The Foreign Office says, “Engage Syria,” NSC says, “No”

On Monday Oct. 23, I will be talking at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute with Ammar Abdulhamid on the subject: "Should the US engage Syria?"

I will write on the release of Michel Kilo from jail in a separate post. It is important. Everyone is praying that Bunni, Dalila and the others will follow Kilo out of jail soon.

IsraelSyria Dialogue

Olmert's insistence that Israel wants to begin peace talks with Lebanon, but not Syria, this weak was delightful political theater. Lebanon's PM Siniora immediately announced that Lebanon was not interested. "Peace should come with Israel's acceptance of an Arab peace initiative," Siniora answered, putting his best Arab foot forward. What else could he say? His government, like Olmert's, is too weak to engage in real peace negotiations.Olmert's desire to talk peace with Siniora comes only weeks after the Lebanon War, during which Olmert declared war on Siniora's government for harboring and working with terrorists, i.e. Hizbullah.

What possibly has changed since then? Hizbullah remains a part of Siniora's government. The Lebanese army, although it has been deployed to the south of the country, has no orders to disarm or apprehend Hizbullah militia men. Lebanon continues to support Israel's most potent enemy. How could Israel possible negotiate peace with Lebanon? Syria, of course, also supports Hizbullah. The difference between Syria and Lebanon is that Israel would have to give back the Golan to Syria as a price of negotiations. Another difference is that the Syrian government is strong enough to implement any undertakings it would agree to as part of a peace deal. Here are the two news items:  

Israel Wants Lebanon Talks but not Syria The Associated Press Monday, October 16, 2006; 10:46 AMJERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday invited the Lebanese prime minister to begin peace talks following Israel's recent war against Hezbollah guerrillas, but Olmert ruled out peace talks with Syria at the present time, saying President Bashar Assad isn't a suitable negotiating partner.Olmert said that Israel made significant gains in its battle against the Lebanese guerrilla group. Olmert has been heavily criticized for his handling of the war, in which Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel.Olmert called on Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fuad Saniora, to enter peace talks, saying the time has passed for indirect mediation between the nations.

See also: Olmert Accuses Assad of Seeking Along with Hizbullah to Topple Saniora

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora rejected his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert's call Monday for direct peace talks between the two countries. A statement from Saniora's office said he "had announced more than once that Lebanon would be the last Arab country to sign peace with Israel."

"Real peace should come with Israel's acceptance of an Arab peace initiative proposed by (then) Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah and that was adopted by an Arab summit conference in Beirut" in March 2002, the statement said. "In this context, it has become clear that, as a first step to prove its desire for peace, Israel should withdraw from occupied Lebanese lands, including the Chebaa Farms and fully apply U.N. Security Resolution 1701," the statement added.

Shmuel Rosner in Haaretz tries to explain why the US should not engage Syria. He has two arguments. One, the US has Syria just where it wants it, isolated and hemmed in by the Hariri investigation. Two, the smartest people in Washington think Bashar al-Asad is not serious in wanting to make peace with Israel. Both of these arguments are wrong and tired.

The assessments repeated by Rosner are part of the broader Middle East Bush policy that has failed so miserably in a mere four years. The longer analysts, such as Rosner, are able to foist these assessments on Washington, the more profoundly the US will lose credibility and effectiveness in the Middle East.

First, Syria's isolation from the West is not crippling, except in the imagination of Washington. The Hariri trial is not going to undo the Asad regime or make it go away, no mater what the outcome. Bashar al-Asad will be President of Syria long after Bush, Chirac, and Olmert have stepped aside. Washington must deal with him.

Second, striking a peace deal between Israel and Syria that has Israel returning the entire Golan will be very good for the US and Israel. By refusing to enforce international borders, the US is shooting itself in the foot and prolonging the life of extremist forces in the Middle East.

If the United States could get Syria to sign a peace deal with Israel as Egypt and Jordan have done, it would undermine much of the rational for a one party state in Syria, for emergency law, military rule, and you name it. The list is a long one. Once Syria officially recognizes the Jewish state's right to exist in historic Palestine, Arabism is finished – at least your father's brand of Arabism. The Arabism that claimed that there was one Arab nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Arab Gulf and from the Taurus Mountains to the Arabian Peninsula – the kind of Arabism that is at the heart of the Baath Party.

