Across the Bay

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Syrian Illusion Revisited

Here are two excellent recent pieces by Emile Hokayem and Jonathan Spyer on the stale old illusion of a Syrian "peace track," and assessing the whole enterprise of engagement with Syria more generally.

Spyer explains why the so-called "Syria track" -- that most absurd leftover from the delusional 1990s "peace process" -- will, once again, lead nowhere. There are structural reasons, as I've argued repeatedly here and elsewhere, why this is so, and they have to do with the regional system overall and Syria's position as a second tier regional actor (its over-inflated self-image and role-conception notwithstanding) with no other assets to remain relevant save for its sponsorship of violence and alliance with other violent actors:

Why would such talks almost certainly fail? The formula for success in negotiations between Israel and Syria is no longer the '90s recipe of land for peace. A breakthrough in Jerusalem-Damascus negotiations would be predicated on the basis of "land for strategic realignment."

That is, Syria would be expected to abandon its regional alliance with Iran in return for Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan Heights.

Damascus, however, has made abundantly clear that such a realignment is not on the table. The reasons are fairly obvious. Syria's current stance of alliance with Iran gives the Damascus regime most of what it needs. Syria is seen as a vital part of any regional diplomatic process, because of its ability to spoil progress through its alignment with radical forces.

The 30-year old (and counting) illusion of distancing Syria from Iran, as well as the desire to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, is the driver behind Saudi Arabia's recent and ridiculously inept political moves. Both Spyer and Hokayem correctly identify the shared interest (which, ironically, is also shared by Iran!) in undermining Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, something that I've written about at the time of the August bombings in Iraq, responsibility for which Iraq has, correctly in my view, laid at Syria's doorstep. General Odierno also agrees with the Iraqi accusation.

The French position is even more pitiful. France is a secondary world power that wishes to carve a "role" for itself in ME affairs and its only avenue to do so is through the so-called "peace process," and more specifically (by default) through Syria. How apt, therefore, for a secondary power to place its bets on a secondary regional actor in a process that will lead nowhere. The poseurs leading the pitiful on a bridge to nowhere, as it were. The Syrians, for their part, have no problem feeding the French delusion, while extracting real concessions, as the French paper, Liberation, recently noted in a stinging critique of Sarkozy's useless Syria policy.

Spyer accurately describes this dynamic, noting that Syria's recent limited diplomatic gains are "testimony not to any hidden diplomatic genius lurking among the Ba'athists of Damascus. Rather, it shows the weakness, confusion and disunity of those forces in the region and beyond it who might be expected to have an interest in challenging Iran and its allies in their bid for dominance of the Middle East."

US policy in contrast, as noted by both Spyer and Hokayem, has not jumped on this foolish bandwagon. Nevertheless, Spyer notes, the lack of a coherent and forcefully articulated strategy and understanding of regional dynamics on the part of the US (and, I would add, as Michael Young has done, US ambiguity on Iraq) has allowed for secondary players like France and Saudi Arabia to step forward in an exercise of virtual diplomacy, which nevertheless can potentially have a real impact on US interests.

Spyer's conclusion is worth repeating and applying to US policy as well:

The building of clarity in this regard represents a core strategic interest for Israel. It would be mistaken to sacrifice this interest on the altar of any short-term alleviation of pressure resulting from a revival of virtual diplomacy with the Assad regime.