Posted by Joshua on Thursday, November 13th, 2008
“Listening to Syria”
by David W. Lesch
Written for Forward
Published by Syria Commentwith the permission of Sami Moubayed
Having met with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad on a regular basis over the last five years, most recently on October 19, I have personally seen how he has grown into the position, and he is now brimming with a confidence bred by weathering a number of storms and experiencing some success. Yet only in the last month has the Bush administration begun to explore high-level diplomatic contacts with Syria after years of trying to isolate Damascus. Even this seems to have come to an abrupt end with the US raid against purported militants across the Iraqi border in Syria.on October 26, perhaps, as some have suggested, a parting shot by the Bush administration (or elements within seeking to derail the tentative US-Syrian dialogue established by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, those “elements” usually meaning Vice President Cheney’s office).
For a lengthy period I seemed to be the only American talking to President Asad; as such, Washington often called on me to share my impression and analysis of him and Syrian policies. To an array of officials from the State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community, and the Bush administration, I essentially repeated three main themes, all of which were summarily ignored when communicated upward:
Do not underestimate Asad. He is genuinely popular in his country and in the region, and one does not survive in Syrian politics as he has without being clever and capable. Like it or not, he will be around for a long time. Unfortunately, from the beginning, Washington viewed Asad with a disdainful attitude bordering on mockery. The views expressed by members of Congress surrounding the passage of sanctions on Syria in 2003-2004 were needlessly condescending. They emerged not only from ignorance, but also a collective group-think in the post 9/11 and Iraqi invasion environment that made Syria an easy target for Washington officialdom eager to bolster its tough, anti-terrorist credentials. As a result, Asad was virtually dismissed. His regime was deemed unacceptable, even irrelevant. Despite Asad’s clear calls for a better relationship with the US and a resumption of peace talks with Israel, isolation and pressure on Damascus followed.
Do not take on Syria in Lebanon because you will lose. To me this was a no-brainer. Syria views Lebanon within its sphere of influence. It cannot lose it to potential hostile forces, much as the US would not allow Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Simply put, Syria has the knowledge, assets, and willingness to do what it takes to win in Lebanon. The US does not, and history-as in the 1980s-has shown this to be the case. Feeling under siege through Lebanon, Syria fought back, and it has such an overwhelming advantage there that it won despite some policy errors of its own.
Do not ignore Syria diplomatically; they are too central to too many problems in the region-and if they are not, they will make themselves central to the solution. The Bush administration altered the equation on Syria, i.e. traditionally such issues as Syria’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah as well as its relationship with Iran would be dealt with as a result of Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. Under Bush, negotiations would not even begin until Syria relented on these and other issues. Syria was not going to give up what little leverage it had before talks even began-no one in their right mind would willingly do this; on the contrary, it now had every incentive to hold fast and, if possible, build up some leverage to earn a seat at the diplomatic table, in other words, to be taken seriously. The French, Turks, and even the Israelis have already recognized Syria’s centrality to a multitude of issues in the region. The US is still hedging.
Bush’s first presidential campaign advocated a humble foreign policy, which means in part having the willingness to listen. Much of Bush’s foreign policy problems were due to arrogance at the top, that only they, guided by a flawed neo-conservative policy paradigm, had the esoteric insight to frame decision-making. And access to the top seemed to be predicated on intellectual support for an already existing agenda. The misguided policy toward Syria-and subsequent missed opportunities-is a prominent case in point.
If “the top” had listened to cogent information percolating upward and from abroad, a lot of mayhem could have been avoided. Despite the US raid in Syria, Damascus will be cautiously assessing the potential new direction emanating from Washington and communicating its position. Hopefully the new administration has the strength to listen.
David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. His latest books include The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press, 2005) and The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History (Oxford University Press, 2007).
OIL: Comment sent by Mark on the possible oil find in Latakia:(Thanks for this enlightening summation. A little expertise goes a long way. JL )
A few comments on the post by Joshua “Major Oil Strike in Latakia” and the above quoted SANA article. N.B. I’m an Engineer who has worked for a Major International Oil Company for some 27 years.
