Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Let's Make a Deal," by Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan at Slate has written an excellent article explaining what it would take to make a deal with Syria. I have copied a bit of the article below. (Warning: he quotes me.) One of the important questions that weighs on all those pushing engagement is what Syria really wants. Here is a bit of Fred's article.

I also appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio for an half an hour interview, Thursday, September 14, 2006, about Syria. (Slide the bar to the second half hour).

Here is the Kaplan article:

Let's Make a Deal
It's time to talk to Syria.
Fred Kaplan
posted Sept. 15, 2006

It's a golden moment for a diplomatic overture to Syria.
This week's armed assault on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus should have shown Syrian President Bashar Assad that his country isn't as immune to the region's terrorism as he might have thought.

The Syrian security guards' successful repulsion of the attack and defense of the embassy should have shown President George W. Bush that the two countries might share some interests—and that the terrorist threat isn't as monolithic as he's made it appear in recent speeches.

The incident comes in the wake of the summer's disastrous war between Israel and Hezbollah, which should have shown all concerned that military power alone—even when unfurled by the once-invincible Israel Defense Forces—cannot resolve the region's political conflicts.

It's worth trying to strike a deal with Assad because: 1) He can be bought off (he's offered to be bought off before, on several occasions); 2) yanking him away from Iran will pull the rug out from under Iran; 3) getting him to temper his support of Hezbollah will defang Hezbollah.

But to buy off Assad requires buying him—giving him something in exchange for his switch. And that's something George W. Bush is loath to do.

An alliance with Iran gets Assad security, economic aid, and investment. Supplying arms to Hezbollah gets him leverage in Lebanon and street cred with Arabs. If he changes policies and does what Tony Snow wants him to do, what does he get in return?

Joshua Landis—whose blog, Syria Comment, is the most informative clearinghouse of analysis on the country—thinks that Assad wants better relations with the United States; that he turned to Iran in part because he needed to turn somewhere and had no alternative.

Assad is a secular leader, faces his own Islamist threats from within (as the embassy assault dramatized), and must wonder how durable his alliance with the mullahs of Iran might be. Even before George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, Assad tried to revitalize relations by offering the administration intelligence on Saddam's plans and forces—but he was rebuffed.

In other words, it's a big mistake to regard Syria as an implacable foe—much less to lump it along with the myriad regimes and movements (Iran, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, North Korea, and so on) that Bush views as a monolithic force of darkness in the global war on terrorism. (This Manichean view may be Bush's most unfortunate misconception. By not understanding the nature of his enemies, he cannot defeat them; and by failing to detect the fissures that divide them, he passes up opportunities to play them off against one another.)

What would Assad need to change his ways? Landis and others suggest a few incentives: a guarantee that neither the United States nor Israel would attack Syria; excision from the official list of nations that sponsor terrorism (a step that would permit aid and investment from the West); some liberty to flex political influence in Lebanon; and negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan Heights.

In exchange, Assad would have to earn Syria's removal from the terrorism list (that is, he would really have to stop sponsoring terrorism); he would have to stop funneling arms to Hezbollah and, instead, support Hezbollah strictly as a political party; and he would have to accept Israel's existence within the framework of a two-state accord with the Palestinians (which—though it's always dangerous to be optimistic about such things—a new, possibly unified, government in the Palestinian territories seems on the verge of doing).

This is a lot to bite off. It's not at all an appealing idea, whatever the trade-offs, to legitimize the resumption of Syrian influence in Lebanese politics or the stiffening of Hezbollah's political power. But those things are going to happen anyway. Should they happen with Syria in an alliance with Iran—or in a security arrangement that involves the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union?

We need allies to maintain influence and stability in the Middle East, and we hardly have any these days. It may be time to resume the practice of "realism" and build up some allies to help do our dealings, even if it means trading favors with the lesser and more malleable of evils.

Megan Stack of the L.A. Times quotes me in an article entitled, Syrians Foil Strike on U.S. Embassy. I like Megan Stack and she has written many good stories on Syria and Lebanon this past year; however, her editors must have cut a paragraph because it sounds like I support the notion that the Syrian government was behind the embassy bombing, which I explained to her was a silly notion. Here is how she quotes me:
But questions linger: Why have militants never struck Syria with the force and skill brought to bear against Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Is Syria given a pass by armed groups because of Assad's reputation as an anti-American figure?

