For and Against Dialogue with Syria

Sami Moubayed, writing for World Politics Watch, "What Can Syria Deliver in Iraq?" discusses what assistance Syria may be be able to offer to the United States towards decreasing the violence in Iraq. Here is a section of the interesting report:

The United States wants cooperation in Iraq. Syria wants a free hand in Lebanon. The Syrians believe that if they can give on Iraq, then they can take on Lebanon.

But can Syria really give on Iraq? It was easy for Syria to control Lebanon from 1990 until 2005 because Syria had the money, the connections, the business network, the political entanglements, the military might, and it knew the country well. Syria has none of that in Iraq. It influence parts of the Sunni street, through former Baathists who are based in Damascus or supportive of Syria, but it has no control over Iraqi tribes. That is why it has began to court Syrian tribesmen, who have connections and relations with their cousins in Iraq, hoping that they can serve as a stepping stone toward the Iraqi Sunni street. Most of the new leaders of Iraq, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki and President Jalal Talbani, were based in Syria during the Saddam years, but their acquaintance is of little value to the Syrians since they are not the Sunni leaders of the insurgency, nor are they community leaders in Sunni Iraq. Former Baathists like Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, on the other hand, are close to Syria and could curb part of the insurgency.

Another problem is that the Iraq insurgency is not 100 percent Sunni. According to CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, the Sunni tribesmen and former Baathists who are carrying arms against the Americans number "in the low tens of thousands." The number of Sunni al-Qaida fighters in the 40,000-strong insurgency is only 1,400. The rest of the insurgency is Shiite, over which Syria has absolutely no control. The keys to that insurgency are in Iran. And even within the Sunni street, Syria does not have total control because a large proportion of Iraqi Sunnis are loyal to, or on the payroll of, Saudi Arabia. As long as Syria and Saudi Arabia are experiencing a rough political relationship, due to their conflicting interests in Lebanon, the loyalties of the Iraqi Sunni street will remain divided between Damascus and Riyadh.

Nawaf Obeid, a security analyst and adviser to the Saudi government, recently wrote a very telling article in the Washington Post in which he said there will "be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis." Obeid added, "The Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraqi policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps) with the same type of assistance — funding, arms, logistical support — that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years." If Saudi Arabia does this, then it would hamper any Syrian efforts to calm the Sunni street.

As long as Saudi Arabia remains supportive of the anti-Syrian majority leader in Lebanon, Saad al-Harriri, then the chances of Riyadh-Damascus reconciliation are minimal, to say the least. The chances of rapprochement were further damaged on Dec. 7 when Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah gave a thundering speech in Beirut, accusing the Saudi-backed March 14 coalition of having collaborated with Israel against Hezbollah during the July-August Israeli war. Nasrallah, who remains very close to Syria, accused the ruling coalition of treason. He called for the downfall of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora as masses of anti-Siniora demonstrators continued their Beirut sit-in, aimed at bringing down the Harriri administration….

On the same site, also see the interesting article outlining EU attitudes toward Syria and the German Minister of Foreign Affairs recent visit to Damascus.

Flynt Leverett, who wrote "Inheriting Syria," has been muzzled by the White House. The Washington Post reports that Ex-NSC Official Says White House Is Stifling His Criticism of Iran Policy. Big hunks of an op-ed for the NYTimes were censored for security reasons even though they had already been published in an earlier article and passed CIA censors. Leverett also takes a swipe at Kenneth Pollack, the author Gathering Storm, the breathy scare job that helped the US take the leap into Iraq. New York Sun's Eli Lake comes to Pollack's defense and flings mud at Leverett in his American Dissident? December 20, 2006. Here is a bit –

Now he [Leverett] poses as a victim. In his remarks he derided the individual who fired him from his brief stint at the Brookings Institution, Kenneth Pollack, who wrote in an op-ed for the Times, which the CIA approved this month, that Iran had provided help to America in Afghanistan. Because Mr. Pollack wrote a book in 2002 claiming Iraq was concealing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs before the war, he was allowed to write for the Times, according to Mr. Leverett.