“…produced almost one thousand barrel of good oil brand which had surfaced to the as drillings were being made for building pillars in the site.” “Oil started shooting into the air.” Most oil reservoirs buried shallow enough to be reached by foundation piling would be severely biodegraded and contain only immobile heavy oil (a quick Google search reveals http://www.oiltracers.com/oilbiodegradation.html if you want more information about biodegraded oil). Also there would be no reservoir pressure above hydrostatic pressure at such a shallow depth. Thus these reports should be viewed with skepticism. Crude oil would not flow much less shoot into the air. A possible scenario is the piling could have hit a pipeline or underground storage tank. An alternative scenario is the piling could have penetrated an accumulation of leakage/seepage oil (from a pipeline or storage tank).
“Oil … drillingsstarted … on Saturday … Minister … said in a statements … had already finished oil studies of the oil well and the black material discovered in it.” This statement needs to be discounted. Wells actually don’t get drilled that fast and studies actually don’t get done that quick. However the need for a quick political win may be sufficient for a preemptive statement by a Minister.
“Russians are in the process of signing a deal for lots 4 & 5 in the north of Syria, about which expectations are also high” One must calibrate what “high expectations” are. Oilmen are natural optimists, and will say most anything while in the process of striking a deal. The chances of finding an economic sized discovery in an area without an offset oil discovery are not that high. As far as I know the East end of the Mediterranean is not one of the more prospective areas of oil exploration. The simple reason that us oilmen are exploring that area is that most of the prospective basins of the world have already been explored and exploited. This is simply an outcome of the “Hubbert Peak Theory” first presented in 1956.
News Round Up Follows:
David Miliband to visit Syria
By Ian Black
The Guardian, 12 November 2008
Miliband is due in Damascus next week as part of a wider Middle East tour at a time that western diplomatic efforts are focused on how to keep the faltering regional peace process alive…
But Barack Obama has made clear that he will change tack and seek to talk to the Syrians, who are delighted at the prospect. Miliband, in the role of transatlantic bridge-builder, will be encouraging him to do so…
Iraq, Syria to increase security cooperation
The Associated Press, 12 November 2008
Iraq says it will increase border security cooperation with Syria as the two countries seek to overcome tension caused by a recent U.S. commando raid inside Syrian territory launched from Iraq.
Visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad that the two sides have tried to “overcome” the crisis that followed last month’s attack….
Syria’s official news agency says Assad reiterated his wish to strengthen ties with Iraq on all fronts.
Syria to host Iraq security meeting despite U.S. raid
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
International Herald Tribune, 12 November 2008
The Syrian government will host a U.S.- backed security conference on Iraq as planned later this month, despite a threat to cancel it because of a U.S. raid on Syria in October, diplomats said on Wednesday.
Invitations were issued to countries including the United States, France, Iran, Iraq and its other neighbours shortly before the October 26 U.S. strike, they told Reuters.
“There had been a lot of doubt whether the conference would take place. The United States, Britain and other governments have not yet replied, mainly due to the uncertainty,” one of the diplomats said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem confirmed after meeting his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebariin the Syrian capital on Wednesday that the conference would convene in Damascus on November 22…
The United States pushed for the meeting in 2006 as part of its drive to get Arab countries to engage on Iraq. Syria agreed to host it every year as part of a new policy to defuse tension with the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad….
Iran test-fires new missile, Israel within reach
By Zahra Hosseinian
Reuters, 12 November 2008
Iran said it test-fired a new generation of surface-to-surface missile on Wednesday and that the Islamic Republic was ready to defend itself against any attacker.