"The speculation has been that the Assad regime has put people up to this," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who spent last year living in Damascus. "Are they in league? Have they cut a deal?"
David Schenker of WINEP and Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, are pushing this conspiracy theory. Tony said, "Every time the regime wants to show that it is embattled or that it shares the same enemy as the United States, there is an incident like this." This is spin - and then these guys claim Arabs always see conspiracy theories. Both these guys repeat ad naseum that Asad is a bumbler and hardly in control of Syria - then they describe him a superman who can manipulate every jihadist in Syria. If the 5 or 6 jihadist events in the last three years in Syria were all sham events, we must conclude that Syria has no jihadism or extremist presence working against the regime. This means that the other leaders of the Middle East are out of control and bumblers because they cannot police their countries as Bashar al-Asad can. We must conclude that they should all be taking lessons in leadership and in providing security in the countries from Asad.


At 9/16/2006 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Ameen Always said...

""" This means that the other leaders of the Middle East are out of control and bumblers because they cannot police their countries as Bashar al-Asad can. We must conclude that they should all be taking lessons in leadership and in providing security in the countries from Asad. """"

Funny. I laughed!!

At 9/16/2006 08:35:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

I know you've made a habit of intentionally misquoting and misrepresenting people, but do your homework for once and properly represent other people's views instead of lame straw men.

At 9/16/2006 08:38:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

Let me remind you of something you published on your blog:

"What is more, it was explained to me that Syrian Intelligence uses members of Jund Ash Sham from time to time for its own purposes. Syrian Intelligence deceives members of Jund Ash Sham into believing that Syrian Intelligence will assist them in carrying out terrorist acts in Iraq. Syrian Intelligence leads would be fighters into believing that the state authorities will help them to carry out martyrdom operations in Iraq. The authorities set up the unwitting Jihadists in houses far the city center in remote areas and supply them with weapons ostensibly for secret operations. Then the Syrian security forces surround the Jihadists swoop into the house and kill them. The security forces in triumph then trot journalists out to report on their success and the looming danger of terrorism in Syria.

I have been informed that the victims are indeed authentic Jihadists and Salafists, who hope to fight in Iraq. But the Syrian regime turns them to their own purposes to achieve two goals: first, they eliminate dangerous radical fundamentalists; second, they demonstrate to the world and especially to the United States that Syria is afflicted by terrorism just as America is. The implication is that Syria and the West must find common ground in the war on terrorism."

If you thinnk these are consiparcy theories, maybe you shouldn't publish them (but then again, if I keep track of how many things you've published/said and contradicted, we'd be here for a while).

At 9/16/2006 10:37:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

Mubarak in Ryadh,to discuss,Bramertz report,few days ago he went to Amman,whose king said relations with Syria are not good, I do not know if he will go to Syria, the future does not carry good news to bashar.

At 9/17/2006 12:51:00 AM, Blogger Frank said...


I think someone needs to think the remark about decoupling Damascus from teheran through.

There is a scenario where Iran becomes the regional superpower now that the US has blown it in Iraq.

I remember being told a couple of years ago that the bazaaris in Damascus are learning Persian.

What can the US offer Damascus that will draw them back to the losing side.

Negotiations (I omitted the word interminable) about the Golan won't do the trick. You can't negotiate with a country where nobody knows who will be running the government in six months time.

At present a comprehesive air defence system is probably the best motivator for Damascus.

At 9/17/2006 01:18:00 AM, Blogger Alex said...

ok, so we still have two choices:

1) The embassy attack, and the other similar attacks in the past 2 years, were orchestrated by the Moukhabarat:

Thereofore, Unlike the Americnas, the Saudis, the Egyptians ... The Syrians are the only ones who can perfectly control an Arab country. Maybe they should be trusted again to manage Lebanon's security? help in Iraq?

2) The syrians are victims of this genuine attack. No need to criticize them.

The second one is easier to digest, no?

At 9/17/2006 02:21:00 AM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

"The Syrian security guards' successful repulsion of the attack and defense of the embassy should have shown President George W. Bush that the two countries might share some interests—and that the terrorist threat isn't as monolithic as he's made it appear in recent speeches."

I can't believe that you dare to reproduce this.

During the cartoon crisis, you published on this blog a testimony saying that the mob who sacked the danish embassy was manipulated by mukhabarat agents.

