Can Bush Bring Down Syrian Regime?

Jim Lobe once again has the best article summing up how "Bush Is Under Growing Pressure to Engage Syria" October 28, 2006. He maintains that the hawks centered in the National Security Council, particularly Elliot Abrams, and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, notably his national security adviser, John Hannah, and Middle East specialist, David Wurmser, have enough clout to fight back the growing tide of heavy-weights in the administration who want to engage Syria. They are the crowd that has been most adamant about bringing regime-change to Syria. The silent treatment that Syria is getting from the Bush administration is designed to keep the regime-change option open. The moment dialogue begins with Syria, the train will have left the station and the regime-change crowd will have to wave their hankies and wipe the tears from their eyes, as they watch Syria's Baathist regime ride out of the station into a future that will be brighter for it.

taken from NYRB

This small handful of hawks would not have the muscle to hold back the growing number of officials recommending engagement if President Bush were not four square behind them. Bush gave a long and rambling press conference to a handful of conservative journalists this Wednesday in which he made it clear that he believes America is winning in Iraq and can stay the course. Dan Fromkin in the Washington Post does an excellent job of explaining "Why Bush Thinks We're Winning," in which he parses the president's words.

So how does the NSC and Defense Department think they are going to further isolate Bashar al-Asad and bring down his regime?

Muslim Brotherhood:
One method is to open a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and ex-Vice President Khaddam who combined forces a year ago to form the National Salvation Front or NSF. The Levant Institute in
London, which is connected to the Muslim Brothers, has announced that Michael Doran of the National Security Council (He was hired by Elliott Abrams) "met with members of the National Salvation Front on Thursday October 26 and discussed possibilities of meeting with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leadership in the future."

Farid Ghadry in his most recent circulars has been rather upset by this news. He is  no longer the preferred Syrian opposition member. Last week, Ghadry sent around a circular claiming that Ammar Abdulhamid was opening an office in Washington for the NSF. Ammar and the Brookings Institute, where Ammar is a non-resident fellow, denied it.

Nevertheless, Ammar explained on Monday Oct. 23 to the audience at the Brookings Institute that although he is in no way officially connected to the NSF office that will be opened, he will be assisting the NSF in making contact with administration figures, which he has done in facilitating the meeting with Doran. The NSF is opening an office in Washington and will be doing the same in European capitals. If Washington is interested in democracy, it will have to turn to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most respected and deep-rooted Islamist party in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Even if the Bush administration is merely interested in regime-change, it will have to turn to the MB if it hopes to have any chance of success. Even then, the Brotherhood is weak. Although it can tap into the broad and growing current of Islamist thought in Syria, the MB was destroyed institutionally by the regime during the crackdown that followed the Hama uprising of 1982. It has never really rebuilt itself within Syria, where belonging to the Party is punishable by death.

The Saudis are also reaching out to the NSF and Khaddam. UPI reported on Oct. 20 that the Saudi monarch and crown prince met Tuesday with Khaddam. UPI's source, who refused to elaborate on Khaddam's meeting in Saudi Arabia, said King Abdullah will hold a similar meeting with Rifaat Assad, Syrian President Bashar Assad's uncle who has been living in exile for several years after being evicted by the late President Hafez Assad in the late 1980s following a coup attempt.

Another option the Bush administration is most likely pursuing is the training of Syrian Kurds in
Iraq in military tactics and the art of subversion. I have no knowledge if US forces are training Syrian Kurds in Iraq. I do, however, have good information that the US is training Iranian Kurds to act as a cat's paw for US policy in Iran, which leads me to suspect that the same is being done with Syrian Kurds. 

Asad Regime is Strong
Regime-change in Syria seems like an extremely remote possibility. Bashar al-Asad's regime is much stronger than the hawks in Washington believe. They are listening to Khaddam, who claims that the regime is on its last legs. WINEP's Robert Satloff has been arguing the same thing, claiming that "The Syrian regime is profoundly fragile." Of course this is not true. Interestingly, Denis Ross, Satloff's (boss?) at WINEP, contradicts Rob. He claims that "It's pretty clear to me that the regime is not on its last legs."

