarded in the nearest possible trash bin.

Bashar is working for the diametrically opposite objective, and seeking the full legitimization of Hamas and the undermining of Egypt, which has been crucial in blocking the opening of the Rafah crossing, and his introduction as the sole interlocutor. He called the continuing closure of these crossings an act of war, thereby justifying and supporting Hamas's torpedoing of the truce (little surprise there, as it was all coordinated with the Iranians, including the Bahrain plot which I discussed here).

In fact, Walid Moallem recently revealed that Syria had been using its "indirect talks with Israel" fiasco in order to protect Hamas and allow it to build up its (Iranian and Syrian-supplied military capabilities). Moallem said that the Syrians had conditioned these bogus talks on Israel not launching attacks on Hamas. In other words, it's the vintage Syria policy of talking while simultaneously supporting terrorist groups, and using the talks to protect terrorists groups and prevent being held accountable for supporting them.

The Israeli response to the Katyushas from Lebanon has so far been limited to a strike against the launching site. The Israelis had been expecting, since the eight Katyushas were dismantled earlier in the fighting, the possibility that some Palestinian faction could fire from Lebanon, with Hezbollah's knowledge and acquiescence. As long as Iran and Hezbollah don't escalate further, the IDF might not either, while keeping an eye on the northern border, especially as Hamas continues to get pummeled to the ground.

In the meantime, what the US and its allies should ensure is that Syria is not afforded an opportunity to sell useless snake oil and embezzle gains from this episode in which it's been nothing but a supporter of Hamas and the Iranian campaign against US allies, Israel and Egypt.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Israel's Objectives in Gaza

Once again, the best analysis of the situation in Gaza is offered by Martin Kramer.

A couple of quotes:

So Israel's war aim is very straightforward, and it is not simply a total cease-fire. At the very least, it is a total cease-fire that also leaves the sanctions against Hamas in place.
...
A hint of the solution Israel envisions comes from a senior Israeli diplomatic source: "Israel cannot agree that the only party responsible for implementing and regulating the cease-fire be Hamas."
...
It is the PA, for example, which could be reinserted at the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah (as already demanded by Egypt).

Read it all.

I'll have more to say on this shortly.