Posted by Joshua on Saturday, May 5th, 2007
"Has Syria won?" This is the question that a number of reporters have asked me on the heals of Rice's meeting with Walid Moualem at Sharm al-Sheikh.
First, it is necessary to take the larger perspective. The meeting was not about Syria. It was about Iran. Michael Slackman of the NYTimes gets it right when he concludes: "Little changed in what many here saw as the crucial factor: relations between Iran and the United States."
Mottaki, Iran's F.M. walked out of the dinner, where Rice and he might have met, before Rice arrived. The Americans tried to spin this as Iranian prudery at work. Evidently, the excuse was that a Ukrainian violinist in a red dress had a plunging neckline. Mottaki couldn't abide the flesh and took Iranian leave. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cracked, "I'm not sure what woman he was afraid of, the one in the red dress or the secretary of state."
Mottaki was more honest. He explained that the US needs Iran more than Iran needs the US. The US had not prepared for the meeting properly and was not willing to discuss the an agenda important to Iran, comsequently Iran passed up the chance to talk to the Americans at the ministerial level.
Mr. Mottaki said of Washington’s stance in remarks made at a news conference at the end of the two-day meeting. “Even the ordinary people of the United States realize that the policies pursued by the United States in Iraq are flawed, and they at least must admit that the policies have failed.” Iraq has been pressuring the US to sit down with Iran and Syria to help it reduce violence: “It is in my country’s interest, really, to see a reduction in the tensions,” said the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.
Mattaki is correct. The American public wants President Bush to engage Iran and Syria. The situation in Iraq demands it. Very troubling documents have surfaced recently that demonstrate that Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki is helping Iran infiltrate the two leading Shiite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr, America's enemy in Iraq, and of Hakim's Badr forces, which is backed by the US.
Saudi Arabia is upset by Iran's internal takeover of the Iraqi security forces, which has been done under American noses. Not only has Maliki been unable to stop this, but increasingly, it seems he is supporting it. Irans takeover is documented in this report by Memri. Iraqi secret memos written by Maliki to Sadr warn the Shiite militia leader to hide his lieutenants during the surge lest Washington kill them. More detailed is this Washington Times article, which quotes from a 40-page Saudi assessment of Iran's influence over Iraq's security forces. The author of the report, Mr. Obaid, writes: "Ordinary police and military officers now have a stronger allegiance to the Badr Organization or the Mahdi Army than to their own units." Hakim's Badr Organization, which is 25,000-strong and has roughly 3 million supporters, is the "key vehicle Iran is using to achieve its military, security and intelligence aims." The Saudis believe that Iran has thuroughly penetrated the new Iraqi state that the US is building.
Iran is in an increasingly strong position in Iraq and can afford to wait for America to recognize its failure. This is why Mottaki walked out on Rice. He doesn't want to give the Bush administration a photo opportunity for nothing. Beggars can not be choosers. This is the message, Iran is sending Americans.
"Isolation has failed." Walid Moualem, Syria's foreign minister, said on al-Jazeera last night. The N.Y. Times agrees, "But perhaps the most significant development, many people here said, was the more humble face of American diplomacy. This change suggests that the Bush administration now agrees with what Arab leaders have been saying for years: that Washington cannot succeed in the Middle East with unilateral action."
Here is what the N.Y. Times writes:
On Thursday, Ms. Rice met for 30 minutes with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem. It was the first high-level meeting between the two countries since President Bush recalled his ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
The decision to unfreeze relations came after State Department officials concluded that directly asking Syria to crack down on the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq was worth facing criticism from conservative hawks in Washington who argue that America should not talk to its foes.
But despite the opening, the issue of Lebanon remains a huge obstacle to American-Syrian ties. The Bush administration still plans to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the Hariri assassination, an inquest that is adamantly opposed in Damascus.
Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former senior adviser on Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department, said neither the United States nor Syria was willing to deliver what the other wanted. Syria, he said, wants the Hariri tribunal to go away, while the United States wants Syria to help with Iraq and to rein in the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Even so, he said, the Bush administration, running out of options in the Middle East, “may be looking for another lever to pull in Iraq, Lebanon and the peace process.”
Rice said she repeated to Moualem the U.S. concern about "foreign fighters," who are recruited by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq and pass through Syria, and asked for cooperation in stopping them. But she cautioned against reading too much into the meeting. "Let's take this one step at a time," she said. "I'm very glad we had the opportunity . . . but this was not about anything other than Iraq, and we will certainly see whether we can observe words being followed by deeds."
"I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me," Rice said after the first Cabinet-level talks in years between the countries. "It's a start," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after the 30-minute session. Iraq's embattled prime minister was among those leaning on the U.S. to engage Syria and Iran, arguing they could help lessen the violence in neighboring Iraq.
