Across the Bay

Friday, February 26, 2010

Obama's Incoherent Syria Sideshow

I'm a bit late in posting this, but here's my piece in NOW Lebanon from Tuesday on Obama's incoherent Syria move. I argue that the Syria "policy" is neither a policy nor is it about Syria. It's an incoherent tactical move resulting from Obama's floundering Iran policy and lack of an overall strategy in the region. The justifications offered by the administration are so illogical that they crumble under their own weight. This is a failure before it even begins. Proof came rather swiftly at the Assad-Ahmadinejad summit in Damascus, where the two terror-sponsoring dictators publicly mocked Secretary Clinton and the US. We shall see how that will affect, if at all, the confirmation of the newly-nominated US ambassador. Already one Democrat has voiced his displeasure with Obama's move, and that was before the Damascus summit and Assad's statements.

Aside from mocking Clinton's statement, and reaffirming his strategic alliance with Iran, Assad also said:

"We discussed the situation of the resistance in the region and how to support these resistance forces. It is self-evident to say that this support is a moral and national duty in every nation, and also a religious legal duty, since we are today in a religious occasion [the birthday of Islam's prophet Muhammad]."

Other items critical of Obama's initiative include, aside from the Washington Post editorial posted right below, these two articles by David Schenker and Matt Brodsky.

Schenker raises an issue I've written about in the recent past -- the fate of Imad Mustapha:

The one potential benefit of a senior U.S. diplomat returning to Damascus is said to be a quid pro quo involving the imminent departure from Washington of Syria's longtime ambassador, Imad Moustapha. Since 2000, Moustapha has served as chief regime propagandist and spinmeister, and his incessant leaking and mischaracterizations of U.S. policy initiatives have proved a complicating factor in the relationship.

Finally, to revisit the nauseatingly repetitive argument of the Syria-Iran alliance, see this article and this old blog post of mine on the subject.

Addendum: Forgot to add this piece on the Damascus summit by Jonathan Spyer:

As such, the Ahmedinejad trip to Syria is not merely an opportunity for the two leaders to re-affirm the long-standing close ties between their regimes – and Syria’s links with the Islamic Republic of Iran date back to 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution. Rather, the visit represents a showcasing of the shared regional strategy of “resistance” to the US and its allies in the region.
And all of this comes apparently with little cost. In spite of it, all the West, the US and Israel, still apparently want to be friends. Why then would Assad be inclined to “distance” himself from Iran? The answer is that he wouldn’t, and he won’t – as was on vivid display this week in the visit of the Iranian president to Damascus.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Syria Gambit Never Works

An excellent, must-read editorial in the WaPo today on the Obama administration's cluelessness on Syria:

Don't expect progress from talking to Syria

Friday, February 19, 2010

THE NOTION that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad can somehow be turned from his alliance with Iran and sponsorship of terrorism is one of the hardiest of the Middle East. No number of failed diplomatic initiatives, or outrages by Mr. Assad, seems to diminish its luster. The latest attempt to test it comes from the Obama administration, which this week nominated the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and dispatched a senior State Department official, William J. Burns, to meet with Mr. Assad. "I have no illusions," Mr. Burns said afterward, "but my meeting . . . made me hopeful we can make progress together."

We don't disagree with the administration's selection of an ambassador or Mr. Burns's visit; both represent a modest delivery on President Obama's campaign promise of "direct engagement" with regimes such as Syria. But it's worth noting that Mr. Burns has done this before: He met with Mr. Assad in 2004 on behalf of the Bush administration. Earlier, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "engaged" Mr. Assad. So have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, and numerous European notables, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When he was Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert negotiated extensively with Mr. Assad through Turkish intermediaries.

Not a few have come away hopeful, at first. Ms. Pelosi memorably declared that "the road to Damascus is a road to peace." Yet none so far has produced the slightest change in Mr. Assad's behavior or in his unacceptable ambitions. Having carried out a campaign of political murder in Lebanon, including the killing of a prime minister for which he has yet to be held accountable, Mr. Assad continues to insist on a veto over the Lebanese government. He continues to facilitate massive illegal shipments of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, dangerously setting the stage for another war with Israel, and to host the most hard-line elements of the Hamas leadership. He continues to harbor exiled leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime and to allow suicide bombers to flow into Iraq for use by al-Qaeda.

