Changing Course with Syria

By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir |  Visit his site

Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at The New School, and a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and at The New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University

The notion that the focus of the Middle-East conference is to reach an agreement in principle between Israel and the Palestinians, and so other conflicting parties, such as Syria, are marginal to the deliberation, is fundamentally flawed. The Bush administration must quickly reassess its position regarding Syria if it wishes to achieve even a modicum of success at the conference. There are several reasons that support this argument:

First, any agreement achieved between Fatah and Israel is only half an agreement even pursued fully, which is in itself extremely doubtful. No agreement can be fully implemented without Gaza an area populated by 1.5 million Palestinians over which Hamas is in full control. There is very little that Israel or the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas can do to bring Hamas to heed. Since Syria's direct and indirect support of Hamas is critical to the organization, Damascus can exercise substantial influence over whether Hamas recants or mounts even greater resistance to any agreement between Israel and the Fatah-led government.

Second, although there is no time for Israel and Syria to reach an agreement prior to the conference, the Syrian presence at the conference offers a golden opportunity to reach a mutual declaration of intent with Israel to achieve peace through negotiations. Both Israel and Syria have openly declared their willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations. The Bush administration has, therefore, an obligation to embrace what both nations seek and not allow its obsession with regime change in Damascus to torpedo a momentous opportunity to bring about quantum change in the Middle East. It is ironic that while both Israel and Syria want and need peace, it is the administration that is preventing Israel from entering into any substantive negotiations with Syria.Third, it is a given that for the conference to achieve even modest success, the participation of other Arab states and mustering the collective Arab will behind any emerging agreement is absolutely essential. Although the administration is fully cognizant of this fact, it has hardly deigned to pay lip service to the Arab initiative, which is the only document that expresses the Arab states' collective political will to establish a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which must include Syria. Only a united Arab position can modify the direction of Hamas and other extremist groups. And only the full-fledged participation of Saudi Arabia (as the original author of the Arab initiative) and Syria (as the most critical conflicting party, besides the Israelis and the Palestinians) will improve dramatically prospects for the conference's success, so necessary to building future progress.Fourth, Syria, as a major Arab state and a critical antagonist of Israel, cannot be treated as an adjunct to the conference where the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is being discussed. Although Syria was invited as part of the Arab League delegation, it is not likely to unless it is invited to attend on its own and given the opportunity to express its own grievances. From the Syrian perspective the current invitation is nothing more than a continuation of the administration's efforts to marginalize Damascus by portraying it as inconsequential to the region's future. The administration may wish this to be the case, but it is not. Syria has been, and continues to be, a major player for good or evil, depending on the prevailing geopolitical conditions and Damascus's threat perception to the present regime. There is no doubt that the administration can influence Damascus's future course of action but not to the detriment of the regime itself. America's conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, the turmoil in Lebanon, the level of instability in Iraq, Palestinian extremism, and Hezbollah's fortunes are all affected by what Syria does or does not do. This brings us to the fundamental question: Since the policy of regime change in Damascus, so vigorously pursued by the administration over the past six years, has by all accounts failed, is it not time to change such a counterproductive policy? All that the administration has been able to achieve is to push the regime in Damascus further and further into Iran's belly and to also force it to tighten control domestically. Syria is hardly foolish enough not to take American threats seriously, and thus has been compelled to take extraordinary measures, however unsavory some of these measures may be, to protect itself.
Regardless of the reality or the merits of American grievances against Syria, none can be settled by public recriminations and accusations. The agreement with North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program should be a telling lesson to the administration. Only when it conceded to the North Korean demand for face-to-face negotiations was an agreement finally hammered out with Pyongyang, an agreement which could have been achieved five years ago and certainly before North Korea got to the point of conducting an actual nuclear test.

Inviting Syria to the peace conference is not a reward to Damascus for its alleged mischievous behavior; it is a matter of real necessity dictated by the prevailing turmoil in the Middle East to which the Bush administration has contributed so largely. The Middle- East conference offers the Bush administration an opportunity to change course toward Syria without loosing face not to speak of preventing a colossal failure.

