Syria Wants Clear US Commitment to Exit Iraq

So long as President Bush believes that the US is winning in Iraq, there will be no rapprochement with Syria. Syria's price will be too high. Syria is asking the US to make a clear statement about leaving Iraq. In other words, Syria is saying that if Bush will admit defeat in Iraq, Syria will help. And, by the way, Syria wants an expanded Lebanese cabinet, an end to the Hariri investigation, the Golan up to the water, and an independent Palestinian state in all the occupied territories. Thank You. 

President Bush in Vietnam

"President George W. Bush said Friday that the American experience in Vietnam contained lessons for the war in Iraq. Chief among them, he said, was that "we'll succeed unless we quit."

"The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it," he said of Iraq's prime minister. "And that's why I assured the prime minister we'll get the job done."

Nir Rosen's anatomy of a civil war. [Excellent: Gives a real sense of who Muqtada al-Sadr is.]

No posts for a few days: I will be leaving to Boston to attend the Middle East Studies Association Conference tomorrow, which will keep me from posting for. I will be speaking with Andrew Tabler on Syria's relations with the US Saturday evening at the Syrian Studies Association meeting at 7:00 pm. On Monday I will speak with Juan Cole, Asad Abu Khalil, Helena Cobban and Abu Aardvark on blogging: "Is it good for your career?"

In the article, Baker Met Syrian Envoys to Urge Cooperation Against Iraq Unrest By Janine Zacharia, Nov. 17, Syria's Ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha explains what influence Syria has in Iraq that can be used to help the US. He explains that Syria can help bring the Sunnis and Muqtada al-Sadr toward a deal. In exchange, "We are just telling them there should be a very clear announcement about, a commitment for, withdrawal,'' Moustapha said. Here is a bit of the article.

Syria believes it can play an important role in restoring stability because many Iraqis, particularly the Sunnis, “have started looking at Syria as someone who can protect their interests,'' Moustapha said in the interview. He also cited Syria's close ties with anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al- Sadr, who he said frequently travels to Damascus, once for a two-week stay.

“Most of these guys feel disenfranchised today in Iraq, so we can have some leverage on them,'' he said…

Withdrawal Sought

Syrian officials told the Iraq Study Group that the U.S. needs to announce a readiness to withdraw troops if Iraq is to be stabilized.

“We are just telling them there should be a very clear announcement about, a commitment for, withdrawal,'' Moustapha said. “As long as certain Iraqis believe you are not planning to withdraw, they will continue to fight against you.''

Baker's spokesman, John Williams, while calling the Syrian account generally correct, noted that Baker “never asked'' the Syrians for help in advance of the 1991 war, and only explained to them why it would be in their interest to get involved.

U.S. engagement with Syria and Iran — an idea that is gaining traction among Democrats, in particular — is emerging as a possible element of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations. Such a proposal might set up a conflict with the Bush administration, which has shown little openness to engage in dialogue with the Syrian leadership…

“The last time the Syrians engaged with the Americans it was substantial, it was solid and we delivered,'' Moustapha said.

No `Revolution'

U.S. policy makers accuse Syria of meddling in Lebanon and sheltering Palestinian terrorists.

“I don't think we should expect a revolution in the administration,'' said Dennis Ross, who served as special Middle East envoy under President Bill Clinton. “They are six years in power. There is a certain set of attitudes. There is a certain approach.''

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reflected that skepticism in comments to reporters en route to Vietnam on Nov. 14. “There's no indication that Syria wishes to be a stabilizing force,'' Rice said.

Here is a bit of Nadim Shehadi's article in Chatham House's "The World Today," which I received in PDF. Namid adds in an email:

I have always been in favour of engagement with Syria and Iran and think it is absurd to ask the neighbours 'not to interfere'. This should have happened before, now may be the wrong time. Iran and Syria feel too strong and victorious after this summer's fiasco and this will be perceived by them as capitulation. 


After a test run in Lebanon, the choice for the US is between capitulation via Syria or escalation via Iran. October, 2006


If the choice [of the US] is capitulation, then Syria could play a pivotal role. There is already talk of re-engaging Syria, the only state in the region that holds all the strings. Damascus hosts the political leadership of Hamas, led by Khaled Meshaal who is seen to be more in control of the issue of the captive soldier in Gaza. It has good relations and a strategic alliance with Iran, influence over Hizbollah, and links with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. Syria also has influence in Iraq and could cause problems there.

Capitulation can come in various forms. US President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac have been threatening Syria for the past three years, putting pressure on, getting it out of Lebanon, imposing sanctions, isolating it, calling for regime change and supporting the opposition.

