Friday, July 28, 2006

Friedman and Lesch Argue for US Engagement With Syria

Both Thomas Friedman and David Lesch explain why the US must talk to Syria and try to enlist it as a stabalizing force in the region, rather than as a provocateur. I have copied both opinion pieces in full. Many others have argued the same thing - including EDWARD N. LUTTWAK writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Come Back, Bashar." He concludes:

For France, the U.S. and the U.K., it would, of course, be tremendously embarrassing to recognize that they made a gigantic error in expelling Syria without having put anything its place, thus leaving a vacuum of power in Lebanon that Hezbollah has exploited. But unlike the military option, which is simply impossible, the diplomatic option is merely humiliating. Having massacred their own Islamists very efficiently, the Syrians can do the job again, if sufficiently rewarded.

“Talking Turkey With Syria”
New York Times, Op-Ed
Damascus, Syria

One wonders what planet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed from, thinking she can build an international force to take charge in south Lebanon without going to Damascus and trying to bring the Syrians on board.

Two Syrian officials made no bones about it when I asked their reaction to deploying such a force, without Syrian backing: Do you remember what happened in 1983, each asked, when the Reagan administration tried to impose an Israeli-designed treaty on Lebanon against Syria's will?

I was there, I remember quite well: Hezbollah, no doubt backed by Syria or Iran, debuted its skills for the world by blowing up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping battalions. This is not a knitting circle here.

Can we get the Syrians on board? Can we split Damascus from Tehran? My
conversations here suggest it would be very hard, but worth a shot. It is the most important strategic play we could make, because Syria is the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. But it would take a high-level, rational dialogue.

Dr. Rice says we can deal with Syria through normal diplomatic channels. Really?

We've withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus, and the U.S. diplomats left here are allowed to meet only the Foreign Ministry's director of protocol, whose main job is to ask how you like your Turkish coffee. Syria's ambassador in Washington is similarly isolated.

Is this Syrian regime brutal and ruthless? You bet it is. If the Bush team wants to go to war with Syria, I get that. But the U.S. boycott of Syria is not intimidating Damascus. (Its economy is still growing, thanks to high oil prices.) So we're left with the worst of all worlds ? a hostile Syria that is not afraid of us.

We need to get real on Lebanon. Hezbollah made a reckless mistake in
provoking Israel. Shame on Hezbollah for bringing this disaster upon Lebanon by embedding its "heroic" forces amid civilians. I understand Israel's vital need to degrade Hezbollah's rocket network. But Hezbollah's militia, which represents 40 percent of Lebanon, the Shiites, can't be wiped out at a price that Israel, or America's Arab allies, can sustain? if at all.

You can't go into an office in the Arab world today without finding an Arab TV station featuring the daily carnage in Lebanon. It's now the Muzak of the Arab world, and it is toxic for us and our Arab friends.

Despite Hezbollah's bravado, Israel has hurt it and its supporters badly, in a way they will never forget. Point made. It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal ? a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force to help the Lebanese Army secure the border with Israel? before things spin out of control. Whoever goes for a knockout blow will knock themselves out instead.

Will Syria play? Syrians will tell you that their alliance with Tehran is "a marriage of convenience." Syria is a largely secular country, with a Sunni majority. Its leadership is not comfortable with Iranian Shiite ayatollahs.
The Iranians know that, which is why "they keep sending high officials here every few weeks to check on the relationship," a diplomat said.

So uncomfortable are many Syrian Sunnis with the Iran relationship that
President Bashar al-Assad has had to allow a surge of Sunni religiosity; last April, a bigger public display was made of Muhammad's birthday than the Syrian Baath Party's anniversary, which had never happened before.

Syrian officials stress that they formed their alliance with Iran because they felt they had no other option. One top Syrian official said the door with the U.S. was "not closed from Damascus. [But] when you have only one friend, you stay with him all the time. When you have 10 friends, you stay with each one of them."