Satloff has gotten some of his best intelligence on Syria from Ammar Abdulhamid. He has frequently quoted Ammar's powerful quip several years ago questioning whether Bashar is Fredo or Michael Corleone – after the two brothers in the God Father film. Of course they always answer their own question by insisting that Bashar is Fredo. This got them lots of laughs a few years ago.

The only problem is…… bada da boom

Fredo seems to have taken up residence in the White House !^&*%$@

I used that line at Brookings on Monday as I sat next to Ammar. It got a few laughs from the hawkish crowd. It was a calculated risk. After all, one doesn't want to look disloyal or outrageously radical, but the point must be made that Bashar is looking increasingly prescient on a number of issues compared to Bush.

Several years ago, the pundits were saying that Asad just didn't get it and that he didn't realize how "9-11 had changed everything." But 9-11 didn't change everything. Bashar was right about Iraq, right about Hamas, and right about Hizbullah. He bet on the winner in each of these issues. Bush bet on losers: in Iraq he bet on pro-American secular forces winning and standing up democracy; in Palestine, he bet on the PLO over Hamas; in Lebanon, he bet on disarming Hizbullah.

Satloff still claims that "Assad’s record is dismal." and that Bashar “achieved a stunning degree of incompetence,” based on his opposition to America's invasion of Iraq and failure to understand America's commitment to the war on terror. I would argue that Bashar got both of these about right. He has survived to see both Bush policies become mired in the merde. Satloff is still shocked that Bashar could have "declared [that] Arab friendship with the United States was “more fatal than its hostility.”

Syria Frightened of Democracy, Cling to Authoritarianism
Bashar owes what popularity he has in Syria and throughout the region to his anti-American stand.  In the Washington Post, Ellen Knickmeyer explains in her article: "In Syria, Iraq's Fate Silences Rights Activists," how Syria's pro-democracy advocates have been silenced and marginalized by Washington's failure in Iraq. Syrians are clinging to their authoritarian leader like a ship-wrecked crew clings to driftwood. They are not eager to experiment with democracy and end up like the Iraqis. Knickmeyer writes:

"Since Iraq's descent into sectarian and ethnic war — and after Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, even Syrian activists concede that the country's feeble rights movement is moribund. Advocates of democracy are equated now with supporters of America, even "traitors," said Maan Abdul Salam, 36, a Damascus publisher who has coordinated conferences on women's rights and similar topics.

Omar Amiralay, a movie maker and critic of the regime, is quoted saying,

"I think that people at the end said, 'Well, it is better to keep this government. We know them, and we don't want to go to this civil war, and to live this apocalyptic image of change, with civil war and sectarianism and blood.' "

If one needs anymore proof of the desperation of Iraqis in Syria, one only need read the excellent articles by Hugh Macleod on the latest wave of young Iraqi women to "fall prey to sex traffickers" in the Guardian. Of course Syrians witnessed some 200,000 Lebanese refugees come into their country this summer to help usher in what Condoleezza Rice described as America's effort to assist in the birth pangs of a new Middle East. That was an example of US democracy promotion at its most exiting. But it is the Iraq example that really gives democracy a bad name.

Ron Redmond, UNHCR chief spokesman, according to an IRIN news report, said some 40,000 Iraqis are now arriving in Syria each month. The condition of the 700,000 Iraqis already in Syria is deteriorating rapidly as they run out of money. They cannot hold work permits although they can send their kids to school in Syria and gain access to health care. The UNHCR says their budget for Iraqis has been slashed since 2003 because the country is supposed to be "liberated." In Syria the UNHCR office is funded with less than one dollar for each refugee a year.

Europe Wants Dialogue with Syria
A British parliamentarian, Richard Spring, the Conservative MP for West Suffolk, argues forcefully why Syria is not Iran and why "We must work with Syria to secure peace in the Middle East – only this can break the deadlock," he writes. Britain's conservatives are positioning themselves behind dialogue with Syria.