If after all this, they cannot stomach the possibility of grovelling to Damascus asking for favours, they can always do it by proxy under the cover of an Arab initiative. This would be made up of Qatar and Saudi Arabia with their cheque books and Egyptian diplomacy. Syria would reap the benefits. This would be capitulation light but capitulation nonetheless, and it would be costly.

Syria will extract a very high price which may involve it regaining power in Lebanon, concessions over the Hariri investigation, changes of policy on the Iranian nuclear issue, Iraq, Palestine, the Golan Heights, an end to its isolation and lots of economic incentives. 

A deal with Syria for the sake of stability would also be costly if it is seen as a complete reversal of declared US policy and the collapse of its more recent justification of the Iraq invasion and the regional democratisation agenda. If the west went through all this to end up making a deal with another President Assad to resolve problems that he helped create, it might as well have done a deal with Saddam or Osama Bin Ladin in the first place. The US has heavily invested in this project and it would not be as easy to ‘redeploy’ or cut and run as it did in 1983. Iraq has already cost well over $200 billion. 

Israel would be more in favour of capitulation than the US.

It never took the US democratisation agenda seriously and wouldbe more comfortable dealing with a reliable dictator than thecomplexities of democratic neighbours. Both Syria and Israel have shown some enthusiasm for the resumption of bilateral talks and there is a significant lobby in the US calling for that. The more important dilemma from the Israeli perspective is that capitulation may allow Iran to continue developing its nuclear capacity and become a more serious problem in ten to fifteen Years. 


If it is too difficult for Israel to admit defeat by Hizbollah andtoo awkward for the US and its allies to grovel to Damascus,knowing how high the price is going to be, then the second choiceis escalation. Escalation is essentially going to be with Iran. Escalation light with Syria will not do, the two countries signed adefence pact before the hostilities, so an attack on Syria isconsidered to be an attack on Iran. The threat of sanctions is not credible and would have to be diluted to be politically feasible. Iran’s complex and deep-rooted relations with China, Russia, India, Turkey, Central Asia and most of the Arab world would render such actions all but ineffective. Sanctions or the attempt at sanctions would only gain time.

A military escalation or attack on Iran would be the only option, but this also has very serious consequences. It is possible that such a confrontation would cause a transatlantic rift similar to the one over the Iraq invasion. It would endanger Gulf security and as a result energy supplies would be at risk, Tehran has already indicated that the Strait of Hormuz would be threatened. Iran can also cause a lot of trouble in Central Asia and all these factors are of great concern to both Russia and China. Escalation can quickly acquire global dimensions and get out of hand. 

The collision can still be avoided with greater European intervention, resolving the outstanding border issues between Syria, Lebanon and Israel and making a serious move on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Washington has lost much of its credibility as an honest broker and it is time for Europe to provide a new direction.

Comments (108)

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

Attached for Professor’s Landis’ readership is an interesting article in the conservative [not neo-conservative though…], realpolitik journal, The National Interest on the politics of the Gemayel murder in the context of American relations with
Syria, and the possibilities of renegotiating that relationship. Read and enjoy:

Events: Syria’s Gemayel Missive
by Alexis Debat and Ghassan Schbley


The assassination of Pierre Gemayel signals that the time has come for the U.S. government and the world community to make hard choices in Lebanon. Gemayel, a minister, rising politician and the scion of a very powerful Christian Maronite family, was assassinated a few hours after the office of Michel Pharaon, state minister for parliamentary affairs, was sprayed with bullets by unknown gunmen. Pharaon is also a Christian legislator and member of the anti-Syrian bloc within the Lebanese parliament, which currently holds a majority of seats. Taken together with the American-sponsored Syrian-Iraqi normalization, these two dramatic events indicate that the regime of Bashir al-Asad is sending the U.S. government and the international community a strong and clear message: choose between Lebanon and Iraq.

Besides its ruthless symbolism, the assassination of Gemayel is a classical move on the part of the Syrian government to further weaken the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, a few days after six pro-Syrian ministers (from Hizballah and Amal and allied factions) resigned from the cabinet just before the government was about to discuss a UN resolution supporting an international trial for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. With Gemayel’s death, the Siniora government is teetering on the verge of collapse. If one more cabinet member either resigns or is killed, it will fall, and with it will collapse Western fantasies that Syrian influence in Lebanon could be erased with the wagging of fingers in Washington, New York and Paris. It seems clear that the assassination attempt on Pharaon was designed to trigger that last resignation to bring the government down.

