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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Syria is the Only Game in Town by Joshua Landis

SYRIA COMMENT

12/23/08

Syria is the Only Game in Town

Joshua Landis

Syria is the only game in town for those wishing to advance peace between Arabs and Israel. This has the Jewish right apoplectic. Danielle Pletka who worked under John Bolton in the State Department tries sarcasm and insults in her "The Syrian Strategy" to embarrass those who would advance this strategy.

Barry Rubin, publisher of MERIA journal and author of The Truth About Syria gathered several Washington Institute types such as Patrick Clawson and David Schenker and other likeminded policy types to tell Americans that they are foolish to negotiate with Syria and Iran. Equally foolish is to try to make peace between Arabs and Jews or to withdraw from Iraq anytime soon. Rubin knowingly asserts that Obama's "belief, that [America] can make friends with Iran and Syria, soothe grievances that have caused Islamism and terrorism, and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict …. is a miscalculation about the Middle East."

Americans perennially make the mistake of viewing the Middle East "in Western terms," Rubin informs us, which leads "to frustration and even disaster." Why? Because "You have to inspire fear in your enemies." "Unfortunately, the change they want means wiping other states off the map."

This "good versus evil" world view is repeated by the other participants of this round table, who seem to be nodding at each other in their desire to sound the toxin of existential extinction should the new administration lift its foot off the throat of its Arab and Persian enemies. The US's only choice is to keep its many enemies in the region in a state of abject fear.

David Schenker explains that Bush viewed Bashar al-Assad as "basically as irredeemable." Schenker basically agrees. He worries that "Obama appears to believe that Syria can play a more productive role in the region." To Schenker's chagrin, even "Dennis Ross, himself who is being mentioned as the possible Middle East coordinator has written that Assad should be tested." Dennis Ross is The Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow. David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

Schenker concedes that if Syria were to flip, and cut its relations with Iran and "jettison Hizballah and Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups and move into the Western camp," it would be a good thing. Like, Barry Rubin, Schenker clearly does not expect Syria to do any such thing. To guard against the Golan being given away for what he seems to believe will be nothing, Schenker will have to police the Obama administration and encourage it to make many up front demands for change.

He and his colleagues will work assiduously to hang all kinds of Christmas balls and bobbles on the engagement tree, such that it is hard to imagine any progress or deal being struck. In order to protect her flank from such criticism, Israel's foreign minister Livni reassured Israelis that she would be tough and not accept a "humus" peace. She said,

"What is important to us is not a peace of opening embassies and eating Humus in Damascus, but the halting of arms smuggling through Syria to Hezbollah, their strong ties to Iran and their endless support of terrorist organizations such as Hamas," said the foreign minister.

Olmert has defended his drive to continue negotiations:

Referring to the ongoing indirect talks, Olmert said "the talks with Syria were thorough and important. Removing Syria from the radical axis is one of Israel's top priorities.""Tough sacrifices will be required," Olmert said, "but the prevention of lost lives is worth it. Syria is not interested in belonging to the axis of evil and wants to forge ties with the U.S."

For his part, Bashar al-Assad also has demands and wants to tamp down expectations that he flip. He wants Israelis to agree on the exact 1967 Golan borders, (see: Assad seeks Israeli stance on Golan) so that the two sides will not get stuck in Geneva as they did in 2000 with very different expectations about borders. Assad also told European diplomats that he isn't responsible for restraining Hezbollah, and won't be "Israel's bodyguard."

Syrian President Bashar Assad has told a number of European foreign ministers and senior diplomats this month that he would not lift a finger to restrain Hezbollah's arming in Lebanon. "I am not Israel's bodyguard," he reportedly said…. On the one hand, the officials said their impression was that the Syrian president was serious about negotiations, but that Assad's positions remained uncompromising.

The source said Assad told the Europeans that Syria was willing to take significant steps in talks with Israel only after an Israeli declaration that it would withdraw from the entire Golan Heights.

Assad refuses to make concessions before he gets guarantees about withdrawal. Israel will also refuse to make concessions until it has guarantees.