The European Union is asking for new incentives to Syria for peace. A report adopted by the European Parliament included this line: "Parliament requests the Council to consider additional incentives and benefits for Syria, going beyond those granted through the association agreement … to encourage Syria to review its current foreign policy …"

New Issue of Foreign Affairs on Syria-Lebanon
Even if President Bush doesn't get that his Middle East policy is in a shambles, the rest of the foreign policy crowd does. Richard Haass has an excellent lead article, "The New Middle East," in Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006. He argues that America's moment in the Middle East is over. Growing Islamism in the region and chaos in Iraq are undermining US authority.

Summary:  The age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era in the modern history of the region has begun. It will be shaped by new actors and new forces competing for influence, and to master it, Washington will have to rely more on diplomacy than on military might.

Volker Perthes, "The Syrian Solution," in the same issue is also excellent. A year ago, Perthes was predicting the end of the regime. Now he argues that Western powers must engage the Asad regime – a testament to how things have changed in a year.

Summary:  Damascus did not commission Hezbollah's raid into Israel, but it did see the ensuing crisis as a chance to prove its importance. Western powers should realize that Syria is ready to be part of a regional solution — as long as its own interests are recognized.

Paul Salem's article on "The Future of Lebanon" is also important, as is Edward P. Djerejian's calling for a lasting and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

Whose eyes are these? Hint: She lived 4,500 years ago in Syria and was burried with 27 complete donkeys.

"Forbidding" an oppinion piece from Oct. 22 Asharq al-Awsat, translated by

 On October 22, Diana Muqlid wrote in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al Awsat: "The Syrian authorities forbade the Damascus Declaration's Follow-up and Coordination Committee to hold a press conference on the first anniversary of the launch of that famous declaration, which was written by Syrian academicians and politicians who are opposed to the regime to call for radical democratic changes in Syria. The ban was implemented according to the familiar intelligence method: the Jamal al-Atasi Club for Democratic Dialogue, where the meeting was supposed to be held, was surrounded, the Discipline Preservation Police members spread out, all outlets leading to the place were closed, and the people in charge of the conference were told that it was forbidden. Perhaps the only good thing was that nobody was beaten, jailed or killed, as has happened in many previous accidents in Syria. The harm, in addition to the ban, was limited to some damage done to th! e car of Suhayr al-Atasi, the club's Administration Council chairman.

"This seems familiar in the course of Syrian official treatment of any opposition or of the voices that argue with the Syrian Ba'th regime over its policies inside and outside Syria. Muzzling the mouths of opponents or would-be opponents is a constant and old procedure carried out by the "forbidding" state. But the state itself does not mind releasing a lot of fabricated and false news against personalities, politicians and countries through official newspapers, platforms and websites for which writers of reports who are famous for their loyalty to the regime and for the adoption of "forbidding" are asked to write. "Forbidding" here has become a commonplace and exaggeratedly public expression that means steadfastness in the face of Israel and the West. In order not to lead people into the confusion that is intended by some people, we must say that criticizing Syria surely does not harmonize with what the USA and its allies want, or with the genius of President George Bush, w! hich aims at aggravating the crises and kindling divisions in the region.

"In a report by the Journalists' Protection Committee on the 10 countries with most censorship of the press and media, both Libya and Syria were mentioned, while Iraq, of course, remained at the top of the list of countries that are most dangerous for journalists. This categorization does not exempt the miserable conditions of press and information in other Arab countries, but it gives precedence to the worst over the worse. Between killing journalists in Iraq and arresting their colleagues in Syria, there is a clear line of the harmony of terrorism with "modernism" in the Ba'thist way. Both sides despise people of opinion and knowledge, and both hate being criticized for being an evil that should be fought. The hostility of the "forbidders" to the press and to culture has become an identity more than a current stand, for when freedom is seen as a Western colonial product, forbidding is required in order to perfect the characteristics of nationality and this bu! ries any dis! agreement and disparages any questioning.