Comments (59)

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51. Bashmann said:


Reading your dissertation above now convinced me that you have Buthaina Sha’aban telephone number in your address book. You sound like a broken record I’ve heard from the government of Syria for the past 40 years. Your excuses for Bashars’ policies are simply miserable and frankly pathetic.

Let’s go over few things you state and discuss them from a point of view you might have deliberately ignored;

“If you think that since Bashar is “a dictator” and he can make his people accept any deal, you are wrong. Even Hafez consulted with all his aids before he approved anythig when he met with Kissinger (read Kissinger’s book).
Sadat and rabin were killed for their perceived weakness.”

Since when did the staff or any in the government of Syria had a say into what Hafez ordered or made a decision on in foreign policy? Are you kidding me!!! You must be deluding yourself. The late Assad word was sacred and went all the way down to the appointment of the smallest officer in the army. Not a cockroach can pass through the government hallways which Assad did not know about. Yes, Hafez Assad was the ONLY
man where the buck stop and your statement about Assad consulting his aids is a joke. If he did it is only to feel what they think but never to take their advise nor value it.
As for Sadat and Rabin getting “killed for their perceived weakness” is a gross incomprehension on your part. Many great other leaders were killed for their bravery in making tough and brave decisions, where they broke ranks with the mainstream popular sentiments and saw the distant future for the benefit of their countries. Remember Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. just to name few.

You also state;

“2) Bashar want economic progress in Syrai … he wants to build modern Syria. He believes his father spent his time fortifying the foundation … which was not visible to most observers.
Bashar wants to build the visible part … the fancy building.
In order to do so, it really helps if the Unite States is with you, not against you.”

How did Bashar’s father “fortified the foundation” in terms of economic progress?
Did he open up Syria for free market economy? Did he try to ally himself with capitalist nations in the West? Or was he busy maneuvering his enemies to establish the family rule for Basil and his grandkids.
Now as for your other statement about Bashar wanting to “Build the visible part” you never seem to run out of contradictory positions. Does Bashar want the US to be with him and against him in the same time? If you want to be a friend of the leader of the world you better listen and do what is mutually beneficial for both of you. Not pretend you are the center of the world and wants the US to come on its knees begging you to do the things they want. The world belongs to the victor and the most powerful, you either join them or stay out of their way. Our problem in Syria is “US”, we still think we are the center of the world.

Have you lived in Syria for the past 7 years? When Bashar inherited the chair from his father, he ordered all pictures of him to be removed from every shop or market corner. He still carried some of the West ideals with him at the time. Now, take a trip back to Damascus today, you will see his pictures all over the country, in Taxi windows and restaurants halls and fronts, in some corners he is portrayed with Naserallah, as the resistance duo, and you dare to come here and tell us all including IG and AIG that
Bashar is NOT interested into prolonging his grip on the chair?!! Who are you kidding!

Statements like these;

“If Bashar is only interested in his survival as your hypothesis suggests … then wouldn’t it be much easier for him to simply be America’s freind? … America will stop bothering him .. Saudi arabia will never support the Muslim brotherhood again … sarkozy will visit Damascus and stay a week in a small boutique hotle in old damscus … it will be wonderful for a president who is only after his own selfish goals.
If Bashar is not maximizing his own pleasure and interests then he wants the Golan.”

Contradicts every action Bashar has taken since he took over?
Yes, please explain to me what is stopping him from being America’s friend?
Would not that get him closer to his goals which you stated earlier of building a strong economy for Syria?
Who would not want to be America’s friend?
Do you think Israel would have reached where it is today had it not been for its good relations with America?
What harm would Bashar have done, had he listened to the demands of the US?
We all know the demands, stop meddling in the Lebanese affairs, stop the flow of the Jihadist’s into Iraq, stop supporting revisionists and radical elements such as HA and Hamas and respect human rights of your citizens.

Had Bashar listened to these demands would you not think Syria would have been in a better position today with International backing to open talks about the Golan?
Would you not think Syria could have gotten all the assistance they needed to help with the Iraqi refugee problem? You bet.
Would you not think Syria could have gotten all the monies from Saudia Arabia and other gulf regions states to help alleviate the economic burden on its infrastructure? You bet.
Would you not think Syria could have been removed from the list of countries supporting terrorism and improved its international image? You bet your life it would.
The benefits to such a strategy would have eclipsed any Arab nationalist stand he seemed to think he was making when he called the rest of the Arab leaders “half-men”.