If America really wanted to undo Baathism in the Middle East and the ideology that makes it resonate among Arabs, it would get a deal signed between Syria and Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict that we are all so tired of would be over. Then the real conflict that should be waged, the battle over ideas, could be fought in a meaningful way. That is the conflict we are waiting for, but it can only be fought when the land war is over. 

I will quote the first paragraphs of Rosner's article, but read the entire thing to see how he fails to make any concrete argument other than by listing names of famous people who oppose talking to Syria – and some of these names, such as Denis Ross, are now advocating that the US talk to its enemies, including Syria.

In fact, the Guardian has a long article explaining that British authorities are signing onto James Baker's plan as it is being advanced by the Iraq Study Group. It calls for engagement with Iraq and Iran. The kicker line is: "The Foreign Office is backing the ISG proposal to engage with Iran and Syria. "We are encouraging them to go with that," a Foreign Office source said." Rosner wants us to believe that NSC's Steven Hadley and Elliott Abrams know better and have a plan that will keep Iraq from imploding or make Hizbullah disarm.

Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, also welcomed reports that James Baker's Iraq Study Group would recommend that Washington turn to Syria and Iran for help. Mr Rumsfeld says in his opinion neither Syria nor Iran have been helpful in the past. Talabani, however, insisted that Violence in Iraq could end "within months" if Iran and Syria joined efforts to stabilise the country.

Israel, U.S. agree: Not the time for Syria talks
By Shmuel Rosner
Friday, October 20th, 2006
Haaretz

WASHINGTON – A few short weeks ago, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio, with regard to talks with Syria, that "if it turned out that there was someone to talk to and something to talk about, the idea would be right." On Tuesday, however, after his meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Dichter sounded somewhat different. He was for talks "in principle," but at the same time presented three conditions amazingly similar to the unbending American ones: the need for the closing down of the terror organizations in Damascus, for cessation of support for Hezbollah and of intervention in Lebanon, and prevention of the entry of terrorists into Iraq from Syria. On the third point, Dichter revealed another element: as long as the U.S. saw a problem with the Syrian channel, "Israel could not ignore it."

The U.S. does indeed see a problem, even a few problems, when it comes to the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria. In the continued approaches by President Bashar Assad, they see a clumsy attempt to escape the siege they have instituted, and perhaps also to escape the possible implications of the Rafik Hariri murder investigation. The U.S. is thus not interested in seeing Israel and Syria move ahead with a separate channel. The fact of the matter is that most of the people who have negotiated with Syria have advised sounding out Bashar and figuring out what he has to offer. This includes Rabinovich, Baker, Ross, and Kissinger. There are many more, but the point isn't to line up authorities. Politicians beholden to the Bush administration are insisting that Israel not negotiate. They cannot explain why except to say that Asad is bad and Syria is bad.

George Ajjan's article on US-Syria relations appeared in "Chronicles." In contrast to Rosner, He claims that Asad is the right person to talk to.  Here are his key paragraphs:

"At a time when Washington was rolling out the red carpet for PLO leader Abu Mazen, the Syrian regime seemed determined to undermine those efforts, much to the fury of White House officials.  In retrospect, the Bush administration's actions suggested neither a valid assessment of Arab public opinion nor the establishment of robust contingency plans for the pending Palestinian election. Instead, Bush continued to pout, the Palestinians voted, and White House protégé Abu Mazen lost his legitimacy almost overnight, to the benefit of Hamas. Bashar Assad completely outmaneuvered Bush. For all the juvenile blunders he and his obtuse cronies committed in Lebanon, Assad, strategically speaking, more than compensated by reading Meshaal's coffee cup like a seasoned pro."

 

"While the Israeli military can inflict major damage on Lebanon and certainly wage similar air strikes on Syria with relative impunity, its leaders know that this strategy is not sustainable. Unless Israel occupies every square inch of land from which missiles could be launched, the possibility remains for isolated rocket barrages to send tens of thousands of her citizens into bomb shelters.