"We can also direct no less severe criticism against the USA, but the difference may be summed up by the state of the great US journalist Bob Woodward, who exposed a series of scandals in the USA, including Watergate. He recently wrote a book entitled "A State of Denial" in which he exposes Bush's era and the war on Iraq, accusing the US administration of lying in regard to the US casualties there. Woodward is still at his home, and his books and articles continue to be published in great newspapers and to shake the fortress of the Republican administration, while, in the "forbidding" countries, the likes of Woodward are put in prison." – Asharq Al Awsat, United Kingdom

Comments (28)

Richard Silverstein said:

Re: your comments on possible U.S. engagement w. Syria. You didn’t mention something that bothers me a great deal & is directly related to this subject. It is widely known in the Israeli media (& I’ve written about it at my blog) that those same neocon hawks maintaining a tough anti-Syrian position are the ones exerting maximum influence on Olmert & Israel not to negotiate w. Syria. It is clear that all the parties know the terms of a future peace deal & basically accept them. The only thing holding it back is those rotten chicken hawks in D.C.

They not only have blood on their hands over Iraq. They will be responsible for any future Israeli hostilities w. either Hezbollah or Syria. As Assad claims, I’m certain that were there no pressue there would be a peace treaty within a reasonably short period of time. THis would quiet Israel’s northern border & possibly be a prelude to a settlement w. the Palestinians as well (though that’s harder to predict w. certainty).

October 29th, 2006, 1:18 am


Innocent_Criminal said:

well this is a bit of a vain comment. But I will be commenting on a similar topic on BBC World tomorrow. They have called me again to join their program “Have Your Say” which will be airing tomorrow at 14:05 GMT. The topic is Iraq and whether the US policy should change to include Syria and Iran. In case you won’t tune in I will be saying a modified version of below.

“It’s ironic that we have come full circle on the subject of dialogue when the Syrians had offered their help in Iraq for years while the Americans have consistently refused it. And while dialogue with Iran and Syria has been part of backdoor political discourse for years. It has recently received a stronger backing by James Baker’s recent recommendations.

But I feel it will be a very difficult juggling act on the US’s part to enroll the Syrian and Iranian support in Iraq. Because this will certainly mean empowering both on issues important to two countries many in Washington view as hostile. On the Iranian side the key issue is obviously their nuclear program which is certainly too high of a price for the Americans & Israelis. They would rather see Iraq burn in civil war before allowing a successful Iranian Nuclear program (civil or military for that matter). On the Syrian front the price the Americans would have to pay might be less costly, since Syria is engulfed with the Hariri investigation. A deal might come in the form of a less embarrassing outcome of the investigation plus a silent sanction of Syrian influence in Lebanon. This said, we have heard rumors of a deal before but the American policy remained hawkish. And just last week Khaddam the ex-Syrian senior official who broke from the Ba’ath party met King Abudallah of Saudi Arabia (a staunch US ally) while the National Salvation Front, an opposition party that includes Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood, were approved to open an office in Washington. So if I would look at it from the Syrian side they might think that action speaks louder than words.

So my conclusion on the issue is that there is no conclusion. The Neo-cons want to appear as if they are considering all options, but in reality they just don’t want to pay the price of these options.”

October 29th, 2006, 2:50 am


norman said:

The US does not seem to learn from previous mistakes , In Iraq the islamist are in power, In the west bank Hamas is in power and they still seem to seek an islamic regime in Syria .How stupid can a US gov be.

October 29th, 2006, 4:54 am


Craig said:

The baseline premise of all this seems to be that there is some benefit to the US engaging Syria, diplomatically, no?

What would that be? Are we to return to our old ways of appeasing enemies, just for the sake of trying to convince people we’re likable folks? WTH is Syria going to do for the US? Nothing. Syria can do nothing FOR the US and it can do nothing TO the US that is not already doing, so to hell with Syria.

I don’t understand this philosophy of engaging enemies diplomatically just for the sake of being able to pretend there’s something going on. That’s political stunts 101, at it’s worst. I could possibly understand it if we wanted to turn Syria into an ally of convenience, but we obviously do not, since Syria is in the camp of America’s two highest priority enemies, Iran and Hezbollah. Is there anything the US can do to change that, and get Syria to turn on it’s current allies? No. There isn’t. We leave Syria to die on the vine. Or not. The US has nothing to gain by “talking” to a puppet of our greatest enemy.