If you put these same questions to every Syrian on the street, are you ready to make me a bet that the answer would be “We would rather be friends with the US and Saudia Arabia, than Iran and HA”

Bashar created his own nightmare ‘cause of the lack of political vision and insight on his part. No one pushed him to make those foolish decisions. No one told him to tell Rafik Harriri to “stay out of the Lebanese elections or I’ll turn Lebanon upside down on your head”

Bashar is on a power trip, he reminds me of Citizen Kane and idealist that had been corrupted by power.

Alex, stop your propagandist apologies and tell the truth for once.


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October 12th, 2007, 4:46 pm


52. Nour said:


If Alex has Buthaina Shaaban’s number in his phone book, then you must have Dick Cheney’s number in yours. It’s amazing how you oversimplify the situation into one where Assad should have merely “listened” to the US and everything would have been fine and dandy. Please, let’s get back to reality.

Do you really think the US cares in the least bit about Lebanon and its so-called “democracy”? The US has only one interest in mind; that of Israel’s. The US is not pressuring Syria because it wants Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon, or because they want to turn Syria into a fledgling democracy. It is pressuring Syria because they want Syria to capitulate, accept Israeli hegemony over the region, and give up all stands protecting its interests. This is nonsense.

Again, as Alex has stated, it would have been much easier for Assad, from a selfish viewpoint, to take the Mubarak and King Abdallah route and become a tool of the US. The US would have praised him, called him a man of vision and peace, visited him in Damascus and invited him to Washington, etc. The US would also have assured the protection of the regime and fought anyone attempting to bring about a change in Syria. This is the reality of the situation.

So, from a selfish viewpoint, why in the world would Assad not submit to American demands? Why would he risk the survival of the regime by opposing US dominance of the region and insisting on the full return of the entire Golan? Why would he support the resistance in Lebanon against Israel, when he could have easily gained US backing by putting a stop to all opposition to Israel? You have not provided any valid answers to such questions.

No one is denying that Syria is ruled by a dictatorship, but to suggest that if only Assad obeyed the US then everything would have been rosy is rididculous. The US could not possibly care less about the interest of the Syrian or Lebanese people. They care about advancing certain interests that have nothing to do with the well-being of the people there. In addition, the US will NEVER allow any country there to become more than a consumer society dependent on the US and Israel for goods. So the minute you take a position of trying to advance your country industrially, technologically, and scientifically, be sure that you will face the wrath of the US and you will again be accused of supporting terror, building weapons of mass destruction, any other accusation the can concoct to justify an aggressive position against you.

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October 12th, 2007, 5:16 pm


53. Alex said:


I understand your confusion.

Please pay attention to specific words in my comments. Words like “if” or “most” … or “optimize” … or “not only” …

You have the right to be upset if I claimed that Bashar is not interested in maintaining control and staying in power.

But I hope you can be a bit more understanding if my claim was that Bahsar is NOT ONLY interested in his selfish interests.

I was simply stating that Bashar is like many other rulers … trying to succeed (so that everyone would respect him, and his people would love him) but is also trying to make sure he remains the leader of his country.

As for your trust in the United States and its goodness … claiming that if Bashar wants to be friend then the US would surely help him and his country in everyway … please allow me to give you my opinion:

The United states is a wonderful democracy… but that democracy applies within US borders. The way this administration decided to conduct business in the Middle East can not be ignored simply because internally America is a great country.

Unfortunately, when American citizens elected president Bush they did not try to pick a president who understood the Middle East, and definitely not a president who understood Syria.

So we have “A disaster” (quoting president Carter, not Buthaina Shabaan) in the white house from 2000 until 2008.

If we had president Clinton or president James Baker or president Carter or president Brizinsky (spelling?) .. I would be as upset as you are if Bashar failed to be America’s friend.

