Posted by Joshua on Saturday, February 10th, 2007
Is the US contemplating a broader dialogue with Syria?
Not at this time. I explain the reasons why in an interview with Abdullah Ghadwi, published in al-Seyassah, Febrary 1, 2007.
All the same, a number of analysts believe that the administration is torn over dialogue with Syria and may be more open to such a dialogue than at any time in the past two years. Here are the arguments they put forward.
1. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she has given the U.S. embassy in Syria authorization to discuss Iraqi refugees with Damascus.
Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee U.S. diplomats were given authorization to discuss the flow of refugees with the Syrian government, but the talks are not to be part of a larger discussion with the country about Iraq, CNN reported Friday.
The secretary of state said talks with the country on the subject of closing its borders to insurgents would likely lead to Damascus demanding U.S. concessions on Lebanon, where Syrian troops were removed amid international pressure in 2005.
"I am concerned that given the circumstances of Syrian behavior in Lebanon … talking with Syria now about Iraq would have downsides for us in terms of Lebanon, in terms of what Syria would be looking for, in terms of how it would be perceived," Rice said.
This permission to Michael Corbin, the very capable US charge' d'affaires in Damascus, to carry out a dialogue on Iraqi refugees is a very narrow brief. The US is under immense pressure to help the Iraqi refugees fleeing its failed experiment in Iraq. Syria, until recently, has been willing to take in the poorest Iraqis, something no other state has been willing to do. Beginning in January new restrictions may exclude the most vulnerable and poorest refugees. (Iraqis must now prove that they have a legal rental contract for an apartment or rooms before they are issued three month, renewable residency permits.) The UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that "Syria has assured the United Nations it would keep hosting one million Iraqi refugees despite new rules imposed on residency. There was a clear statement from the government members I met that no Iraqis will be sent back to Iraq against their will in the present dramatic circumstances," Guterres said after meeting senior Syrian officials. Syria insists that the benefit of the new measure will be to force Iraqis in Syria to get proper papers, register with authorities, and to maintain security. Iraqi refugees say Syrian authorities have been deporting Iraqis accused of fomenting sectarian tensions at home.
Guterres's visit to Damascus, during which he praised Syria for being generous to Iraqis, was motivated by fear that Syria could take away the welcome mat, creating a crisis among the refugees. "Syria … needs to be effectively supported by the international community, because the generosity Syria has shown needs to be assumed at the same level by the international community," he said. International pressure and pressure from home have forced Rice to open up a refugee dialogue with Syria, despite US desire to maintain its strict boycott on dialogue. Amnesty International has turned up the heat of the US, claiming:
The US bears a particular responsibility to protect those who have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. In addition, the US needs to make a proactive effort to resettle more Iraqis quickly and safely than it has up to this point.
"US policy and military action helped create the dreadful situation that now prevails in Iraq, yet up until now very few Iraqis displaced as a result of war have been allowed to take refuge in the US," said Malcolm Smart. "The US authorities must stand up their obligations on this issue and help lead the effort to provide long term durable solutions for Iraqi refugees."
A few American congress members have begun putting pressure on the US to do more. It is not certain that this will translate into action, however. Exactly 466 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States in four years, even though one out of every seven Iraqis has fled his home. The State Department devoted less than $14 million in 2006 to programs aimed at shoring up the resources within host communities across Iraq. That works out to less than 4$ for each of the 3.7 million displaced Iraqis. Syria got no funds. On Feb. 5, the State Department set up a new "senior task force" to deal with refugees, but signs are not good that it will increase US help dramatically. Warren Strobel reports:
In his just-released budget, President Bush asked for $35 million to help Iraq's refugees in fiscal year 2008, plus $15 million in supplemental funding for this year.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a private nonprofit group, had urged Bush to seek $250 million as part of a supplemental war funding request.
The Bush administration "has been slow to react to a worsening situation, amid ample warnings," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement. Rice's task force, he said, "is a hopeful sign, and it can move us forward as long as it doesn't waste time pondering the obvious."
Senior U.S. officials would not accept any special US responsibility for Iraqis fleeing the violence created by the US invasion. "It's a shared global responsibility," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in response to questions of whether the US had any special moral obligation to assist Iraqi refugees. The amounts of money allocated for refugees in the next two years and official administration statements suggest that President Bush will hold the line against helping Iraqi refugees or admitting the US must take special action.
"In six months, it will be too late," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International, an advocacy group. "We're not seeing the U.S. do much, frankly."