What do the Syrians want? They say: respect for their security interests in Lebanon and a resumption of negotiations over the Golan. Syria is also providing support for the Sunni Baathists in Iraq. Much as the Bush team wants to, it can't fight everyone at once and get where it needs to go. There will not be a peace force in south Lebanon unless it's backed by Syria. No one will send troops.

I repeat: I don't know if Syria can be brought around, and we certainly can't do it at Lebanon's expense. But you have to try, with real sticks and real carrots. Syria is not going to calm things in Lebanon, or Iraq, just so the Bush team can then focus on regime change in Damascus.

As one diplomat here put it to me, "Turkeys don't vote for Thanksgiving."

Try Talking With Syria
Assad Isn't Going Away
By David W. Lesch
Washington Post, Op-Ed
Thursday, July 27, 2006; Page A25

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a lonely man in international circles of late. Indeed, one of the few Americans with whom he has had contact in the past few years has been a professor (me) who wrote a book about him -- not exactly high-powered diplomacy.

Assad was a tremendous disappointment to many U.S. officials after a promising beginning when he came to power in 2000. Considering the dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited, however, the expectations were misplaced. And because they were so high, so was the level of disappointment.

Along with accusations of Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, Washington began to view Assad as being on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. Indeed, with Syria's neo-patrimonial structure staring down the Bush administration's attempt to spread democracy in the region, the regime was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Thus the long-held disdain among American neoconservatives for the Assads (Bashar and his late father, Hafez) became Bush administration policy, along with the strategic goal of weakening Syria. The young Syrian leader was dismissed as an inept buffoon who wasn't really in control. Regime change in Damascus became U.S. policy in all but name, especially after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in early 2005, in which Syria was seen as the culprit. The Syrian president couldn't even obtain a visa to attend a U.N. General Assembly summit meeting.

Assad has confounded the critics, though. He has survived, despite a few glaring missteps. And it has to be acknowledged by now that one doesn't last six years as president of Syria without being at least somewhat clever, politically skilled and strong-willed.

In fact, Assad is more securely in power and more confident in his leadership today than he has ever been -- although perhaps, as recent events have shown, maybe a bit overconfident. He has weeded out most of the "old guard" from his father's reign, and he funneled the international pressure related to the Hariri assassination and subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon into a nationalistic response that has coalesced in support of the regime.

From Assad's point of view, the United States is stuck in a quagmire in Iraq. It is also deeply concerned about Iran. Meanwhile, President Bush's democracy promotion has hit a brick wall. But Assad continues to talk to practically no one from a Western government.

There are many reasons for the current crisis in the Middle East. It is largely the result of American weakness and perceived illegitimacy, stemming from U.S. folly in Iraq, which has allowed state and sub-state actors to assert themselves.

From Syria's perspective, the crisis is seen as a search for relevance. Damascus needs at least a few arrows in what has been an empty quiver of diplomatic leverage. Assad wants to be taken seriously. He believes the sincere overtures he made to the United States and even Israel in his first few years in power were categorically rebuffed -- and in fact they were. After all, he was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Once before, an Arab leader felt rebuffed in much the same way. That was in 1973, and the leader was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He launched an Arab-Israeli war to reactivate diplomacy and improve his bargaining position with regard to return of the Sinai Peninsula. The United States was smart enough to recognize these motives at the time, and it engaged in a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Leaders reach out in interesting, and occasionally lethal, ways. The Bush administration should not, however, react to the current situation by continuing to isolate and threaten Syria. Recognize the situation for what it is, because, like it or not, Bashar al-Assad is sticking around. Just because diplomacy is what he is ultimately searching for should not obviate the possibility of diplomacy.

In coming weeks, one hopes, the Syrian president will be talking with someone from the United States other than a professor who wrote a book about him.

The writer is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria."


At 7/28/2006 11:42:00 AM, Blogger 10452 said...

And ten times more people have argued for the opposite Landis. Please. I invite to read our friend from Across the Bay, who in general makes much more sense then you, maybe it might rub off on you.


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