But please … you can not ignore (I will repeat for the hundredth time) what Colin Powell admitted this year that Bashar was in fact very reasonable in his meeting with him in 2003 but the White House did not take YES for an answer from Syria … they only wanted to start the Iraq war.

And you can not ignore what General Clarck said that he was told in the Pentagon at the time that they are preparing for invading Syria next (as soon as Iraq was a success)

Also, no matter how much Bashar cooperated with US demands, if Cheney promised his friend Prince Bandar that Lebanon will be transfered from Syrian to Saudi hands, the trouble was about to happen anyway.

I love the United States too … but it is not a blind love like yours.

Finally , I agree about the posters of Bashar. You are right there. Don’t forget also the posters of every person who ran for parliament in those silly elections.

But I will tolerate them for now as long as Bashar is one of the wisest and most balanced leaders in the middle East : )


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October 12th, 2007, 7:11 pm


54. EHSANI2 said:

The King of Saudi Arabia just declared war on Syria by hosting Riffat in Mecca at the Eid prayers. Time to fasten those seat belts.

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October 12th, 2007, 7:34 pm


55. why-discuss said:


It is obvious that your allegeance goes blindly to the US administration and as such you have become a docile american citizen with a clear identity ( not like the american jews..) and I congratulate you for that achievement. But don’t expect everyone to become docile obedient servants to a country that has done a lot of good to the world progress, but who seesm to have lost itself recently in a messianic hysteria to change the world to its image.
Nour is absolutely right:
In addition, the US will NEVER allow any country there to become more than a consumer society dependent on the US and Israel for goods. So the minute you take a position of trying to advance your country industrially, technologically, and scientifically, be sure that you will face the wrath of the US and you will again be accused of supporting terror, building weapons of mass destruction, any other accusation the can concoct to justify an aggressive position against you.
Iran is a good example of this… And the US is furious to see that Iran is developping nuclear knowledge, manufacturing cars, selling electricity to the neighbors and Oh scandal!, dare to help the development of South American countries that have benefitted for years of the CIA’s help in maintaining paralyzing dictatorships.
Be american, be proud of it, and please forget Syria.. it is better for both!

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October 12th, 2007, 10:49 pm


56. Bashmann said:


I’m neither confused nor upset. You and I see things differently.
You do not trust the US intentions in the Middle-East which is a justifiable position taking into consideration the history of the US biased role towards Israel in the area. I do and I’ll tell you why.

I believe President Bush, whom I never voted for, original intention and challenge to bring democracy into the ME were genuine. Now, before you scream at the top of your lungs saying I’m delusional, let me be clear and on the record regarding the Iraq invasion, I believe it was a grave mistake, I also believe he did it for a personal reason as well as strategic American interests reasons.
The personal one was that he simply wanted to take out the guy(Saddam) who wanted to whack his father in Kuwait a few years ago.
The strategic reasons, and those what really count as solid American strategy, are for the sole purpose of American troops re-alignment from Cold world spots such as Europe to Hot and Important world spots such as ME in order keep up with the US military supremacy around the globe and guarantee energy sources for years to come.
9/11 with the help of AIPAC and the neocon’s surrounding president Bush, offered the perfect opportunity for the taking and the rest is history.

Now this does not mean President Bush had other ideological intentions on his mind. He might have found the time and the place to be perfect for taking on Saddam, but I would not for a minute believe that he planed to re-map the area as many have suggested or worked to guarantee Israel hegemony over the whole ME as Nour suggested. The former has been done a while back after WW1 in a messy fashion that we are still suffering the effects of it today and the US would not risk getting into such a plan to lose an already solid and long relationships with its traditional Arab allies, while the latter is a fact on the ground, Israel already have the upper hand militarily speaking in any conflict that might arise within the next few decades.

With this said, we go back to your “balanced decisions” statement about him. If Bashar was so “reasonable” with Colin Powell, and I do not doubt he was, why would he take the next risky step to form an alliance with Iran? What benefits he expected to reap from allying Syria with an outcast state that is already in isolation internationally and could be the target of the next war? Wouldn’t have been WISER for him to involve the traditional methods of diplomacy by engaging Egypt, Saudia Arabia, and Jordan into working the American Administration to his benefits? He was talking to wrong side of the administration on the impending war but due to his lack of foresight and novice political vision he could not see it. In fact, he did the exact opposite to anger and frustrate the American administration at the time when the rest of the world was getting ready to face another war in the ME.

