Posted by Joshua on Friday, February 19th, 2010
There goes Andrew Tabler again. This time he claims that the present US engagement with Syria is part of a new grand US strategy to hurt Iran. It is going to roll it back. What? Can someone explain this to me? I must be missing something. Here is what Tabler argues:
Andrew Tabler: The hand extended to Syria is also intended as a blow to Iran. The Independent. Thursday, 18 February 2010
The appointment of Robert Ford as US Ambassador to Syria is part of the Obama administration’s general policy of engagement with America’s foes. Its timing to coincide with Under Secretary of State William Burns’ visit to Damascus, however, has a wider purpose. The move is part of a massive diplomatic push in the Middle East to isolate and roll back Syria’s ally, Iran…..
It is hard to understand how normalizing relations with Syria — returning an ambassador, jump starting intelligence sharing, and slowly rekindling economic relations — is going to separate it from Iran, as Tabler argues. Will America withdraw its ambassador if Syria continues to purchase arms and develop economic relations with Iran? I doubt it. Will the US re-impose travel restrictions on Syria if Syria continues to support Iranian positions? I doubt it. Will Syria vote against Iran in the UN? No. Will Syria shutter the Iranian car factory in Syria? No. Will Syria stop supporting Hizbullah or the Palestinians? No. Even Tabler doubts this. So why claim that the US will pry Syria away from Iran with engagement? Tabler also doesn’t believe that Israel is going to give back the Golan, which would be the only way to induce Syria to reevaluate its regional alliances. Syria needs a powerful Iran and Hizbullah to counterbalance an expansionist Israel. Syria’s alliances make sense given the threat perception it has of Israel and America.
This “blow to Iran” argument is dissembling. So why make it? Can it be a face saver to mollify those who oppose engagement with Syria? Whatever the reason, it is not a convincing argument. One can pretend to be winning something out of engagement, at least something more than intelligence sharing on Iraq and al-Qaida. Syria has always been ready to trade help with Iraq and fundamentalists for normal relations. Syria stopped intelligence sharing with the US initially because of the US’ down-grading of relations. Now that an ambassador is back, Syria is back to intelligence sharing. American isolation of Syria was a big waste of time and effort. It hurt Iraq. It hurt America. And it hurt Syria. Everyone lost. WINEP can try to fool its supporters that somehow they are winning one for Israel out of renewed US-Syria engagement (Cutting Syria-Iran relations is all about Israel) or that WINEP analysts have been right all along about its anti-Syria policy proposals, but who are they really fooling? Isolation and sanctions on Syria were always bad policies. They gained America nothing. As I wrote yesterday, even Jeffery Feltman, the State Department’s leading policy guy on Syria, admitted that the US had isolated itself by its policies, rather than isolating Syria. The US is engaging, he averred, because sanctions and isolation had failed. Washington has no choice but to get back into the diplomacy game and try carrots rather than sticks.
There is no blow to Iran. Clinton’s Iran policy is in a shambles. Pretending that there is some big policy roll out underway of which engaging Syria is a part, is not altogether convincing. The US needs to engage Syria for its own reasons. The Bush administration lost Washington friends and clout in the region through its refusal to engage with adversaries and its bad choices over the last 8 years. The Bush effort to put the squeeze to Syria was a bust. There is no way to dress it up. Syria is back in Lebanon; it has more influence in Iraq than it did under Saddam; it has closer relations with Turkey than it could ever have hoped for (thanks to Washington’s club-footedness). Even Saudi Arabia needs Syria again. The world is not going to buy into a major US squeeze effort designed to bring Iran to its knees. Most countries will pretend to go along because they don’t want to piss off America but they will drag their feet or comply halfheartedly. Impoverishing Iran and cutting relations with it are not in the world’s interests. We don’t need another Iraq. Most people know this. An Iran that continues to develop its nuclear know how is not a disaster. Even a nuclear Iran can be contained. Ruining Iran is a disaster.
Syria is not going to deliver a blow to Iran.
U.S. reaches out to Syria after 5-year rift
“… At the same time, the State Department removed an official warning discouraging Americans from traveling to Syria, which was previously deemed unsafe.
The U.S. moves followed a series of recent visits to Syria by senior European officials, who have been urging the Obama administration to engage fully with Damascus. But it was the prospect of weakening Syria’s close relationship with Iran that motivated Washington to extend a hand, diplomats and analysts said.
“There are challenges on the road, but my meeting with President Assad leaves me hopeful that we can make progress together in the interest of both our countries,” said William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in more than five years. Mr. Burns described his Wednesday discussions with Mr. Assad as “quite productive and extensive,” covering “areas on which we disagree, but also we found areas of common ground on which we can build.”…
Daniel Benjamin, the US State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, met with a group of Syrian officials on Thursday for “productive and detailed” talks, the US embassy said.
The two sides discussed “shared counterterrorism concerns and threats,” it said, adding that “we believe Syria can play a constructive role in mitigating these and other threats in cooperation with regional states and the United States.”…… according to Seymour Hersh of New Yorker magazine, cooperation has been restored between the CIA and Syria’s intelligence services. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in 2008 that he would not renew security cooperation with the United States until diplomatic relations were restored.
SYRIA: U.S. Starts Normalisation Process in Earnest
By Charles Fromm and Jim Lobe for IPS
Feb 18, 2010 (IPS) – After months of delay, the administration of President Barack Obama is taking major steps engage the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a broader regional strategy designed in major part to isolate Iran, escalate the fight against al Qaeda and other radical Sunni groups, and encourage peace talks with Israel.