October 29th, 2006, 8:43 am


Craig said:

One more comment,

Summary: The age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era in the modern history of the region has begun.

When was the US “dominant” in the Middle East? This is a silly statement. The US didn’t install all the dictators in the US, Nasser did. Which brings up the question about what exactly “:new” there is going on the middle east? Pan-Arabism is not new. Islamism isn’t new either.

It will be shaped by new actors and new forces competing for influence

Which would be…. who? These “new” forces, I mean? Europeans? WTF is new about Europeans mucking about in the ME!?

To get back to the first section of quoted text, the real place where American dominance has ended is in Europe. The Europeans cannot function without somebody establishing hegemony over them for very long. They hate each other’s guts. They’ll have a new boss soon, now that they’ve gotten out from under America’s shadow. Same as the old boss? I doubt it. I’m guessing they will be looking back at the 60 years Europe was under America’s thumb as the good old days.

and to master it, Washington will have to rely more on diplomacy than on military might.

Yeah, because… hell… look at hoe great diplomacy has worked in the Middle East, these last 60 years. Right? *boggle*

October 29th, 2006, 8:57 am


Philip I said:

“[Satloff is still shocked that Bashar could have “declared [that] Arab friendship with the United States was “more fatal than its hostility.”]”

There is a lot of truth in this statement but you could not argue that it applies equally to the Clinton, Carter or even Reagan presidencies.

Save for a half-baked plan for regime change in Iraq, Bush had no real focus on foreign policy until 9/11. That single event gave Dick Cheney and the pro-Israeli and Neocon groups the opportunity to re-write American foreign policy and military manuals to suit their own agenda.

Syria lost out economically from the war in Iraq and the regime felt threatened by the collapse of a similarly-dictatorial government next door. At first, the regime, correctly, took a less confrontational atittude towards a raging bull that was seeing red after 9/11. But, as the war in Iraq progressed, fear for its own future made it lose its balance and adopt antagonistic foreign policies designed to thwart American plans and ensure its own survival. Allying with Iran, supporting the insurgency in Iraq and inflaming popular and Islamist emotions in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine have been its policy instruments.

The question is, Could the regime have ensured its own survival and spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine by adopting a less confrontational course against Washington? I think the answer to the first part of the question is no and the second part is yes.

October 29th, 2006, 9:33 am


Ramy said:

I agree with what Norman said, US should be aware that when Islamists are in power, they will turn their backs to the US, and even worse.

October 29th, 2006, 11:16 am


Dubai Jazz said:

It sounds a bit bizarre to me that the Muslim Brotherhood is collaborating with the US in order to topple the regime?
If the MB is really capitalizing on their ‘popularity’ in Syria, they should have out ruled all possible ties with the US, which policies in Syria were not all that popular last time I checked. However, I think the mere alliance between them and Khaddam, the ensued so called ‘Salvation Front’ and the opening of its offices in Washington, all will dub their acts as conspiring and ignominious.

October 29th, 2006, 1:01 pm


George Ajjan said:

The best Assad-Corleone analogy:

Bashar: Asma, in 7 years, the Baath Party will be completely democratic.

Asma: Habibi, you told me that 7 years ago…

October 29th, 2006, 1:19 pm


G said:

Is it just me or did I read this in that Reuters article on the EU:

EU countries should at the same time encourage democracy in Syria and call on it to avoid interference in Lebanon’s affairs and stop arms supplies to anti-Israeli Hezbollah guerrillas.

The report also called on Syria to free political prisoners and allow freedom of expression.

“Under the present political circumstances, it is difficult to envisage deepening our relations with Syria.”

Ferrero-Waldner said member states expected Syria to take “positive and credible” steps on Lebanon and the Palestinian issue before signing the association agreement on closer ties initialled by both sides in 2004.

