Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009
The 27 EU countries are preparing to sign the Euro -Mediterranean partnership. Oddly enough, this may be one of the more concrete results of President Obama’s engagement policy with Syria. By abandoning the Bush administration’s enmity for Syria, the Obama administration has in turn freed the EU to reverse its policy of isolating Syria and restart the Mediterranean Partnership process. Launched in 1995, the Partnership aimed to establish a common area of “peace, stability, and shared prosperity in the Mediterranean region” through lower tariffs and expanded trade.
Syria was on the verge of signing the agreement when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, bringing Washington into direct conflict with Syria. The Bush administration, not content to merely transform Iraq, broadened its Middle East ambitions to “transforming the Greater Middle East.” This included wresting Lebanon from Syria’s sphere of influence and isolating Damascus in preparation for phase two, or regime change in Syria. Of course, phase two never materialized because phase one — nation building in Iraq — sunk into the swamp of Iraqi factionalism and resistance. The Bush agenda suffered a second setback in the swamp of Lebanese factionalism and resistance. The bankruptcy of Bush’s strategy of violence became clear when Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon failed to dispatch Nasrallah, destroy Hizbullah or deliver a weakening shock to Syria. Nevertheless, Western leaders spent two additional years trying to confront Hizbullah through the UN and by building up the Lebanese Army before recognizing the obvious – that they could neither overpower Hizbullah nor outfox it.
Understanding the futility of the West’s Lebanon policy, Nicolas Sarkozy made his first foreign policy initiative on becoming leader of France outreach to Syria. He reversed President Chirac’s ill-fated decision to join Bush’s anti-Syrian campaign. Actually, one can forgive Chirac for joining his wagon to Bush, for in doing so, he repaired relations with Washington, which had been damaged over the Iraq invasion. The cost to Lebanon of this Franco-US embrace, however, was high; it pushed the fragile country into chaos for five years; Rafiq Hariri and close to 2000 Lebanese lost their lives in the ensuing tug of war, not to mention the damage that was done to lebanon’s economy and infrastructure. Defenders of the Bush policy will trumpet the claim that only confrontation forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanese soil. This claim is dubious. Syria had already halved its troop levels in Lebanon and eliminated its presence in urban centers. It was negotiating further reductions to 4,000 men. Hariri had every hope of reducing Syria’s role in Lebanon further through diplomacy and emoluments. It is in no way clear that the Bush policy of confrontation, which Hariri did his best to avoid, was a wise policy. It bought Lebanon quasi-independence at a much higher price than Hariri’s diplomacy might have. Instead of Syrian missiles, Lebanon now sports Hizbullah missiles. Israel is less secure; Hizbullah is better armed; Lebanese sectarian relations are more frayed; and Syria retains an important degree of influence in Lebanese politics.
Nicolas Sarkozy, realizing that there could be no victor in Lebanon, pushed for the Doha agreement, which brought much needed compromize to Lebanese factions. He consolidated Western gains won with the withdrawal of the Syrian army in exchange for giving Syria’s allies recognized powers in the Lebanese government. He then re-launched the Mediterranean partnership as the “Union for the Mediterranean” at the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean, where President Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife stole the show. The Bastille Day festivities signaled Syria’s return to the international stage.
France’s example was followed by Britain and Germany, which helped Obama engage Damascus. Sarkozy’s deft diplomacy allowed the West to remove Lebanon as the centerpiece of its relations with Syrian. Indeed, Sarkozy was able not only to improve France’s relations with Syria, but to bring his country closer to both Israel and US at the same time – a masterstroke of diplomacy. Now the EU as a whole is preparing to sign the Euro-Med Agreement, returning the region to relations as they were before the invasion of Iraq. Holland had been resisting a final reconciliation with Syria in the name of human rights. But the notion that political standards in the Middle East will be improved by restricting the economic activity of offending countries has achieved little save to make poor people poorer. Sanctions backfired in Iraq. They are not working in Iran. Washington is preparing to ease sanctions on Sudan because they prevent the rebuilding of the country and have reduced US influence in the region. The same is true of sanctions on Syria.
US engagement with Syria is changing regional politics. The recent uproar between Iraq and Syria is a case in point. The way the row is playing out is partly a product of Washington’s new relationship, not only with Iraq, but also with Damascus. Only months ago, Washington would have assumed responsibility for Iraq, taking the lead in blaming Iraqi instability and car bombs on Syria while the Iraq government itself would have hung back. But today Washington is staying out of the Iraq-Syria row, both because it is distancing itself from Maliki and because it has engaged with Syria.
US officials in Baghdad are arguing that there is little evidence to suggest Syrian culpability. Major General John Johnson, who is the deputy commanding general of operations at Multinational Corps-Iraq explained the other day that “our evidence points so far to elements here in Iraq” when asked “whether any of these groups [which set off the bombs in Baghdad in mid-August] are based in Syria.
The Iraqi government will increasingly be on its own in carrying out its foreign policy. US officials are not only silent because they have business with Damascus, but also because Maliki is alienating Washington and undoing the policies Washington spent years imposing on Iraq. Most importantly, Maliki is busy purging his interior ministry and intelligence forces of high ranking Sunnis officers as well as bringing down political opponents. He is undoing the kind of “sectarian balance” that the US believed would lock in “democracy” and “power sharing” in Iraq.
Is Maliki laying the foundations for the same form of sectarian and personalistic authoritarianism that defines state power throughout the Middle East? It is too early to tell, but it would hardly be surprising if he were. No other form of government has proven durable within the Arab World. Washington will want to distance itself from Maliki if he consolidates power too narrowly into his own hands. Washington will also stop criticizing Damascus for providing asylum to Iraqi Sunni leaders. As one Syrian parliamentarian pointed out, Maliki himself would have been long dead had Syria not protected him from Saddam Hussein’s demands to turn over dissidents during their exile in Syria.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country takes over the EU presidency on January 1, “expressed Spain’s support for signature of a partnership between Damascus and Brussels as soon as possible.” The EU’s move to bring Syria into the Mediterranean Partnership as well as Obama’s engagement with Damascus would not have been as swift without the deft policies of Nicolas Sarkozy. Damascus has reason to raise a fine glass of Beaujelais.
[End of Landis analysis]
” … The European Union is close to agreeing an offer to Syria of closer ties, the 27-country bloc’s commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said on Friday….
“Engaging with Syria is absolutely in our interest,” Ferrero-Waldner told journalists at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Stockholm.
“I would say that we are coming to an agreement. There are still some modalities that have to be found, there are some reserves … but I am confident that in the near future we will get this agreement really going.”….
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU should keep Syria’s actions under scrutiny, but should also encourage the country to respect human rights, the rule of law and to be a positive influence in the Middle East….
A rapprochement could help liberalise Syria’s economy and improve its image after being treated as a pariah state by several Western countries because of its role in Lebanon and Iraq and support for militant groups…”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has lauded Syria for not “interfering” in Lebanon’s internal affairs while criticizing MP Michel Aoun for setting “impossible” preconditions that are hindering the formation of a government.
He was speaking at a press conference Friday on the sidelines of the 17th conference for French ambassadors.
Koucnher said that Syrian President Bashar Assad “repeated three times that he was not insisting on veto power or on supporting Hizbullah.”
He pointed to Syria’s “new diplomatic approach and its openness to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, prior recent accusations.” However, he added, this “does not mean the absolute absence of Syrian interference in the formation process in Lebanon.”
On Iran, Kouchner did not rule out “a negative Iranian interference” pointing to “the continuous flow of Iranian weapons to Hizbullah which possesses 15,000 missiles.”