Wednesday’s meeting in Damascus between Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Assad marked the highest-ranking official exchange between the two countries since former Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled there almost six years ago.
And the long-awaited nomination of a new U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, announced by the White House late Tuesday, confirmed the effective end to a diplomatic boycott by Washington that began with the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri which former President George W. Bush blamed on Damascus.
While Ford must still be confirmed in his new post by the U.S. Senate, the fact of his nomination, Burns said after his meeting with Assad, “is a clear sign, after five years without an American ambassador in Damascus, of America’s readiness to improve relations, and to cooperate in the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Arab and Israelis with progress on all tracks of the peace process and in the pursuit of regional peace and stability.”
Burns also announced that the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Amb. Daniel Benjamin, would stay on in Damascus for additional discussions with top Syrian officials presumably focused on fully restoring intelligence and related cooperation that was halted under Bush.
Limited cooperation, especially relating to Syrian help in preventing its border with Iraq from serving as an infiltration and supply route for Sunni or Baathist fighters, has resumed over the past year, largely at the initiative of the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, who had been barred by the previous administration from visiting Damascus.
But Washington now hopes to expand that cooperation both with respect to Iraq and to the larger region as well, given the Assad regime’s long experience in combating Sunni extremism.
Most analysts, as well as the Syrian government itself, had expected that the latest steps toward normalising ties would have taken place much earlier in Obama’s tenure, particularly given his criticism of Bush’s refusal to engage diplomatically with Washington’s perceived foes in the region during his election campaign. Indeed, the administration first officially announced its intention to return an ambassador to Damascus last June.
But resistance from hawkish elements of the so-called “Israel Lobby” here; concerns that a premature rapprochement could strengthen Syria’s allies in Lebanon; as well as the administration’s early focus on re-launching a credible peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, delayed action, although Obama’s special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, has traveled to Damascus three times since last June.
In fact, Burns’s emphasis on the Arab-Israeli peace track in his remarks Wednesday suggested that Washington is putting a high priority on getting a Syrian-Israeli negotiating process underway, particularly in light of the prolonged impasse on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The prospect of reviving what some have called the “Syria First” option may help persuade Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian talks, according to some analysts here.
But the fact that the moves of the last two days come amid a major diplomatic campaign directed against Iran suggests that Washington’s top priority is to test the degree to which Damascus may be willing to loosen its alliance with Tehran in the interests of improving ties with Washington which, among other things, is also seen as critical to Syria’s hopes of recovering the Golan Heights from Israel.
In addition to Syria itself, Burns and his delegation visited with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut earlier this week and are now traveling to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top officials in Qatar and Saudi Arabia earlier this week, while her deputy, James Steinberg, is due in Israel early next week.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and top Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv over the weekend and is scheduled to travel to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week. He told McClatchy Newspapers that Iran was at the top of his agenda.
It is in this context that “the timing of the (Ford’s) appointment, together with the visit of William Burns to Damascus, is part of a tactical push to show Tehran how isolated they really are,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told Politico.com Wednesday.
How open Assad will be to Washington’s more earnest courtship – particularly if it requires them to turn on their long-time ally in Iran – remains far from clear, particularly given his earlier expectations of a much faster normalisation process, including the easing of economic sanctions that remain in effect.
The Syria Accountability Act, approved by Congress in 2004, imposes a number of harsh economic sanctions against Syria, including a ban on the sale of U.S. goods to Damascus. Its terms, however, can be waived if the president finds that such a sale was necessary for national security, an authority that Obama has yet to use despite appeals by Boeing Co. to permit it to sell spare parts and technology for Syria’s aging commercial airliner fleet.
Indeed, in a recent interview with the New Yorker’s legendary investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, Assad expressed great scepticism that about the administration’s ability to accommodate even minimal Syrian requirements.
“Maybe I am optimistic about about Obama, but that does not mean that I am optimistic about other (U.S.) institutions that play negative or paralysing role(s)…,” he said, noting the role of Congress, where pro-Israel forces are especially strong, in particular.
“(T)he whole atmosphere is not positive towards the president in general,” he said. “And that is why I think his envoys cannot succeed.”
He also rejected Washington’s current strategy of seeking greater international support for economic sanctions on Iran to persuade it to curb its nuclear programme.
“Imposing sanctions (on Iran) is a problem because they will not stop the programme and they will accelerate it if you are suspicious,” he told Hersh. “They can make problems to the Americans more than the other way around,” he added.
Moreover, Assad is considered to be in a much stronger position both internally and internationally than even a year ago when Obama took office.
Syria’s economy is attracting record foreign investment due to the implementation of a sweeping reform programme. On the diplomatic front, it has fully normalised ties with France and other European nations and has regained considerable influence in Lebanon since the so-called Cedar Revolution that followed Hariri’s assassination and forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
Michele Dunne, the delightful and talented editor of Arab Reform Bulletin writes: I wanted to highlight for you that the ARB has undergone another evolution: we will publish 1-2 articles weekly instead of 5 monthly. Subscribers can now set their preferences to receive an email from us whenever we post new material, once a week, or once a month–whichever way they will get all the material we post.
Robert Fisk accuses Britain of collusion with Israel on the Dubai killings. Britain’s explanation is riddled with inconsistencies. It’s time to come clean