October 29th, 2006, 1:37 pm


Ehsani2 said:

Dr. Landis,

Every strategic decision has its risks and rewards. The U.S. needs to carefully analyze the long-term implications of its future policy on Syria.

You have made it clear that you prefer for your country to change its current policy and open a dialogue with Syria. You clearly believe that the rewards of such a decision far outweigh the risks. While your argument seems logical, I think that it fails to explain how the U.S. will cope with the inevitability of a significantly stronger Iran and Syria should it follow your advice. More specifically, I would be interested to hear your view as to how the U.S. will have to accept ceding power to this Iran-Syria axis in both Lebanon, Iraq if not the whole Arab and Islamic world.

Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon is a major strategic chess game that has to be taken into account when we discuss U.S. policy in the region. I believe that Syria’s close ties with Iran have made the country part of this discussion. U.S. policy towards Syria, therefore, cannot be made without a careful analysis of this top geopolitical agenda item.

Set below is a long article that appeared in this morning’s NYT Sunday magazine. I think that it helps demonstrate the highly volatile and complicated nature of the topic at hand.

Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age..

October 29th, 2006, 2:55 pm


why-discuss said:

The geographic position of Iran and Syria make them direct neighbour to Iraq. It is impossible to deny that they will inevitably have influence on each other and often intervene in each other internal politics.
Now with the war raging in Iraq, their influence is perceived as negative, yet both of these countries do not want to see that civil war spilling to their country, yet they do not want to directy ally themselves with the US whose cowboyish and murderous dealings- with Iraq offers no hope for an intelligent and efficient collaboration. I believe it is Iran and Syria who do not wish to deal with the present US administration who has made huge mistakes after huge mistakes with an arrogance that the americans and the iraqis are paying dearly with their lives. To force Iran to accept to deal with the US, the US is using the nuclear program issue which is the only tool left in their hand. Another arrogant move that the Iranian are right to dismiss. With Syria, the US are using the voices in Lebanon calling for justice and accusing Syria of the killing of Hariri. This is also a weak tool to bend Syria to engage with the US. Syria is a united, strong country, mainly due to the enduring grip the baath party had on the population and recently the conviction that the present regime is much better than the mess in iraq.
So, it is an illusion to believe that the US will be able to engage with Syria and Iran in the present administration… see you in 2009.

October 29th, 2006, 4:33 pm


ivanka said:

The US wants democracy. Fine, I am an idiot and I beleive that. Why does it have to seek democracy through the MB and Khaddam. I mean religious fundamentalists + one of the worst people in the Syrian regime (the fact that he left it changes nothing). All these people are profoundly undemocratic and the US wants to use them to bring democracy!

October 29th, 2006, 4:57 pm


Alex said:

“I don’t understand this philosophy of engaging enemies diplomatically”

This is the best way to distort reality!

Who said that Syria is an enemy of the United States??


Iran will have its nuclear weapon no matter what the others decide to do. So that is a constant in both options (to cooperate or not to cooperate with Iran). But I agree with IC that Iran’s case is more complicated than Syria’s.

October 29th, 2006, 9:02 pm


ugarit said:

There is no evidence that Iran is planning to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact, it has not violated any treaty. That being said it would be foolish for it not to acquire them in the current atmosphere. Iran knows that they cannot use those weapons, for abvious reasons, however, it would add a huge deterent to US/Israel attempts at hegemony.

Deterence is what the US-Israeli axis does not want.

BTW, I’ve always sensed that N. Korea is just a token enemy just so the US can claim that it’s really not only Muslims and Arabs. I may be wrong.

October 29th, 2006, 9:31 pm


George Ajjan said:

More Syrian Godfather outtakes:

BASHAR: “You have to answer for Hariri, Assef…You fingered Kenaan for the Khaddam people. Ahh, that little farce you played with my sister. You think that could fool an Assad?

Come on. Don’t be afraid, Assef. Come on, you think I’d make my sister a widow? I’m Godfather to your son, Assef…You’re out of the Family business, that’s your punishment. You’re finished. I’m putting you on a plane to Dubai…I want you to stay there, understand? Only don’t tell me you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry. Now, who approached you? Rifaat or King Abdallah?