Iran’s latest missile test followed persistent speculation in recent months of possible U.S. or Israeli strikes against its nuclear facilities, which the West suspects form part of a covert atomic weapons program, a charge Tehran denies.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, like outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, has not ruled out military action although he has criticized the Bush administration for not pursuing more diplomacy and engagement with Tehran…
Baroud backtracks on cooperation with Syria after March 14 balks
The Daily Star, 13 November 2008
Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud’srecent visit to Syria have raised controversies over the revival of Syria’s security role in Lebanon, which forced the minister to reformulate the outcomes of his visit. Baroud said he did not “call for coordination with Syria that would be similar to what had been experienced.”
“What I meant is that there is a chance to present our demands to Syria … and listen to their views,” Baroud said in an interview on Wednesday.
He stressed the fact that the joint statement issued after his talks in Damascus “referred to a follow-up committee that would not proceed with its assignment unless approved by Cabinet.” The March 14 Forces voiced “strong reservations” on Wednesday over the formation of security cooperation committees between Lebanon and Syria…
Analysts says Fatah al-Islam ‘confessions’ aimed to bully Syria’s foes in Lebanon
By Michael Bluhm
The Daily Star, 13 November 2008
Syria was trying to bully its antagonists in the March 14 coalition by airing on state television “confessions” of alleged Fatah al-Islam members last week linking the group to March 14’s Future Movement, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Wednesday.
The suspects said in the broadcast that they had carried out a deadly car bombing in Damascus on September 27 and had received money from the Future Movement of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri. Hariri, who has denied the allegations, asked Arab League chief Amr Moussa on Tuesday to form a fact-finding commission to look into the charges. Fatah al-Islam militants fought the Lebanese Armed Forces for more than three months last summer at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli…
Syria and Lebanon have recently established formal diplomatic relations, and Damascus might also be wielding the confessions as a tool to force Lebanese officials to give ground on the agendas put forthby their Syrian counterparts, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University.
In particular, Syria might be trying to push the Lebanese to sign off on the resurrection of joint security committees, a fixture during the Syrian military’s presence in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, said Shafik Masri, professor of constitutional law. Lebanese Interior Minister Ziyad Baroudvisited Damascus on Monday and agreed there only that Syrian proposals for security cooperation would require Cabinet approval. In any case, airing the confessions represented a clear breach of security and judicial protocol, Masri added…
Strike anywhere at al-Qaida
By Paul Cruickshank
The Guardian, 12 November 2008
On Monday, the New York Times revealed that in the spring of 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, then the US secretary of defence, signed a secret order providing the US military with a mandate and fast-track approvals mechanism to launch raids against al-Qaida terrorists in countries outside the “conflict zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan. The order, it was reported, identified more than a dozen countries where al-Qaida operatives were present, including Syria, Yemen, Somalia and two close allies in the “war on terrorism”, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The disclosures by senior American officials came in the wake of two controversialraids by US special forces in South Waziristan in Pakistan in September and in Syria in October, which reportedly targeted al-Qaida-linked militants orchestrating attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. Both the Pakistani and Syrian governments condemned the raids, stated that innocents had been killed, and accused the US of violating the UN charter.
What should be made of the revelations? Some Bush critics will no doubt argue that the administration that brought you extraordinary rendition, secret CIA detention and enhanced interrogation techniques has once again, in its finaldays, been unmasked as pursuing a clandestine programme that not only flouts international treaties but is also deeply counterproductive to winning the war for hearts and minds in the Muslim world. The more sardonic critics may ask why Britain was not also included on the “hit list”. According to MI5, 2,000 British residents actively support al-Qaida, and 30 major plots are being hatched at any one time…
Official: 8th century church discovered in Syria
By ALBERT AJI – 1 hour ago
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Archaeologists in central Syria have unearthed the remnants of an 8th century church, an antiquities official said Thursday.
A Syrian-Polish archaeological team recently discovered the church in the ancient city of Palmyra, said Walid al-Assaad, the head of the Palmyra Antiquities and Museums Department. He did not say specifically when the church was discovered or the exact date the church was built.
He said the church is the fourth and largest discovered so far in Palmyra — an ancient trade center that is now an archaeological treasure trove.