Wednesday, November 23, 2005

All about Viable Friends & Nonviable Regimes!

Back in Syria, my friend Joshua Landis and I inadvertently managed to develop a nice double act of sorts. He would defend the continued viability of the Syrian regime and the necessity for maintaining dialogue with it, and I would go on castigating the regime and attempting to convince people of its nonviability and the futility of all efforts at dialogue with it.

Now, and having read the latest entry in Josh’s blog, I find myself itching to renew our sparring match. In fact, I found myself so infuriated by it, I was about to launch a couple of virtual jabs at my dear old friend Josh, when, lo and behold, my other dear old friend (and Josh’s) Tony Badran beat me to the punch (who else?) So, now it’s a ménage a trois, I guess.

The heart of Josh’s argument is summarized in the following passage:

“Iraq’s Kurdish President is keen on bringing the Syrians into the picture and enlisting their support. He has asked the government to stop anti-Syrian propaganda. Allawi is also campaigning for Syria’s help. These are America’s two closest Iraqi allies. Why not listen to them, rather than clip their wings? Use Syria to counterbalance Iran. Refusal to do this only forces Syria and Iran together. It makes western fears of a Shiite crescent in the region self-fulfilling. Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Although Bashar al-Asad is an Alawite and thus technically closer to Shi`i than Sunni Islam, he is above all secular and interested in preserving his regime and Syria’s position in the region. Harnessing these interests to US goals should be a priority.”

On the surface, the argument appears quite lucid and logical. Unfortunately, however, there are at least three major shortcomings that render the entire argument pretty useless. The first is the nature of the Syrian regime, the second is the omission of France’s role and interest in the situation, and the third is the ongoing UN probe into the Hariri assassination.

After close to five years in power, it should be clear by now that the upper ranks of the Syrian regime, including the presidency, and regardless of whether we are referring to the Old or New Guard, are quite swollen with what we can only describe as adventurist morons. That is, with people who, over the last five years, have consistently adopted policies that were completely ill-suited to the times at hand and to the changing geopolitical realities in the world an the region, not simply in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War, but also in the aftermath of 9/11 and the collapse of the peace process.

So many mistakes and miscalculations have been made, from bringing the Damascus Spring to an abrupt end in 2001 without showing any willingness to compromise, to changing the nature of the relationship with Hizbollah (transforming it a master-client relationship into a strategic alliance), to increasing support to radical Palestinian groups and allowing them to operate freely from bases in Damascus, to actively opposing the US invasion of Iraq and organizing the “popular resistance” to it, to insisting on blatantly dabbling in internal Lebanese affairs culminating with the Lahhoud extension affairs, to the current debacle concerning the ongoing probe into the Hariri assassination.

Who in his right mind will put any stock in establishing any rapport with this regime, especially when there has been no attempt so far at reinventing it and at introducing some promising new figures into the decision-making process?

If Bush is willing to risk it, simply because he can use all the help he can get in Iraq, I doubt Chirac will. For, let’s not forget here that France’s role in pushing for the isolation of the Syrian regime is no less central than that of the US, if not more so. Would the US turn its back on her newly (re)gained French allies for the sake of striking some sort of a deal with the Syrian regime?

Regardless of how one answers this question, it is clear that the French are no less interested in affecting a regime change in Syria than the US, and they too want to have it “on the cheap.” Josh’s contention tot the effect that it “is now clear that the US is not going to achieve regime-change in Syria – even the kind of cheap regime-change of the Qaddafi-deal variety,” represents a completely premature judgment. The policy is only few-months old and time is still very much on its side, especially considering the fact the regime leaders are bound to make even more mistakes and miscalculations along the way, this being second nature to them.

For its part, the Mehlis Investigation has a life of its own and could throw a major wrench into any attempt at deal-making at this stage. On December 15, Mehlis has to present his final report to the UN Security Council, and all he has to do at this stage is say that the Syrian regime has not cooperated with his investigation to make all the scenarios proposed by Josh completely meaningless.

The Syrian regime is dead. Time to stop beating on this dead horse and move on. Our efforts are better spent talking about how Syria’s opposition can be improved, and how the US, France and the international community at large could help in this. You cannot resurrect the Baath anymore, and you cannot safeguard Alawite interest by keeping the Alawite in control. The real challenge ahead is how to disentangle Alawite interests from those of the ruling clique, and how one can peacefully and effectively redraw Sunni-Alawi relations. Bashar & co. have clearly demonstrated that they do not have what it takes to accomplish this and, as such, they do not have what it take to prevent the country’s implosion and, as such, their stay in power, in fact, represents the worst case scenario for the future country and all its neighbors.


I have received a few comments regarding the entry concerning David Duke. Indeed, I should have put quotation marks around the title of “Former Senator.” For, false as this designation of Duke may be, this is how he was, in fact, introduced in Syrian and Arab press. There are still a lot of people who don’t know how to use Google, it seems.