The US is the sole superpower left in the world, weather you and I like it or not, and in my book I would rather be on its good side in every aspect when it comes to politics.

Therefore, you and I, will never meet when it comes to Bashar’s present and past decisions.


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October 13th, 2007, 3:49 am


57. Bashmann said:


I am proud of being an American and I can assure you I’m not that docile as you think. I’m also not a great admirer of this administration as you claim. President Bush is not my kind of President nor would I vote for any of his caliber in terms of intelligence. I actually voted for the other guy in the last election, but he seemed to be too stiff to take on his opponent.
We all know what happenned during the first election term when Bush took office based on a Supreme Court decision, but that is another matter.

For our present discussion, please allow me to indulge in a few facts that might have simply slipped your mind;

America is not a full democracy but its the closest to it.
America will every now and then elect someone like president Bush but they usually spend their terms and move on. They don’t stick around for life!
Americans can and will participate in electing their leaders from multitudes of candidates unlike our beloved Syria where the choice is chicken, chicken or chicken on the table.

There is no reason why I should not be proud of a country that has given me all these rights were I was previously denied any of them in my own birth country.

I’m glad to see you also admit America has done a lot of goods to the world in terms of progress and may I remind you they still do.
As for your Iran comment, I wish you luck with the Islamic republic of Iran when they get the nuclear bomb. Better stick around here in the US if you happen to live here ’cause I’ll make sure that the rest of my family move over to the US as Syria would be the next battle front by then and damascus would be the lucky city to be nucked first by the Israeli or the US. Keep up the faith buddy, your nationalist ideals are still alive and kicking will eventually take you straight to the promised land.

Take my advise and go write your posts at Sana the official press of the Syrian government, they might use your esteemed anti-american pen, who knows you might debut on their first page.


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October 13th, 2007, 4:19 am


58. why-discuss said:

Thanks for the advice. I have one for you: I think you should move the rest of your family now and live happily ever after in near-democracy promised land of USA among the “good” people while the “villains” iranians and Syrians, thousand years civilizations, are eliminated. I wonder why you are writing here? Is your syrian DNA itching?

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October 13th, 2007, 10:45 pm


59. ausamaa said:


“America is not a full democracy but its the closest to it.
America will every now and then elect someone like president Bush but they usually spend their terms and move on”

Well, no body is perfect. But we used to think that American Democracy and the US Constitution could stand up to pressures. This time it failed to, or was rendered meaningless by Bush and the neo-cons.

We know that US Administrations come and go, but what remains is the military-industrial complex which is WHO rules America and whose elite direct US policy. For the last 60 years, the IGNORANCE of the American PUBLIC, coupled with the convergence of the intersts of this Lobby and AIPAC and the result were this uncontrollable havoc in the Middle East. Now, maybe someone in the America will wake up, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of victems in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and decide that the best way to insuring that most benifits can be achieved by the US through taming the loose Dogs of War in DC and consequently Tel Aviv, and to really cooperate with the Arabs and the people of the Middle East instead of trying to STEAL their Wealth and Subjegate them by (ineffective) military force.

If only because of the fact that the BUSH hegemony and US power had been shown (once again) not to be capable of RULING the WORLD even with the help of local unpopular regeims. And held at bay and by who? by splintered groups, middle-sized countries, shadow enemies – initially created by the US- and by the US neo-cons themselves.

If one lesson is learned through all those “exciting” years, it is the fact that Power had it limits, and they -thanks go both to the neo-cons and to the will of resistance of whoever is being subjected to the enslaought of their stupid use of power- appear to be more limiting than one use to think.

A CHANGE of DIRECTION is needed, for the US sake if not for our sake. Makes it easier for the US and the WORLD.

So, instead of urging people to go and write for SANA, why dont you start rethinking about the thinking and visions of your likes have done to American Democracy, the US Constitiution, and most important of all, to US interests worldwide.


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October 14th, 2007, 8:44 am


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