Only one force has demonstrated the capability to stop such activities: the military and intelligence services of the countries from which these attacks could be launched. The only way that Israel will be safe in the long term is for these tightly controlled Arab state institutions to deal with internal rogue elements themselves. Essentially, Israelis need the infamous Syrian moukhabarat to work to disrupt terrorists instead of facilitating them. They would have to conclude that this outsourcing of crackdowns against militants, which has already been done with Egypt and Jordan, would ultimately increase Israel's security. Of course, the price for the Syrian and Lebanese governments to switch sides and comply would be "land for peace" treaties that allow those governments to recover some of their dignity."

 "Responding to such a proposal would no doubt be the biggest and toughest decision Bashar Assad has faced. He has already navigated a few considerable challenges, and, despite some foolish rookie mistakes, his regime remains solidly in control of Syria, while his naive opposition is barely functioning. This would be his first true test as a leader and would define his legacy. During his six years as Syrian president, did he tighten relations with Hamas and Hezbollah because of some ideological commitment? Or did he astutely surmise their rising fortunes and merely ride their coattails to a stronger bargaining position with the United States and Israel? The answers are unclear, but it is worth the risk to discover them."

Simon Dodge, an old friend and fellow Middle East hand, is a hero, I discovered a few days ago. [Simon Dodge is the son of David Dodge, and the late Doris Westfall Dodge, of Princeton. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former presidents of the American University of Beirut.] I grew up with Simon in Beirut, who was a next door neighbor on Rue Bliss and in Ainab, a small village above Shimlan, where we spent summers. What did Simon do to make him a hero?

According to Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Simon Dodge, who works for the State Department's intelligence bureau blew the whistle on the fake Niger "Yellow Cake" documents planted by the Italians. He explained that the papers were a hoax to his colleagues in October 2002, but the vice President's office refused to hear it, claiming State was filled with enemies. CIA buried their copy of the report, and so it went. The President used the false evidence in his January 2003 State of the Union address, and the Vice President still seems to think that Saddam's nuclear program was active.

Israel, U.S. agree: Not the time for Syria talks
By Shmuel Rosner
Friday, October 20th, 2006
Haaretz

WASHINGTON – A few short weeks ago, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio, with regard to talks with Syria, that "if it turned out that there was someone to talk to and something to talk about, the idea would be right." On Tuesday, however, after his meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Dichter sounded somewhat different. He was for talks "in principle," but at the same time presented three conditions amazingly similar to the unbending American ones: the need for the closing down of the terror organizations in Damascus, for cessation of support for Hezbollah and of intervention in Lebanon, and prevention of the entry of terrorists into Iraq from Syria. On the third point, Dichter revealed another element: as long as the U.S. saw a problem with the Syrian channel, "Israel could not ignore it."

The U.S. does indeed see a problem, even a few problems, when it comes to the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria. In the continued approaches by President Bashar Assad, they see a clumsy attempt to escape the siege they have instituted, and perhaps also to escape the possible implications of the Rafik Hariri murder investigation. The U.S. is thus not interested in seeing Israel and Syria move ahead with a separate channel. The fact of the matter is that most of the people who have negotiated with Syria have advised sounding out Bashar and figuring out what he has to offer. This includes Rabinovich, Baker, Ross, and Kissinger. There are many more, but the point isn't to line up authorities. Politicians beholden to the Bush administration are insisting that Israel not negotiate. They cannot explain why except to say that Asad is bad and Syria is bad.

George Ajjan's article on US-Syria relations appeared in "Chronicles." In contrast to Rosner, He claims that Asad is the right person to talk to.  Here are his key paragraphs:

"At a time when Washington was rolling out the red carpet for PLO leader Abu Mazen, the Syrian regime seemed determined to undermine those efforts, much to the fury of White House officials.  In retrospect, the Bush administration's actions suggested neither a valid assessment of Arab public opinion nor the establishment of robust contingency plans for the pending Palestinian election. Instead, Bush continued to pout, the Palestinians voted, and White House protégé Abu Mazen lost his legitimacy almost overnight, to the benefit of Hamas. Bashar Assad completely outmaneuvered Bush. For all the juvenile blunders he and his obtuse cronies committed in Lebanon, Assad, strategically speaking, more than compensated by reading Meshaal's coffee cup like a seasoned pro."