MARTIN KRAMER in his latest intervention at WINEP on Democracy Promotion prescribes a delightful "plan B." [addendum Dec. 21: I originally wrote this section suggesting that the quoted material was Martin's actual words. They are not. Martin's actual words were summarized by a rapporteur.] The rapporteur explains that Kramer judiciously, explained that the notion of freedom "cannot be applied indiscriminately, because in some places it might make things worse and contradict U.S. interests." In particular, the U.S. should "downplay this policy dimension" when it comes to our friends, such as "Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt" because they can be of "considerable utility," Rather, it is our enemies who should get the gift of "the U.S. democracy rhetoric," in particular countries such as "Iran and Syria," for whom the "rhetoric" was originally intended and where "the issue of freedom of identity is most acute." The rapporteur continues with his summation:

There needs to be a basic distinction in the region between homogenous societies and diverse societies — and different rules will apply to each. The notion of freedom of identity cannot be applied indiscriminately, because in some places it might make things worse and contradict U.S. interests.

Now the state system in parts of the Middle East is coming under tremendous pressure. Iraq is of course the prime example, but similar processes may begin elsewhere. Some of the borders now printed on maps could become so weak as to become virtual; other lines may become actual borders. Although the United States has consistently been committed to maintaining existing borders, it may not have the power to do so.

Sen. John Kerry emerged from his meeting Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad even more resolute in his belief the United States must begin talks with Damascus as it seeks a solution to the turmoil in Iraq. “We explored the whys and wherefores of a number of the choices he’s been making,” said Kerry of the Assad meeting.

“I feel quite confident in saying this was a conversation worth having and that the (Bush) administration ought to pursue it,” Kerry said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Jerusalem, where he traveled after meeting with Assad in Syria. “I feel very strongly about that. … It’s worth following up on a number of avenues.” 

Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., both prospective 2008 presidential candidates, met with Assad for about two hours as part of a Mideast trip. Kerry described the meeting as “a candid and thorough discussion.”

Kerry said he and Dodd “tried to understand what (Assad) might or might not be prepared to do” in relation to Iraq. Kerry said it is important to at least begin a dialogue with Syria. “It’s a question of finding out what they say,” Kerry said. “These things are step by step.”

Kerry said he and Dodd are prepared to brief Bush administration officials about their meeting, and did not want to share specifics of their talk with Assad until they had done so. “I certainly came away with a sense that it’s worth pursuing as a dialogue,” Kerry said. “It’s worth following up on, on a number of avenues. It certainly validated the judgment of the Iraq Study Group.”

David Hammerstein, the EU Parliament member who visited Syria this week, had a similar message. He said "Syria's peace intentions are genuine and insisted that Israel would be missing an important oportunity if it doesn't respond to Syria's offers.

The Syrian moves opposite Iraq, including in the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two states, the improvement of the relations with Turkey and in the fact that the Syrians did not thwart the deployment of the international force in Lebanon testify to the fact that this is not a Syrian manipulation, Hammerstain explained.

Hammerstein said he believed Israel and the West must listen to Syria, as they will eventually be able to bring about a change in its support – from Iran and Hizbullah to the West. This is the time to take advantage of the window of opportunity and the Syrians must be given a chance, he urged, concluding that Olmert would be making a big mistake by missing this opportunity.

Israeli calls for dialogue with Syria can be found in the following articles: Haaretz editorial Dont Turn Syria Away; Akiva Eldar in Haaretz, Assad’s Fatal Attraction explains that Israelis and Syrians will meet in Spain next month. Yoel Marcus also in Haaretz writes First, say yes. (thanks Alex); David Hale and Lyric Hughes Hale write in USA Today, "A two-way street with Syria."

There are also many who believe talking to Syria would be a mistake. Here are a few

Mossad Chief Dagan: Syria "More Willing Now Than Ever Before" to take military action against Israel…. Zionist Organization of America (press release)
Israeli-Syria Talks Would Be About Golan Heights, Not Peace, Some …
William Harris in the National Review Online, recommends helping to nurture a coup d'etat in Syria. "Regime change in Syria will mean Iran losing its main ally in the Arab world and its conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon…

Under such pressure the most likely scenario in Damascus would be a move from within the army and the intelligence services to displace the present ruling clique, followed by establishment of a new regime incorporating opposition elements, including the Sunni "Muslim Brotherhood." Contrary to self-serving scaremongering by the present Syrian regime, there is little chance that religious fanatics would take power in Syria. The Baathist dictatorship has fragmented all opposition. Indeed, the new ruling clique, apart from being friendly to the West and cooperative on the Iraqi border, would doubtless roll back the current Iranian presence in Syria and hunt down militant Islamist splinters co-opted by the present regime.