"It didn’t take long for the entire square to be filled with thousands of demonstrators all yelling the same phrase, “Allahu Akbar.” As soon as I began taking pictures, the crowd circled around me all wanting to be photographed with their various posters, banners, and burnt Danish flags that were repeatedly thrown to the ground and stomped. What surprised me most were the men with hand-held radios directing the rioters."

At 9/17/2006 03:11:00 AM, Blogger Joe M said...

In reference to Kaplan, I don't think he has ever been right about anything, and i don't think he is starting now either.

First, what does he mean when he says the USA should "buy off Assad"? Does he think Syria will become another colony like Jordan, or is he just hoping that Syria will be neutral? It is a big difference. But by the tone of his language and judging from recent history, he expects Syria to become a puppet state like Jordan. examples of the language are "buy off" and "We need allies" and "Assad would have to EARN Syria's removal from the terrorism list." If that is what he believes, he is all wrong.

When I say, "judging from history", i mean that Syria has pretty much done everything it could to address the Washington's criticisms ( and not gotten anywhere. In my view, Syria is basically neutral to Washington already. It might make some speeches now and then against the USA, but it takes concrete steps to keep relations with the USA. Syria is obviously scared of the USA and I highly doubt that they will go very far in threatening the empire.

So, when Kaplan argues that the USA should "buy off" Syria, what is he talking about and what is he asking Syria to do? Well, it seems to me that he wants Syria to give up everything it stands for in exchange for a basically cold (though existing) relationship with Washington. He wants Syria to turn against its longest and strongest allies (Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas) in favor of supporting the USA unconditionally. and no country would do that, even strategically. But Syria is also ideological allies with these countries (the ideology being that of resistance). They have been allies with this group for a long time. And it is unbelievable to me that Syria would trade that to (as frank said above) join the losing side. and not only the losing side, but the wrong side, the opposite side, they would have to basically admit that they have been wrong all these years. By going against their allies, it stands in direct opposition to the facts, because Syria's positions on these issues has actually been right. Hamas won elections, Hizbullah defended itself from Israel, Iran won the war with Iran, Saddam is gone now, the war against Iraq was a total mess as they thought... Why would they throw away their only card (being on the side of justice in the arab world) for an untrustworthy relationship with the USA?

But I guess Kaplan's article was focused the USA, not Syria (even though he talked all about Syria). He was basically saying that he thinks the USA should lighten up on Syria. I agree with that, but he is not proving his point by making unreasonable demands on Syria. This, too, is where he shows that he is just another right-wing warmonger. He is so blind to any other perspective then the standard American view that he just assumes everything works the way he wants it to. He thinks Syria is so one-dimensional that all you have to do is encourage Israel to talk to them about Golan, and Syria will become the next Jordan. his analysis is wrong, and concerning the likelihood, well.... fat chance.

At 9/17/2006 08:20:00 AM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

the psychological pressure on Bashar is intensified,however,Bramertz report will be put in the drawer for two more months, to keep the pressure.

At 9/17/2006 10:16:00 AM, Blogger BP said...

At 9/17/2006 01:01:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

We Syrians are led to believe that once we get the Golan back, all our problems will go away. Our country’s economy will boom. Our civil rights will be restored. The rest of the region and the world will watch with envy our miraculous progress.

Regrettably, what is likely to happen instead is that Mr. Makhlouf and Co. will grab a new business opportunity to build a nice 5-star resort on our newly returned land. In the ensuing days and months after this historic return of our infamous Golan, 19 million of our people are likely to resume their struggle to put bread on their family’s table.

At 9/17/2006 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Idaf said...

I wonder why all the "let's bomb Syria" neo-con Lebanese suddenly jumped back into this blog!

Anyway, the most interesting paragraph for me in Kaplan's article was this: "This is a lot to bite off. It's not at all an appealing idea, whatever the trade-offs, to legitimize the resumption of Syrian influence in Lebanese politics or the stiffening of Hezbollah's political power. But those things are going to happen anyway. Should they happen with Syria in an alliance with Iran—or in a security arrangement that involves the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union?