Make no mistakes: this will happen. We are already and unfortunately in the post-Siniora era in Lebanon, where no doubt Hizballah will do everything it can (including forging an alliance with another Christian leader, Michael Aoun) to gain veto power over the next Lebanese government, and, over the long run, forge a new and broader constitutional order in Lebanon—one where the Shi’a dominate the political scene. As we now know, this kind of earth-shattering shift seldom comes in Lebanon without political violence.

Washington and Paris must first and foremost realize that, even though their aims in Lebanon were noble, their method was extraordinarily naive. Even without troops on the ground, Syria is strong in Lebanon, and will remain so as long as Hizballah reigns supreme over the Shi‘a community. In Lebanon, as in Iraq, we need a new method, emphasizing clear political goals. As Israel now knows, the best weapon against Hizballah is not the F-16 but a new, rejuvenated Amal.

More broadly, Syria has very clearly handed the West, and particularly the United States, a very difficult challenge. For all intents and purposes, the Bush Administration will have to choose between carrying on its noble post-Hariri vendetta, and continue isolating Syria, with great and serious consequences in Iraq, or adopt a more realistic stance and realize that its interests in the stability of Lebanon and—possibly Iraq—fly above and beyond the necessity for justice in Lebanon. Justice versus stability, all over again.

Alexis Debat is a senior fellow at the Nixon Center and a counter-terrorism consultant to ABC News. Ghassan Schbley is a research assistant at the Nixon center.

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November 22nd, 2006, 11:21 pm


102. Al-Syasy said:

They explained what i said before, but without refering to the important issue of the challenge between the U.S. and Europe,they are talking as if Syria is an independent country.

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November 22nd, 2006, 11:29 pm


104. Al-Syasy said:

The new orders included as baker said : “every single issue in the Middle East,”.

what is going in lebanon is one of the new orders, the U.S. changed its politics after the republicans were defeated in the congress.

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November 23rd, 2006, 12:24 am


105. mamali said:

Dear Mr.Landis;
Your contradictory remarks in your latest VOA appearance literally shows that how little of the whole Middle East picture is actually known to you and I personally feel sorry for those whom blindly base their opinions on what you say.

Keep up the good work!
“Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says Gemayel’s killing could have been done by Hezbollah itself, acting as a proxy for Syria or Iran. But he does not rule out that an outside group, perhaps from al-Qaida, could be responsible, seeing the killing as a way to derail any possible U.S. effort to seek Syrian and Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq.”

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November 23rd, 2006, 12:34 am


106. Dubai Jazz said:

When troubles happen in Lebanon, there is nobody but Syria to blame, even after 18 months of the Syrian troops withdrawal, the Lebanese 14th of mach bloc is not able to get the security straight.

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November 23rd, 2006, 5:16 am


107. DavidP said:

Allies of the al-Sauds — blog

On that same thread I mentioned at the end of my last post about Pierre Gemayel, I noticed another
comment by Charles Coutinho. He’s right, the al-Saud family won the kingdom by conquest. The British initially backed the Hashemite family, but later came to terms with the al-Sauds. There may have been sheer incompetence on the part of the Hashemites, but also they were weakened because they were seen as having betrayed Islam by fighting against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

As an example of the Saudi-British alliance, before the days of oil, the kingdom was heavily dependent on revenues from pilgrimages to Mecca. When these were reduced during World War II, it received subsidies from Britain and the US.

This was British ‘sphere of interest’ was later more or less taken over by the US (*). Roosevelt famously met on board ship with the Saudi king during the the war. Any idea, though, that the Americans went behind the back of the British to “steal” their ally is, in my view, way off the mark. The British continued to derive great benefit from their relationship with the Saudi Arabia. In 1985 they signed a large contract for the supply of fighter aircraft and another deal was in the offing earlier this year. The Saudis apparently find it a little less politically sensitive to be supplied by the British rather than the Americans.

* See William L.Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 1994.

Update: important new evidence has been released today that supports what I say above about the Saudi-British-American relationship. King Ibn Saud refused to agree to the meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, unless Churchill was also present. The British PM, however, wrote to the king saying, “I greatly desire that you meet him…”

Incidentally, the contrasting views of Roosevelt and Churchill about the question of Jewish resettlement are surprising, to say the least. ( The Today Programme, 24 Nov)

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November 24th, 2006, 12:10 pm


108. Chuck F said:

Nur al-Cubicle, what’s your problem? The U.S. didn’t withdraw from Vietnam over fears with war with China. What an ignorant statement to make. The U.S. withdrew because it basically gave up. I doubt that if the war was today that Vietnam would be called the victor, and I doun’t believe for a second that the U.S. feared China in any capacity.

Before you attempt to make a profound statement I would advise you to leave your anti-American sentiment out of it, and to get your facts straight.

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January 12th, 2007, 9:10 pm


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