Secretary Rice in a long press conference was dead set against dialogue with Syria because the price would be Syrian influence in Lebanon, which the US is not prepared to conceed. She said of Syria:

they're looking for compensation to do that and that's a problem. Because when you go to the table, particularly in the circumstances now where you're going and saying, please, help us with the stability of Iraq, the potential that what they're really looking for is compensation. And then you have to ask — it's very high — and then you have to say, what is that compensation? Well, on the Syrian side, I suspect that the highest priorities are being played out in the streets of Lebanon including about the tribunal, including about Syrian power in Lebanon.  

On the economic front:
Syria is finally getting a postal service! It is high time. Mail is not delivered to private homes or businesses in Syria, which means everyone must go to a mailbox in a post office, which few bother to own. one cannot pay bills through the mail but must pay them in person. Unbelievable. The UNDP is to modernize Syria's postal services. It has signed an agreement with the Syrian Government that will bring UNDP expertise to reform Syria's postal services. Read

At a time when Iraqi Insurgents are Starving Baghdad of Electricity, Syria's Ministry of Electricity has awarded Iran's Parsian a contract to set up five power transmission plants in Aleppo. Read. Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, and attempts to repair power lines are falling behind attacks on the grid.

Iran is not nervous about the US "flipping Syria" (Thanks Alex)

Al-Hayat quotes Iran’s ambassador to Syria as saying that Iran is not nervous about the possiblity of Syria improving relations with Europe. On the contrary, he insisted, "it is Syria's right to seek improved relations with all countries." He claimed that "Syria has consistant and firm principles in it decisions so Iran does not fear the weakening of its relations with Syria. Since the days of Hafiz al-Asad, Syria has been trying to get back the Golan Heights. The return of the Heights is not only a goal of Syria, but it is also a goal of Iran," he said.

وسئل هل طهران قلقة من احتمال ابتعاد سورية عنها بفعل الانخراط الاوروبي، فأجاب: «من حقها كذلك ان تحاول تحسين علاقاتها مع جميع الدول وفي ضمنها اوروبا. لا يمكن ان نقول اننا قلقون من علاقة اوروبا مع سورية، بل نحن مسرورون من تحسن هذه العلاقات. وبعكس ما يتصور (البعض) نحن لسنا قلقين من اضعاف العلاقة السورية – الايرانية لأننا نعرف ان هذا لا يحصل ولن يحصل. سورية لها أصول وثوابت في قراراتها، ونحن على ثقة تامة بالعلاقات القائمة بيننا». وقال اختري ردا على سؤال آخر: «منذ أيام الرئيس الراحل حافظ الاسد، قضية مشاركة سورية في محاولات السلام لاستعادة الجولان حاضرة. استعادة الجولان ليست من اهداف سورية فقط، بل هـــــي من اهداف ايران كذلك

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based crisis monitoring group that includes several former U.S. officials, issued a report on Iraq strategy today. It calls for more far-reaching policy revisions and reversals than did even the Iraq Study Group report, the bipartisan report issued two weeks ago. The new report calls the study group's recommendations "not nearly radical enough" and says that "its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis." It continues: "What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region."

The Iraqi government and military should not be treated as "privileged allies" because they are not partners in efforts to stem the violence but rather parties to the conflict, it says. Trying to strengthen the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not contribute to Iraq's stability, it adds. Iraq's escalating crisis cannot be resolved militarily, the report says, and can be solved only with a major political effort.

The International Crisis Group proposes three broad steps: First, it calls for creation of an international support group, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Iraq's six neighbors, to press Iraq's constituents to accept political compromise.

Second, it urges a conference of all Iraqi players, including militias and insurgent groups, with support from the international community, to forge a political compact on controversial issues such as federalism, distribution of oil revenue, an amnesty, the status of Baath Party members and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Finally, it suggests a new regional strategy that would include engagement with Syria and Iran and jump-starting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

Poll: Arabs more negative toward U.S.