Another topic that will be interesting to those of us that follow Syria closely is David Schenker's successful enticement of Andrew Tabler to work for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Andrew Tabler will give the Institute's Program on Arab Politics some real expertise on Syria. As WINEP's site explains, "Andrew Tabler …. will focus on how to engage Syria in a way that best advances U.S. interests."

Anyone who follows Syria will know Tabler for his long and founding association with "Syria Today," Syria's first English language magazine. He has been a powerful and creative presence in the expat scene in Damascus for almost eight years. This is how Tabler describes himself for WINEP's bio:

A journalist and researcher, Mr. Tabler has achieved unparalleled qualitative and long-term access to Bashar al-Assad's Syria. He is the cofounder and former editor-in-chief of Syria Today, Syria's first private-sector English-language magazine, and has been a media consultant for Syrian nongovernmental organizations (2003-2004) under the patronage of Syrian first lady Asma al-Asad.

Lebanon Now carries a lengthy interview with Tabler as he prepared to leave Beirut, where he has lived half the time.

On the surface, we're [American and Syria] very, very similar. But there are fundamental differences. The Arab world is badly ruled. Its rulers are not accountable to their people, and they often make very bad decisions. Because of that, people keep a lot of their personal feelings to themselves. When you get a chance to know people and find out about how they feel, you realize about their everyday frustrations, especially from the lack of reform. It's not just a lack of democracy. It's a lack of reform in these countries. …

There are many people in Washington right now that believe that Syria can be flipped and so on, and that by getting Syria to agree to sign a peace agreement with Israel is the key. It's true, that if you had a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, it would definitely change the way Syria is regarded by the international community [and] would definitely change the way the regime would govern the country. But there is no silver bullet when it comes to Syria. There is no easy solution. ….

[The Obama people] have indicated they will use sanctions and other punitive measures to cajole their adversaries into cooperation. I expect the Obama administration… to use all the arrows into America's quiver to bring Syria around…. I was the only foreign correspondent to ever travel with the Syrian president on a foreign state visit (China, 2004), and so I understand… [Syria's] strengths and weaknesses. I want to try and make it so that whatever discussions come about are based on Syria as it is as well as what it could realistically be.

What do you think of Syria's role in Lebanon?

I just think it's important to not go back to the way things were in the 1990s. The 1990s for some people was an era of stability. For other people, especially in Lebanon, it was a nightmare. So it's very important for US policymakers… [and] people who work on Syria in general to make sure that the US says very clearly to Syria that whatever happens, we can't go back to the way things were in the 1990s. It's not good for Lebanon, and it's not good for Syria. … I don't think [Obama's] advisors are na├»ve. I don't think they'll be handing Lebanon back to Syria like in the 1990s. That was the historical exception. This isn't going to happen again. It shouldn't happen again because the first time, it didn't work out very well. Also, perhaps most importantly here, this would also not be very good for Syria. During those years that Syria was in Lebanon and controlled Lebanon, they used Lebanon as the economic lung that stifled economic reform at home. Syria has to reform in order to accommodate the globalization. I recently attended a conference where Obama and McCain's senior foreign policy advisors spoke in detail. I found Obama's advisors very well-informed. We'll have to see, but I'm optimistic.

I must say that I was a bit surprised to hear that Tabler was successfully recruited by WINEP. Some critics argue that the Institute acts as a quasi arm of the pro-Israel lobby. All the same, it does make sense in that it is the most influential Washington think tank on things Middle Eastern, in particular on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Martin Indyk helped to found it and Dennis Ross has hangs his hat there when he isn't working for the president. What is more, precious few think tanks would hire a Syria specialist, so it is quite possible that Tabler had few choices. It is hard to think of a pro-Arab think tank in Washington that supports fellows - certainly not one that would hire a scholar for his knowledge of Syria. Unlike Jewish-Americans, Syrian-Americans don't give money to think tanks, perhaps for the reasons that Tabler outlined in his interview.

As Tabler says, he is the "only foreign correspondent to ever travel with the Syrian president on a foreign state visit (China, 2004), so I imagine that someone in Syria is catching hell for his choice of employer after eight years in Damascus.

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