This week's question | 2006-10-24

Will it be War or Peace in the Middle East?

Syrian American Relations / A Syrian Perspective

An open microphone at the G8 summit picked up an exchange between President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Looking disappointed and frustrated, President Bush said:

?See the irony is what they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this S**t and it's over... Felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone to Assad and make something happen?

Maybe the real irony is that these days a US president is not able to directly make a phone call to his Syrian counterpart. That call could have been instrumental in stopping the destructive Lebanon war. Instead, President Bush needed to convince the UN secretary general to make that call for him.

If anyone is wondering why Mr. Anan was hesitant at the time to make that call on behalf of the US president, it was perhaps because the UN diplomat was convinced that there was not much chance of success for a diplomatic effort that was supposed to somehow motivate the Syrians to do things in exchange for nothing but a mixture of more US threats, demands, and insults.

When asked why he is not talking yet to Syria, President Bush has one answer: ?Because they already know what they have to do?. This short sentence is laden with assumptions that need to be examined in order to understand why the Syrians are not cooperating as desired

1) Syrians ?respond well to pressure?

?Mideast experts? in the US administration reckon that the best, and only, way to deal with the Syrians is to put more and more pressure on them ?They only respond to pressure?. Ironically, what cemented this impression was Syria?s speedy and full compliance with UN resolution 1559 which demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon.

Pressure means among other things, to never praise the Syrians. After Syria?s prompt and orderly withdrawal from Lebanon, Washington?s reaction was: The Syrians did not fully comply with the resolution because ?they still have some influence in Lebanon?. Syria?s full cooperation with the CIA?s counter terrorism operations was stopped after much resistance from the Pentagon because ?Syria is not doing enough?. Syria?s cooperation in meeting Jordan?s demands in finalizing the border between the two countries was interpreted as ?The Syrians are weak?. President Bashar al-Assad?s repeated calls for peace negotiations with Israel generally got this type of feedback ?He is not serious about peace? now is not the time to talk to Syria?.

If Syria can expect more punishment in exchange for potential steps it might consider taking in order to please the Americans, what is the logical basis for this motivation technique?

2) Trust me, if you drop all your cards, I will see what I can do for you

Why should Syria drop all its cards in advance? Is it because it should trust the dependable and consistent American policies in the Middle East? Ask the Lebanese people if they believe the United States is still their friend. After the recent Israeli attack on their country, you will not get too many people to agree with this statement. Ask Egyptian democracy activists if the United States still supports their cause. They will remind you how President Hosni Mubarak?s son Gamal was pampered during his recent visit to Washington while Mubarak?s democratic opponent Ayman Noor is still in Egyptian jails on bogus charges.

If the United States often does not stand by its Arab friends, why should Syria, an alleged adversary, blindly trust the Americans, drop all its cards, and hope for the best?

3) Syria is making all kinds of mistakes, while the United States knows precisely what it is doing in the Middle East / Syria is very weak

To illustrate this point, here is how Dennis Ross evaluated the Syrian president?s comments on the future ramifications of the Iraq war disaster: ?When Bashar spoke about the situation in Iraq just prior to the war, his comments bordered on the hysterical. At one point, he noted that a disaster on par with the creation of the state of Israel and the British betrayal of the Arabs after World War I would befall the Arab world?

Today, there is a clear majority who call the Iraq war a failure, but it was Bashar, and only Bashar, who got it exactly right before it even started, at the risk of sounding ?hysterical? to American Mideast experts. The Iraq war has been, and continues to be, a disaster on a large scale.

Similarly, Back in 1980, Bashar?s father, the late Hafez Al-Assad, was also the only major Mideast leader to publicly oppose Saddam Hussein?s war with Iran. At the time, the United States, and all its Arab allies supported Saddam with weapons, money, and favorable media coverage. Assad Sr. was also portrayed as a trouble maker for his unique position of opposition to Saddam Hussein?s war with Iran.

Syria?s other alleged mistakes include hosting and politically supporting Hamas (which later won free elections in the Palestinian territories) and supporting Hizbollah (today the heroes of the Arab world, after their performance during Israel?s invasion of Lebanon).

Why should the Syrians follow the failed American strategy in the Middle East? Why should they feel weak or desperate? Contrary to the old popular belief in Washington, Syria is a regional power who proved consistently its wisdom in reading the Middle East.

