Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Engaging Syria – Opportunity or Ambush?

The following is a bullet-point summary of my recent presentation at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The "other side," so to speak was represented by my favorite sparring partner Joshua Landis.

* Just as is case with military engagement, political engagement has its rules. The following is one such rule: when dealing with corrupt authoritarian regimes, especially when they seem to have some ideological motivation, no matter how minimal, you do not give more than you take, lest you end up creating a problem in the future that is bigger than the one you were trying to resolve.

* The fact that Syria and Iran are important and vital in the region does not necessarily mean that the regimes are engageable or that the rules of the proposed political engagement are practical and conducive to the desired results: peace and stability in the region, and some tangible progress in the Global War on Terror, as this latter seems to set the overall context for the current US intervention in the region and the entire democracy drive.

* Those who speak in favor of engaging the Assads tend to posit them as national leaders, but, while one can make a somewhat credible argument for Hafiz al-Assad as having been a national leader, for all his glaring faults and shortcomings, Bashar & Co. seem more motivated by personal greed and power-lust than they are by national considerations. No, this is not meant to say that the Assads are completely devoid of national convictions and interests, but they often tend to confuse these interests with their personal, family and to a lesser extant, communal interests, often erring on the side of the purely parochial and personal.

* Those who argue for engaging of the Assads seem always willing to concede to them, even before any talks have taken place, not only the Golan, but also Lebanon, parts of Iraq and the Palestinian territories to the direct or indirect control of the Assads. But, it is not clear at all why it is in the US interest to concede so much to a corrupt and authoritarian regime that has made a business of defying the US for decades now? How can such concessions make the Assads less willing to defy the US? And what guarantees are there that the Assads will not mismanage the affairs of their “acquired” realm, and not grow more ambitious and problematic in the future?

* The callousness with which the Hariri Investigation is treated by engagement-advocates is really remarkable here, as they all seem to be quite comfortable with the idea of undermining an international legal proceeding. How can states in this region be expected to respect each other’s boundaries and sovereignty when the international community seems always willing to cave in to the demands and the blackmail and extortion tactics of the more thuggish and rogue elements? We want the states of this region, Israel included, to conform to agreed international norms and conventions, not international norms to conform to the regional and local penchant for cruelty and lawlessness. The insistence on holding this region accountable to a different and ethically inferior set of rules will only serve to perpetuate these rules.

What is even more callous in this regard is the unwillingness to consider the potential impact of killing the Hariri Investigation, and so soon after the killing of Hariri himself, on Lebanon. Such development will likely pave the way for the eventual implosion of Lebanon and will leave Hezbollah virtually in control of Lebanon. How are US interests served by this, and how are the prospects of regional peace and stability served by an imploding Lebanon, or one that is under the control of an Islamist organization?

* The above points should be taken in conjunction with certain hard-to-neglect-yet-somehow-always-neglected developments that have taken place over the last few years, namely: the recent removal of two main traditional rivals of Iran from the scene, namely: the Taliban and Saddam regimes. As such, the confrontational approach of the current administration have served to prop up the Iranian regime. Now now engagement-advocates are suggesting that we prop up the Assads regime and Hezbollah, Iran’s main regional allies. Considering all this, one cannot but wonder in this regard: are Americans policymakers actively and purposefully engaged in an attempt to recreate the Persian Empire, or are they just diehard masochistic morons?

* Engagement advocates speak of engagement as if it were a simple mechanical task. They forget that engagement has been tried before and failed, not only during the reign of Hafiz al-Assad, but even under Bashar, as negotiations related to the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, an all-carrots agreement in essence, dragged on for more three years, having been stalled under his father for five. Then, and as a result of Bashar’s confrontational stance vis-à-vis the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration pressured the EU to add a special clause to the agreement concerning the banning of all WMDs. This put an effective end to the negotiations at the time.

Why did the talks drag on for so many years on such a clear-cut agreement? Because implementing the economic reforms necessitated by the agreement would have impinged on the interest of the ruling elite and would have opened the system, both politically and economically, at a much faster pace than the Assads, the control freaks that they are, would have been comfortable with.

In the same vein, peace talks, once started, are also likely to drag on and on, regardless of any initial promises, commitments and assurances made
. This will give the Assads and their Iranian backers enough time to wait for the breaking up of the existing international coalition against them seeing that the Russians and Chinese are already not on board, that the Europeans are of 25-30 minds about anything and everything, and that the Americans are of two minds, sometimes equally unenlightened. On the other side, you have two dictatorial regimes who discuss their strategies and tactics behind closed doors, not in open think tanks and weblogs.

* Can the Assads be useful in the Global War on Terror? Considering that one of the main handicaps of the Assads regime is its essentially minoritarian sectarian character, its ability for undertaking secular reforms has always been undercut. Indeed, and despite, if not because of, the showdown with the Islamists, among other oppositional groups, in the late 70s and early 80s, the regime was forced to develop a dual containment strategy with regard to the country’s Islamists and majority Sunni community in general.

With regard to social and educational issues, regime policies straddled the well-defined traditional lines of Sunni doctrine and sharia law and encouraged their dissemination all over the country, using the country’s obligatory religious studies curriculum and allowing for the establishment of public schools that emphasized religious education and Qur’an memorization.

But, with regard to the more politically active currents, the regime encouraged the adoption of a special arrangement that allowed Islamist terrorist organization to use the country as an operational base and safe-haven while executing its actual operations abroad, often in congruence with certain perceived interest of the regimes (the regime employed the services of secular nationalists Palestinian grounds in this regard as well). In other words, the Assads exported their Islamist problem. Seeing that they have recently fallen on this habit with regard to the situation in Iraq, there is every reason to believe that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, even if engagement-advocates granted them everything they wanted. The Assads’ perception of their Islamist threat is always alarmingly high because the whole development is seen through a purely sectarian prism. As such, the Assads’ actual role in the Global War on Terror is extremely negative, since their preferred method for combating terrorism is to export it, and make it somebody else’s problem, preferably the United States.

* Conclusion: taking all of the above points under consideration, it become clear that the current proposals for engaging the Assads will fall far short of achieving the desired objective, and could indeed easily backfire. For all the proposals seem to violate the spirit and letter of the main rule of political engagement highlighted above, as they tend to give far in excess of what they could take. They will save the Assads, dust them off and prep them up as a new and quite dangerous regional powerhouse, which along with its close and recently empowered allies the Iranians and Hezbollah, can pose tremendous threats for US interests and for the prospects of regional stability and peace. Moreover, and rather than constituting some tangible progress in the Global War on Terror, engaging the Assads is likely to make the problem worse, for in the battle of perceptions, engaging the Assads will be viewed as a reversal of an all-but declared policy of regime change on part of the US, not to mention France, and this could only further encourage and empower the terrorists.

* Recommendations: if engage we must, engagement should be done within the context of an overall regional approach that will not leave much room for spoilers and will not ignore the issues of international legality and legitimacy as it pertains to the full implementation of all relevant UN resolutions, including those related to Israel, and/or the need for serious political and economic reforms in most if not all states involved. Representatives of opposition movements, civil society, democracy and human rights activists as well as public intellectuals should be included in the talks as counterweight to the regimes and to make the real interests and concerns of the peoples of the region truly represented. Haphazard approaches aimed at satisfying the needs of only one party without much thought for the potential internal or regional ramifications will backfire. The mere public consideration of such approaches is already having a negative effect on the region and serving to embolden the stances of rogue actors and regimes, the Assads a case in point.