I agree with Kaplan that this seemingly is going to happen anyway. I'm betting that Mr. Brammertz's upcoming report would be more focused on Al-Qaida's role in the assassination. Two reasons for my assumption:

1- This is something that t_desco usually posts, but here goes.. Two days ago, the former interior minister Suleiman Franjieh said in a TV interview that the 13 Al-Qaida suspects held by Lebanese security forces HAVE CONFESSED of plotting to kill Hariri and working with Abu-Adas. The newly formed Information Branch of the Lebanese security (which was formed specifically for investigating in the Hariri assassination under direct political influence from Saad Hariri) have admitted of torturing them. Franjieh said in the interview that he personally spoke to the head of the branch asking him about this confession and the response that he got was that “it is not credible as the confession was made under torture”! The head of the branch also admitted that the suspects have admitted that they sneaked Abu Adas into Syria through the normal border point with Syria (the records of the Lebanese border point). When asked was why did the Syrians not smuggle him in through the "military line" back then, the answer was that he was sneaked into Al-Qaida stronghold! Hence the growing insistence now that the Syrian authorities control Al-Qaida! Personally, I think that this is pathetic. Franjieh continued with a bombshell: “The 14 February group has refused to allow the Brammertz team to meet with the 13 suspects so far!!!”

2- Saudi and Egypt seam to have decided to reach back to Syria. The Syrian information minister has visited Saudi a few days ago, met with his counterpart and gave a very friendly press conference in Saudi. Mubarak has said recently that the relations with Syria would be always "brotherly" no matter what. Bilal (the Syrian information minister) has also given an interview to the very pro-Mubarak Al-Ahram (which previously attacked Assad after his famous speech). Furthermore, if anyone is following the Saudi media recently, he/she should have noticed since a week now that they have halted the attacks on Syria (read Al-Sahrq Al-Awsat and Al-Arabiya in the last week).

My interpretation is that the Saudis and the Egyptians have recieved information that Brammertz report is a bust (or maybe that it is re-focusing on Al-Qaida). If so then this might strengthen the pro-Syria political powers in Lebanon and they most likely will be back in power very soon (or at least join the government). I recently spoke to the head of a polling company in Lebanon (regularly commissioned by Zogby International) who said that their post-war polling showed that the so called March 14 group's popularity is in an all time low. Nasrallah tops the "national leader" poll followed by Antoine Aoun. Saniora comes fourth!

At 9/17/2006 02:27:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

Bashar was on the news looking very healthy, Al Seyaseh news were wrong

At 9/17/2006 03:28:00 PM, Blogger Joe M said...

No one i know says that solving Golan will make "all our[Syrian] problems will go away." And I have never heard a Syrian high official say that. Who lead you to believe that and how? regardless, Golan is a major problem of Syria, and it needs to be solved. The economy is also a major problem that needs to be solved. Obviously, you and I disagree on some points about how to solve the economy, but we also agree on some (basic ideas of openness). But, at the same time, it is true that being at a state of war with Israel and having so much conflict everywhere around them does not make it easy for Syria to become more open now. In many ways Golan has no effect (like, it does not prevent good corporate accounting practices), but in other ways it is hard. Also, I do think it is pretty clear that their positions on Golan, Israel, Iraq and Iran does harm their economy. They could give up those views in exchange for access to the global financial and trade systems, but this is something they can not do (as you know very well). In all honesty, these positions are pretty much the only reasons I like the Syrian government. I also know that I am not alone in this view.

Anyway, you might admire the model of Jordan (sell your people out, sell out the palestinians and the arab world, and suck wealth from all the war and conflict around you), but i do not. In many ways I admire Syria's positions, for all its problems, while i dispise Jordan's. Personally, I do think Golan is the major Syrian problem and do think they should work hardest to solve it. Like i said, they have many reforms to make, and not all are related to Golan, so It bothers me that they are not making these reforms too.

anyway, my point is that even you have to admit that these problem are not so simple. you might believe in "creative destruction" but that is not a policy, nor is it realistic. My problem with your typical analysis is that you are so focused on one vision of economic progress that you ignore other views and ignore other serious political problems that are intermixed. You seem to simply blow off these serious issues. By doing so you are not giving yourself the chance to make good policy or to advocate more positive positions.

At 9/17/2006 07:08:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Joe M

My economic analysis is indeed “typical”. It is also indeed merely focused on a single dimensional approach. I am not smart enough to analyze the so-called “other serious political problems that are intermixed”. I will leave these deeper topics for people like you and others to identify and help solve.