ASSEF: It was Abdallah.


October 29th, 2006, 10:10 pm


Joshua said:

Ehsani, when I gave my talk at Brookings, an ex-Ambassador to Middle East countries (not Syria), asked why Rice should torture herself by visiting Bashar as Warren Christopher had.

He was snide and displayed the usual Washington arrogance: Why talk to Syria when it is greedy and hard to come to terms with?

I understand the frustration and danger of negotiating with a country that has a very different vision of the Middle East than does the US. Ideally US politicians would like to be able to promise Israel ownership of the West Bank without the annoyance of a hostile Palestinian reaction. They would like Lebanon to be run by the March 14 group or an equivalent pro-US and pro-Israeli group of free-traders. US politicians would also like to avoid asking Israel to give up the Golan and would like Syria to have no impact or influence in the neighborhood.

But we all know that this is impossible. The real question most Washington realists are asking is how little can the US offer Syria and still get a deal that will help neutralize Hizb, Hamas, and gain support in Iraq?

One Israeli military officer, a visiting scholar at Brookings, asked if Syria would be willing to cut relations with Hamas and Hizb, if Israel gave back the Golan. I responded that I didn’t think it would work that way. His response to that was, “Well, than it isn’t worth it.”

I fear that is how many people think about negotiations with Syria.

First, Syria will not give up being friends with Iran, Hizb and Hamas, in exchange for the Golan, much as the US did not stop supporting Taiwan when it recognized mainland China. Neither has China given up its claim to Taiwan because it talked with the US. Nevertheless, the two sides have come to an agreement that has worked rather well to avoid war and attenuate the explosive issue of Taiwan.

Second, Syria can do what Jordan and Egypt did. Both Egypt and Jordan have every interest in keeping the peace and in not losing the gains they achieved with recognizing Israel and getting their land back. Syria will travel the same road and come to the same strategic assessment – that it is not worth jeopardizing peace with Israel to aid Hizb or Hamas with weapons and war. Syria will never stop supporting Palestinian justice or allies in Lebanon, but it will adopt a much more tempered interpretation of what justice is in the region and how to achieve it. This will inevitably evolve following a return of the Golan, when relations with Israel are not soured by occupation of Syrian land.

Third, Syria will gain importance in the coming year, whether the US talks to it or not. Everyone is Washington looks at Syria as if it is a beggar and weak. It isn’t.

Iraq is on the way to splitting up into three, whether one likes it or not. That is the logic of the civil war now being wagged. I doubt the sectarian genie can be put back into the bottle. Syria remained in Lebanon for 15 years and insisted on the unity of Lebanon. I do not believe that the US will do the same thing in Iraq. I believe it will withdraw. In which case, either the country will split into three, or the Shiite za’ims will fight it out among themselves and then overrun the Sunnis compelling them to negotiate terms considerably inferior to those presently being demanded.

Whatever the outcome, Syria is going to acquire much greater regional importance. If Iraq splits into three and the Sunni region gains ever greater autonomy, it will have to turn toward Syria, Jordan and Saudi. It already has. Iraqis are not only taking refuge in Syria but many, who live in the Sunni provinces near Syria are sending their children to school in Syria and sending their families to hospitals and health clinics in Syria. Iraqis who cannot get state services at home are already looking to their neighbors for help and alternative state assistance.

This will make Syria ever more influential. Saudi Arabia, despite bad relations with Syria because of Lebanon, will have to negotiate with Syria to help the Iraqi Sunnis, especially if the Iraqi Shi’a hinder direct Saudi access to Anbar province through the south of Iraq.

I do not think Washington will be able to enforce an embargo on Syria or promote greater economic sanctions on Syria, as Secretary Rice claims it will do. I think this is beyond America’s power.

Washingtonians still pretend that they are in a position to pick and choose when it comes to Syria, but I doubt this privileged position will last much longer.