Mr. Assad wants the United States to lift sanctions; he wants the European Union to grant Syria trade privileges; he wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and grant Syria the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; and he wants Syria's check on Lebanese sovereignty accepted. In exchange for all this, he is offering -- well, not much, it always turns out. He told one group of Western visitors that he would no more break with Iran than the United States would break with Israel. He says that Syrian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas is not on the table. He has promised to check suicide bombers bound for Iraq but has never done so.

The exercise of talking to Mr. Assad serves a certain purpose, since it allows a skilled diplomat such as Mr. Burns to lay out the administration's incentives for changed behavior as well as its red lines, and it might make Iran's paranoid leaders nervous. But anyone who thinks the Obama administration has come up with a way to change the Middle East through detente with Syria would do well to study the history of Mr. Assad's decade in power. That gambit has been tried, by more Western diplomats and politicians than can be counted, and the results are clear: It doesn't work.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Syria and the Axis of Proliferation

My latest in NOW Lebanon on the recent report of the resumption of North Korean-Syrian cooperation on "sensitive military technology":

This weapons proliferation should make those who advocate “containing” Iran pause. If proliferation has been a feature of North Korea’s behavior, then supporting militant groups has been Iran’s path to center stage in regional politics, and Syria’s means of remaining relevant. For all the talk of threats by non-state actors, the basic fact remains that they are being supplied weapons and offered deterrence umbrellas only by states.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Iran's Arms Smuggling Network

Here's my piece in NOW today on Iran's complex naval arms smuggling network:

Iran is playing an old game in Middle Eastern power politics: building regional influence through arms supplies to those who can further its agenda. For all the talk about non-state actors, the Iranian smuggling networks highlight that political violence and destabilization in the Middle East remain first and foremost a state enterprise.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Kissinger on Obama's Iraq Policy

An extremely important piece by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post today that you should definitely read.

[W]hile Iraq is being exorcised from our debate, its reality is bound to obtrude on our consciousness. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will not alter the geostrategic importance of the country even as it alters that context.

Mesopotamia has been the strategic focal point of the region for millennia. Its resources affect countries far away. The dividing line between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds runs through its center -- indeed, through its capital. Iraq's Kurdish provinces rest uneasily between Turkey and Iran and indigenous adversaries within Iraq. It cannot be in the American interest to leave the region as a vacuum.
But Iraq has largely disappeared from policy debates in Washington. There are special envoys for every critical country in the region except Iraq, the country whose evolution will help determine how American relevance to the currents of the region will be judged. The Obama administration needs to find its voice to convey that Iraq continues to play a significant role in American strategy. Brief visits by high officials are useful as symbols. But of what? Operational continuity is needed in a strategic concept for a region over which the specter of Iran increasingly looms.
The outcome in Iraq will have profound consequences, above all, in Saudi Arabia, the key country in the Persian Gulf, as well as in the other Gulf states and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, financed by Iran, is already a Shiite state within the state. The United States therefore has an important stake in a moderate evolution of Iraq's domestic and foreign policies.
America needs to remain an active diplomatic player. Its presence must be perceived to have some purpose beyond withdrawal. An expression of political commitment to the region is needed.

Michael Young wrote last year about Obama's problematic approach in Iraq and the perils of the perception of an American vacuum. I have also touched on it in one of my pieces on Iraq:

As the United States, through its ongoing withdrawal, creates the perception of a growing vacuum, regional states are stepping in to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie. The lack of public attention paid in the US to the statements quoted earlier, and their implications, affirms how far Iraq has dropped in the American national consciousness. This can only be to the detriment of America’s interests and to those of its Iraqi ally.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Fallacy of the Hezbollah/IRA Analogy

Here's my piece today on the false analogy between Hezbollah and the IRA, often used to argue for "engagement" with Hezbollah and Hamas.