All the same, the new avenue for refugee dialogue is a toe in the door for Damascus. By compartmentalizing and allowing limited dialogue, Washington proves that separating the many issues it has with Damascus is possible. Right now, the differences between Washington and Damascus over Lebanon are the main sticking points, according to Rice. The US does not want to be asked to make concessions on Lebanon.
2. Saudi Arabia may be looking to bring Syria back into the Arab fold and pry it away from Iran. Michael Slackman and Hassan Fattah of the NY Times recently wrote:
Saudia Arabia has decided that it will be the host of the next meeting of the Arab League, in Riyadh.
Officials said they hoped at that meeting to smooth relations with Syria after its president, Bashar al-Assad, insulted the Saudi king and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in a speech last summer. Officials believe that Syria had moved closer to Iran because of its isolation, and that that shift has given Iran a bridge to the Arab world.
“Politically speaking, Syria is not in the fold,” said an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “Maybe the goal is to bring Syria back to the Arab world.” If so, that, too, could antagonize Washington, which wants to isolate Syria further.
3. Sami Moubayed writes in his article, The keys of Beirut:
Currently there is talk of serious Syrian cooperation in Iraq. The Syrians are expected to extradite some former Baathists from the Iraqi regime. They are expected to conduct stronger border control with Iraq. And they are expected to invite senior clerics and tribal leaders from the Shiite and Sunni community of Iraq for reconciliation talks in Damascus and an end to the sectarian killings of Baghdad. The Syrians have their own channels to the Sunni street (at least parts of it) and can do the same in the Shiite street via Hizbullah. They have already welcomed Sheikh Harith al-Dari from the Muslim Scholars Association, who was in Damascus last week. The Iraqi Minister of Interior Jawad al-Boulani came to Syria to discuss security coordination. If the Syrians are able to deliver on Iraq, and thereby show the world that the keys to stability in Baghdad are in Damascus, how will the situation in Lebanon change, and in the favor of whom? The US administration, after all, despite all talk by George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, cares more so for Iraq than Lebanon. That is a fact. The keys to stability in the Middle East are in Baghdad, not Beirut.
I am not convinced Syria has the ability to affect the violence in Iraq very much, even if it were willing to throw its weight behind American plans there. President Asad said in his ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, "we are the main player in this issue." He was speaking about Iraq. Syria is not the main player. To be fair to Asad, he added that "our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence." This is fair enough. Syria can help, but it cannot make any dramatic difference in Iraq on its own. It can lend its weight through urging various groups to come to the table. Secretary Rice has made it clear that the US does not believe Syria can or will help enough to make dialogue on this front worth the concessions that Washignton would have to make on the Lebanese front or Israeli front.
All of this suggests that the US will have to review its stand on Syrian isolation eventually, but not in the short term. In 2007, the US will focus on its surge, on advancing Saudi initiatives, and arming the pro-American Lebanese and Palestinian factions. None of this is likely to bear fruit. Only after frustration on this front will Washington begin to come around to trying something new. Bush may hold out to the end of his administration. In the mean time, Lebanon will remain paralysed. The promise of foreign assistance should keep the economy afloat, but only staggering along. The Palestinians will continue to kill each other and witness the steady decay of what institutions and quality of life remain, and the Iraqi situation will deteriorate progressively, building up ever larger refugee populations in the neighboring states.
The problem the US has created with the destruction of the Iraqi state is that the traditional balance of power between the Arab states and Iran has tilted firmly in Iran's favor. The only remedy to this is to build up Arab cooperation and unity to bring the balance back into some equilibrium. Without serious action to address Palestinian grievances, bring Lebanese factions to the table, and, most importantly, to make peace between Syria and the rest of the Arab World through a comprehensive Israel, Syrian, Lebanon peace, there is no hope that the Arabs will arrive at greater unity and common purpose in countering Iran.
US policy, as presently formulated, is designed to exacerbate Arab divisions, guaranteeing that the region remains fragmented and an open field for Iranian influence. The US tried to rule the Middle East through Saudi Arabia following the Suez Crisis. It failed. Most likely, Washington's present Saudi gambit will be no more successful. Only by bringing Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria together, can the Arabs begin to make up for the loss of an Iraqi deterrent to Iran. Washington will fail to arm-wrestle the Arabs it doesn't like to the mat. Eventually, it will have to turn to diplomacy and making concessions that are difficult in order to bring the various sides together. Saudi Arabia has tried to do that in brokering the Hamas-PLO deal in Mekka. US officials are not listening or learning. They have already begun to decry Saudi accomplishments. Time Magazine headlines – US the Big Loser in the Mecca Deal? even as Syria lauds the deal.