 

"While the Israeli military can inflict major damage on Lebanon and certainly wage similar air strikes on Syria with relative impunity, its leaders know that this strategy is not sustainable. Unless Israel occupies every square inch of land from which missiles could be launched, the possibility remains for isolated rocket barrages to send tens of thousands of her citizens into bomb shelters.

Only one force has demonstrated the capability to stop such activities: the military and intelligence services of the countries from which these attacks could be launched. The only way that Israel will be safe in the long term is for these tightly controlled Arab state institutions to deal with internal rogue elements themselves. Essentially, Israelis need the infamous Syrian moukhabarat to work to disrupt terrorists instead of facilitating them. They would have to conclude that this outsourcing of crackdowns against militants, which has already been done with Egypt and Jordan, would ultimately increase Israel's security. Of course, the price for the Syrian and Lebanese governments to switch sides and comply would be "land for peace" treaties that allow those governments to recover some of their dignity."

 "Responding to such a proposal would no doubt be the biggest and toughest decision Bashar Assad has faced. He has already navigated a few considerable challenges, and, despite some foolish rookie mistakes, his regime remains solidly in control of Syria, while his naive opposition is barely functioning. This would be his first true test as a leader and would define his legacy. During his six years as Syrian president, did he tighten relations with Hamas and Hezbollah because of some ideological commitment? Or did he astutely surmise their rising fortunes and merely ride their coattails to a stronger bargaining position with the United States and Israel? The answers are unclear, but it is worth the risk to discover them."

Simon Dodge, an old friend and fellow Middle East hand, is a hero, I discovered a few days ago. [Simon Dodge is the son of David Dodge, and the late Doris Westfall Dodge, of Princeton. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former presidents of the American University of Beirut.] I grew up with Simon in Beirut, who was a next door neighbor on Rue Bliss and in Ainab, a small village above Shimlan, where we spent summers. What did Simon do to make him a hero?

According to Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Simon Dodge, who works for the State Department's intelligence bureau blew the whistle on the fake Niger "Yellow Cake" documents planted by the Italians. He explained that the papers were a hoax to his colleagues in October 2002, but the vice President's office refused to hear it, claiming State was filled with enemies. CIA buried their copy of the report, and so it went. The President used the false evidence in his January 2003 State of the Union address, and the Vice President still seems to think that Saddam's nuclear program was active.

Comments (7)


1. Alex said:

My friend George,

Excellent article. Very logical… according to me, and Joshua, and Norman …

Yet, Rosner’s collection of quotes from Washington’s top “Syria experts” is going exacty the other way! … why? do their life experience make them reason things differently from the way we do? Do they know something we do not know? Are they merely maintaining public pressure on the Syrians before talking to them? Or are they still interested in Chaos?

Here is a Poll that Haaretz is currently running in Israel … a clear majority is for trying to negotiate with Bashar (65%)

Should Israel agree to negotiate with Syria?

Yes. Assad is sincere
24%

Maybe it’s nothing, but test him
41%

No, it’s a trap
28%

Do whatever the US says
7%

Votes: 776

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October 22nd, 2006, 5:13 am

 