Survey underscores need for shift in U.S. Mideast policy, expert finds
Updated: 11:19 p.m. ET Dec. 14, 2006

WASHINGTON – A new survey shows Arab attitudes toward American people, products and culture grew increasingly negative last year, a finding that underscores the need for a change in U.S. Mideast policy, a leading expert on the region said on Thursday.

James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute, said the annual survey of opinion in five Arab countries found that U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Palestinian conflict were the main issues driving deteriorating Arab opinion.

"Our policies have not only had a worsening impact in terms of attitudes towards us but also in dampening confidence in the prospects for development and political stability and are therefore, I think, a real concern to countries in the region," Zogby said.

In previous years, Americans themselves had been viewed positively in most Arab countries, his group said.

President Bush is said to be preparing a change of course for the Iraq war after a bipartisan panel said U.S. strategy was not working and warned that Washington was losing its influence in the region.

The panel, led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, also called for a renewed U.S. effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a way to defuse regional tensions.

"What the poll says to me is Baker-Hamilton are right," Zogby said.

"If America wants to salvage itself and improve its standing and get the credibility and legitimacy it needs to lead in Iraq, it needs to do something to earn the trust of allies in the broader region," he said.

The survey released by the Arab American Institute found that more than 80 percent of people in Saudi Arabia and Egypt had negative opinions of the United States, similar to previous years, but attitudes worsened in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon.

The biggest increases were in Jordan, where negative U.S. ratings climbed to 90 percent from 62 percent and Morocco, where they grew to 87 percent from 64 percent.

Attitudes toward American people, movies and democracy were more negative than positive in most of the five countries.

Only U.S. education was viewed more positively than negatively in the five countries.

Notably, residents had negative attitudes toward most U.S. policy in the region. Opinions were most negative about the Iraq war and the Palestinian conflict, but also opposed the United States' policy on Lebanon, its promotion of democracy in the region and its challenge of Iran's nuclear program.

The surveys were conducted in mid-November in face-to-face interviews. Sample size ranged from 600 to 800 in each country, and the margin of error for each sample was between 3.5 percent and 4.7 percent.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.

Comments (51)

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51. Charles G. Coutinho, Ph. D. said:

I must admit that I am less than entirely convinced by the substance of the Robin Wright
article. It seems to me, that the chief weakness of it is as follows: as per her analysis, Prince Bandar appears to be a sort of deus ex machina, operating and winning over both Prince Turki and
Prince Saud. The problem with this is that Bandars chief means of influence would be his own father, Crown Prince Sultan. However the facts argue against Sultan being a means for Bandars (alleged) ascent in Rihyad. As the BBC has noted, Sultan has notoriously bad relations with King Abdullah. Consequently, the likelihood that Bandar is winning out over his (alleged) rivals in the Kingdom appears to be questionable.
In fact, the whole storyline appears to be a sort of smear campaign against Bandar more than anything else. Especially, since Abdullah when Crown Prince in 2001, refused to allow the USA to
attack Afghanistan from American air bases in the Kingdom. The reasoning being that Saudi Arabia could not allow itself to be a base for attacking another Muslim country.

As per the article in the Middle East Wire, the whole idea of Bandar meeting Siniora in conjunction with the Israelis, seems again an exercise in discrediting him, more than anything else.

I of course, say all of the above, under correction, since I do not pretend to be an expert in the intricacies of the Saudi Royal House. If anyone else should have more knowledge about the matter, please feel free to correct me.

Nota Bene: as an academic historian, I should like to offer up my own little correction of an inaccurate assertion made in the comment section
above: to wit, that the west has been unsuccessful in intervening in the Levant since 1097. Actually, first, the Crusaders did conquer and hold on to the Palestine and much of the rest of the Levant for almost a century after
1099. Second, current mythology notwithstanding, no, repeat no, Arab speakers are indigenous to the Levant, as well as Egypt, and Iraq. Their presence in the area being by virtue of conquest (circa 640-645), and nothing more. Pur et simple.

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December 27th, 2006, 5:54 am


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