Until now, Rice and President Bush had said Syria well knew what it could do to help Iraq — tighten its border — and did not need the U.S. to point it out. The U.S. claims Syria looks the other way while fighters from many countries cross its border to join the ranks of al-Qaeda and other insurgent or terrorist groups in Iraq. Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters. "There has been some movement by the Syrians," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.
The administration has said it worries that Syria will use any contact with the U.S. as leverage in a dispute over alleged Syrian meddling in fragile Lebanon. Rice said that subject did not come up Thursday.
"We are serious and we expect the United States to show the same seriousness," Moallem said. "We agreed to continue dialogue."
Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban has said that Thursday's meeting between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh was "proof of the recognition by the US administration that it finds itself in an impasse in Iraq."
"It is also proof that the American administration needs the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors and of several other countries," she said.
"It changes nothing with regard to Syria's stance on the unity and territorial integrity" of Iraq, Shaaban said, adding "The main solution is establishing a timetable for withdrawal" of US forces from Iraq.
The Syrian press has almost no mention of the Moualem-Rice meeting on their Websites. In part, this is because it is Saturday, the weekend, but also they are not trumpeting the meeting. On the one hand Syria did not gain much. The US met with Syria in order to assuage Iraqi and Arab demands that the US re-engage, as well as to undercut opposition at home. The Democrats have been scoring points by pointing out how stupid the isolation policy has become. On the other hand, Syria is not trumpeting the meeting in order to maintain solidarity with Iran. Washington will want to suggest that it can split Syria from Iran. Syria does not want to give the impression that it is breaking ranks with Iran.
The meeting was a mitigated win for Syria because it signalled an end to Syria's formal isolation by the Bush administration. President Bush was wrong about Iraq. It did not become a show piece of American power or democracy promotion. Bashar, who called the US invasion illegal and an expression of imperialism that would be a disaster for Iraq and the whole Arab World on a par with 1948 or the WWI post war settlements, has been proven largely correct. Even Saudi authorities agree. They are Washington's closest allies; they now call the occupation illegal. Americans recognize the adventure as a disaster. Bashar proved he could read the Arab street better than Bush. The administration predicted that by this time Arabs would be laying wreaths at its feet for bringing them freedom, progress and the American way. Syria is coming out of isolation just as Washington finds itself out in the cold, its policies out of sync with the rest of the world. Bashar is not the "blind eye doctor" or "bumbling" neophyte, as most analysts argued. Bush and America were blind.
There is nothing sweet about this victory, however. Everyone is a looser. The Iraqis most of all.
What has Syria lost? Syria lost Lebanon, which in the greater scheme of things is a good thing. But the process was bungled. Rather than coming in the context of a broader regional peace deal that would have included Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon was forced unilaterally, leaving Syrians feeling vengeful and victimized. With Washington's attempt to yank Lebanon away from Syria's orbit without accommodating Syria's legitimate demand for the Golan, Bush ensured that Syria would resist with all its guile and limited might. This led to the murder of Hariri, Lebanon's invaluable uniter. It has ensured the disintegration of Lebanon's delicate sectarian fabric. Lebanon is in tatters, pulled to the breaking point between the antipodes of Syria and Iran on one side and the US, France, and Saudi Arabia on the other. This is the result of Washington's divide-and-rule policy. Smart diplomacy might have avoided this.
Hizbullah has not been tamed or brought into Lebanon's political process, as it should have been. Israel's summer war, meant to destroy Hizbullah, only added to the weakening of all sides. Like a wounded lion, Hizbullah will exact a price for the West's high-handed attempts to ignore Shiite grievances. It is already exacting that price by opposing the Hariri tribunal, rearming, and bringing the Lebanese government and economy to a standstill. Hizbullah's ability to attack Israel as a proxy for Syria and as an inducement to Israel to cough up the Golan has been reduced. Because of Hizbullah's weakness, Syrians have less hope of getting the Golan back today. All the same, their determination to do so has not been undermined. This is a recipe for continued conflict and unhappiness to everyone.
Washington was unable to starve the Syrians into compliance through economic sanctions. Nevertheless, Syria's economy, although growing at a higher lever than it was in 2003 when the war in Iraq began, is not performing as it should be. 1.3 million Iraqi refugees in Syria are creating many difficulties. Rather than the Europeans helping with the reform process and offering expertise and assistance, they have stood on the side lines. The economic barriers with Europe are beginning to come down, but it will take years before relations return to the pre-2003 level. Reviving economic relations with Washington will take much longer. A web of sanction laws have been spun over the last four years that will be very hard to undo.
Bashar has survived, consolidated his power, and turned the tables on the US, but the victory is pyrrhic. Syria has lost a lot in the past 4 years.