My vision and views of the world are more basic and black and white. Our country needs significantly stronger economic growth. This government and its economic policies have not been able deliver the goods. The demographics of our country are presenting us with challenges that are not being addressed. I don’t care about Jordan, Egypt or Norway for that matter. I care about Syria and where it is against where it should and can be. You admire “Syria’s positions”. Great. Good for you. Enjoy them and make the most of them while they are there. While you advocate more “positive” positions, please allow me to state my own “negative” and pessimistic outlook on where our country is heading.

At 9/17/2006 08:06:00 PM, Blogger Joe M said...

I am not preventing you from saying what you believe, i just challenge much of it. I encourage you to state your views, it is important to have these discussions and i value it.

My point is that you often sound like a perfect example of the old phrase, "when a hammer is all you have to solve problems, the first thing you do is go out looking for nails.."

I mean this because, for example, you often talk about how you want Syria to have deep reform (though, maybe it is more like revolution) and more solid economic growth, yet you disregard the fact that they have made significant changes that have born fruit in many ways. If i recall, some time ago Dr. Landis highlighted things like education reform that have improved the education system in Syria. Also, he highlighted an IMF report that was almost all praise (which i did read) for syria's economic progress. I do not think that these things are enough, but i don't blow them off as you do. I am very worried that you seem to believe that there is no reform that is useful unles it is total and absolute. I even get the impression that you would accept a major economic decline if it meant removing the current leadership (because you think, without strong evidence in my opinion, that no progress is possible without radical economic change). I simply disagree with your views.

I basically see Syria like i see China. you seem to see Syria like Russia in the 1990's. only Syria has not been given any independence to promote its economic and political agendas. I think Bashar is trying to change things for the better in many ways. In some ways i think he is going at it wrong, in other ways he is obviously doing nothing. But unlike you, I am not about to blow off the changes they are making as though they don't exist. Also, I am very worried about more instability in the region. not so worried that i believe in the emergency laws or anything like that, but enough so that i do provide them a little room to move. I would like them open up democratically. But even that, i would not encourage to be done all at once. Any one reformer could have looked at any small period in china over the last 30 years and said that they are not moving fast enough, that there were still 1000 things wrong with the country. but as a whole, their reforms seem to be the most successful political transition in history. Maybe the Syrians are not so good as the Chinese, the conditions they have to deal with are much harder then China's, but i feel like they are trying. But my impression of your views is that you want Syria to go through something similar to the end of the Soviet Union in Russia. but that was a true disaster. tens of millions of people were plunged into very deep poverty, their mortality rates dropped like crazy, their life spans shortened by nearly 10 years. Those who were advocating massive change got that for some time, but even now things seem to be regressing back toward soviet days. I am obviously putting words in you rmouth by claiming this as your model, but if it is, i think you are encouraging disaster.

Anyway, i know you know my views. I pick these fights because you are one of the most prominent on this blog who calls for radical change in Syria. I agree that there is a need for radical change, but not absolutely as you do. I feel that if decisions like the ones your generally advocate were to be carried out, the results would be more poverty, more conflict and more suffering for the average Syrian. And at the same time, they would be giving up the only things that they have that deserve respect. I, for one, would be calling for the overthrow of the type of regime that you generally advocate (excluding Islamists, right-wing economic reform, complete purge of the existing political establishments...). It bothers me because i agree with you in many respects, but can't stand to see how far you take it. Also, you abandonment of important things like traditional Arab solidarity in favor of pure economic wealth. for my money, your philosophy is more dangerous to the Syrian people then Bashar's. anyway, i am just talking. feel free to engage me.

and, i also admit to putting words in your mouth by claiming you saw Jordan as a model. though that does seem to be the case by your analysis, i obviously don't claim to know.

At 9/18/2006 03:41:00 PM, Blogger Joe M said...

i just want to add that i just realized that i confused robert kaplan and fred kaplan. I do not know who fred kaplan is, but think robert kaplan is an idiot. I still hold to my argument about why this article was not very good, but i was confused by who wrote it...

At 2/20/2008 12:04:00 AM, Blogger Alex said...

In the changing political scenario in world, international community need to concentrate on formation of allies to maintain influence and stability in the Middle East, which is rare these days. It may work to resume the practice of "realism" and build up some allies to help do our dealings, even if it means trading favors with the lesser and more malleable of evils.


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