2. Butrous said:

IRONICALLY, IT IS DEMOCRACY – GROWN IN SYRIA NOT EXPORTED FROM THE US – WHICH WILL ULTIMATELY POSE A GREATER THREAT TO ISRAEL THAN ANY NUMBER OF ROCKETS. WHEN SYRIANS ARE ABLE TO ESTABLISH THEIR OWN DEMOCRACY, FOREIGN FLIGHT WILL END, EXPATRIATES WITH NEEDED SKILLS WILL RETURN, AND ISRAEL’S ARGUMENT FOR UNLIMITED U.S. SUPPORT (IT IS THE ONLY DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST) WILL END. OTHER NATIONS WILL LIKEWISE DISTANCE THEMSELVES FROM ISRAEL, AND WILL ACTIVELY OPOSE ANY ISRAELI ATTEMPT TO ESTABLISH REGIONAL CHANGE BASED UPON ITS MILITARY. OTHER ARAB INTELLECTUALS WILL FLOCK TO SYRIA. WITH DEMOCRACY WILL NATURALLY COME ECONOMIC GAINS AS WELL. IN THE END, EVEN JEWS FROM ISRAEL WILL LOOK ON WITH ENVY, FROM A COUNTRY WHICH IS SINKING IN MILITARY DEBT, HAS LITTLE ECONOMIC GROWTH AND IS SURROUNDED BY A WALL.

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October 22nd, 2006, 11:48 am

 

3. ausamaa said:

And this is just the beginning…

The cracks have been there for a while and the writing was on the wall for all to see A simple case of an arrogant over abuse of power in the wrong context against the wills of a whole Nation which everyone wrongly estimated that it will trade its real hopes, aspirations and wishes, for a thinly-disguised and deceptive excuse to force it into submissiveness, either through thinly disguised Democracy encouraging play supplemented (or encouraged) by a fear of the famous Chock and Awe approach. And it simply did not work. Not only that, but in their failure to work, they have also swept away many pillars of conventional Military and Geopolitical post-Soviet Union thought.

I just hope that this the beginning of a new beginning. Not much to support such hope if it was not for the fact, that someone realized -or is beginning to realize- that Power does have its limits, and that the World and the Middle East in particular, are not only too complicated for someone to come and think that he can come out of a situation briefing and jump to draw lines on the map and create new realities that run contrary to the whishes, and the socio-political facts on the ground. Especially, if he is “willfully” misled by those facts, or if they are presented to him in either a misleading manner or are suitably shaped to suit a private political and ideological agenda.

Apart from trying “to resurrect the shattered vision” by trying to attack Syria either directly or through a time-buying destabilization of Lebanon, a far-fetched possibility with unfathomable and more confusing repercussions, the US Admin, and even Israel in its own little way, have no viable option now except to lunch a total overhaul of its Strategic Assessment and Approach to the whole area. Such a review has been called for and attempted many times before, but this time, it is not a mere another think-tank exercise; now it’s an exercise that has a “blood” and a “fear” price tag attached to it.

What we are seeing now is hopefully a beginning of a new era. Reminiscent of the post Suez-Canal crisis one, but much more far reaching in its immediate effects and in its future ramifications on the whole world.

The master planner Kissinger has scored his second gamble/loss after China. Cheers!!!

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October 22nd, 2006, 2:20 pm

 

4. blowback said:

The Israeli state is no longer economically viable without the water that the Israelis extract from the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

Will the Israelis be prepared to return the Golan Heights without retaining the water rights? If the Israeli’s treatment of the Jordanians is anything to go by they will not. Will Bashar Assad accept notional sovreignty over the Golan Heights if it does not include the water rights? Why should he?

Will the Israelis grant independence to the Palestinians without hanging on to the water rights? They can’t afford to. Would a Palestinian state be viable without the water from the aquifers beneath it? Almost certainly not.

The Israelis had built their economy on stolen water and they will not stop stealing it. They love their green lawns too much.

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October 22nd, 2006, 9:32 pm

 

5. why-discuss said:

See article in french of Eric Rouleau:
Aux Origines du Regime Syrien 21 Oct 2006

http://www.aloufok.net/article.php3?id_article=3454

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October 22nd, 2006, 10:26 pm

 

6. norman said:

Alex , It is sad that there are not few like us in Israel.

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October 23rd, 2006, 1:38 am

 

7. To Talk or Not to Talk? « Shalom Rav said:

[…] Since I’m not a pundit, I won’t venture a guess as to whether or not Assad’s overtures are genuine. (For those interested in further analyses on this subject, I highly recommend Syria expert Joshua Landis’ blog SyriaComment). I will only ask this: what would be the harm in finding out? […]

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October 24th, 2006, 6:40 pm

 

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