4) Syria is on the side of evil, America is full of good intentions for the Middle East.

There is no question that the United States? democratic system is a far superior system to Syria?s present autocratic system of government. But the question is: In the Middle East today, who is acting more evil? The great democracy or the authoritarian Syria?

While the two democracies (the Good side), America and Israel, were busy starting wars in Iraq and Lebanon based on threats of questionable significance (WMDs and Hizbollah?s capture of two soldiers), while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and over 1,400 Lebanese civilians died, Syria was busy providing refuge and assistance to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Iraqi civilians escaping the killings in their countries. Syrian borders and homes were wide open to all those who wanted to seek safety and shelter.

The Syrian people who opened their homes to the Iraqi and Lebanese refugees do not think that their country is the one doing the evil part.

* * *

After all the stories which were produced in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, today we are again starting to hear a similar old tune: The Democracy-loving Syrian people are supposedly unanimous in their hate or rejection of their dictators. They are waiting for some sort of a coalition, perhaps an axis of "Arab moderates", such as the democratic and secular Saudi Arabia, in addition to the United States and Israel, to save them from the regime and to deliver to them the gift of instant democracy and prosperity. Yet, those who actually do visit and spend time in Syria, like the BBC?s John Simpson who interviewed the Syrian President recently, admit that Bahsar is ?genuinely very popular in both Syria and the wider Middle East?.

Syrian opposition umbrella group the National Salvation Front, which is led mainly by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and by former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, got the approval to open an office in Washington DC. The Saudi King met with Khaddam earlier this month and intends to meet with more Syrian ?opposition? figures.

If the above sounds similar to the general mood in the 80s, it is because it is no secret that President George W. Bush is a great admirer of the late President Ronald Reagan?s strategy for handling America?s opponents. Because Reagan did so well in his face-off with the USSR, this administration?s ?stay the course? strategy on Syria is a replica of what took place in the 80s.

Bush, just like Reagan, never visited Damascus and never met his Syrian counterpart. And just like former Secretary of State George Schultz? unsuccessful first attempts to convince the Syrians to behave or else, Colin Powell ? who was secretary of state during Bush?s first term in office - also gave up on the Syrians after one visit. Since then, American secretaries of state and other high ranking US officials continuously visited all the US allies in the area, but they boycotted Syria.

Opponents of engagement with the Syrian regime in Washington already tried all the possible options during the 80s. Boycotting Syria for a decade, economic sanctions, a gathering of America?s Arab allies against Damascus, military support for Syrian opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood?s violent campaign), Israeli invasion of Lebanon, intensely negative media campaign, there was even the Hindawi affair which was as effective as the Hariri assassination charges in getting Europe to side with the United States against Syria. Syria allegedly employed Hindawi to try to blow up an Israeli passenger airliner. Regardless if Syria had a hand in either one (no proof surfaced yet for either), the Hindawi and Hariri affairs both produced the same type of public relations damage for Syria.

Today, one of the ?new? tools for fighting the Syrian regime is to start to talk to representatives of the NSF. Yet, as Washington-based Syrian anti-regime figure Farid Ghadry learned; being associated with the United States these days is a guaranteed way to erase any goodwill one might have among the Syrian people. The harder the United States tries to empower Khaddam and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the more it will undermine any trace of legitimacy they might still have among the Syrian people.

As Syria and its numerous Lebanese allies continue to make gains at the expense of the quickly fading discredited pro-American Lebanese government, and as Syria continues to establish more strong relations with influential Iraqis (both Sunnis and Shiites), and as Syria continues to demonstrate that not much can be managed in the Palestinian territories without its direct involvement, it will become more difficult to avoid taking a clear decision on Syria. If this administration still cannot accept the idea of talking to Syria then what are the remaining confrontational options, how useful can they be, and how many Syrians or other civilians elsewhere in the Middle East will need to die as a result of the next decision/experiment?

Why can?t the mentality of the 90s prevail instead of continuing to follow the failed strategies of the 80s which produced nothing but conflicts? Ask Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush senior who came very close to a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why can?t we go back and finish the job in peace without all the negativity?

Why can?t the United States do what it does best - act as a true force of good? The whole world needs some peace and tranquility.

The key to Middle East peace is to finally come to terms with the fact that Syria is a secular regional power in the Middle East that can influence most of the hot conflicts in a very effective and constructive way.