The Iraqi situation is getting worse by the day. Regional powers will be force to beat a path to Damascus to enlist Asad’s help in influencing the outcome in Iraq. Iran has done this for decades. Turkey has already done this, as well. It is a bell weather. Jordan, even though it doesn’t have a Kurdish problem as Turkey does, has a Sunni Iraqi problem that it shares with Syria. This problem will get much worse in the coming year and force the two countries to coordinate their strategies. The same goes for Saudi Arabia, which will be force to make it worth Syria’s while to balance between Iran and Sunni Arab interests.

For these reasons, I believe the US will be well advised to begin coming to terms with Damascus.

Syria and Washington will never be warm friends. They will always mistrust each other. But they can come to an understanding that will help attenuate many of the conflicts in the region. I think this is in the interest of both countries. This was the case under Asad the father, who helped keep the Lebanon situation from spinning out of control and who helped keep Iraq from threatening the region.

Bashar will do the same. The big difference between Bashar and his father is not that one was reasonable and the other not. The big difference is that Washington thought Bashar was Fredo and that it could play him for a sucker. America insisted on taking Lebanon from Syria, which it has successfully done to a large degree. It has not been as successful with its other regional ambitions: building a stable and pro-American Iraq, undermining Palestinian resistance, and closing down Hizbullah. The US can consolidate most of its gains in Lebanon, but it will have to accommodate Syria in the other areas. It is not going to get everything it set out to get in 2003. That is the lesson of the recent failures in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

October 29th, 2006, 10:40 pm


Alex said:

Josh why do you assume that the United States and Syria will never have warm relations? I can see that once the Golan issue is out of the way and Syria is not a persistent pain for Israel, the United States will be happy to work closely with Syria.

But otherwise, very interesting point about Saudi Arabia cooperating with Bashar to help the Iraqi Sunnis.

Do you think Bashar will continue to be successful in balancing his Sunni/Shiite relations with his Iraqi allies? .. even if they are killing each other every day?

October 29th, 2006, 11:08 pm


Joshua said:

Alex, I think it will be difficult for Syria and the US to have warm relations because of the nature of the Syrian regime and their different interests.

Syria’s regime has made “Arabism” key to its legitimacy. The US and Israel are extremely unlikely to satisfy Syria’s definition of Palestinian rights. This, of course, was also true of Egypt, but Egypt has never complained much about Israel’s continued expropriation of Palestinian land. It is possible that Syria will become like Egypt and forget about the Palestinian issue once it gets back its occupied land. I suspect it will be to a great extent, but not all the way, because of ideology. I do think peace would lead to Bashar’s de-baathifying to a large degree, but not all the way. Saddat dumped Nasserism completely. I don’t think Bashar can do that.

The US is always going to ignore Syrian interests because of its more important relations with Syria’s neighbors, whether Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon or Israel.

Syria has never had good relations with the US, even when it was the Arab World’s only democracy (outside of Lebanon) and was ruled by the landed aristocracy. US friendship with Israel and Syria’s other neighbors always trumped its relations with Syria.

Even when Syria has peace with Israel, I suspect if will continue to have difficult relations with the US for these reasons.

October 29th, 2006, 11:23 pm


Alex said:

That’s reasonable, but one could have used similar logic regarding Syria’s relations with Turkey which were never good in the past, yet today they are excellent.

I think both Syria and Israel will realize that they need each other to fight against fundamentalist tendencies in the region. If Israel makes life easy for the Palestinians (going back to the Barak Arafat deal), then Syria will have much more freedom to cooperate with Israel, and indirectly become more a more useful friend to the United States.

Which reminds me, here is today’s editorial in Haaretz:

Between D.C. and Damascus

October 29th, 2006, 11:55 pm


norman said:

I do not think that Syria will ever abandon the Palestinians and Hamas or Hizballa but Syria can use it,s influance to convince the Palestinians and Hizball of deals everybody can live with , like giving the Palestinians in Syria nationality and residence for an economic pakage that will help Syria advance toward the future , and covince it,s allies in Lebanon to axcept setling the Palestinians there for anothe economic pakage and forgivness of debt, Israel can help with that too , the US and Israel can take credit for peace and everybody will live happily ever after.

October 30th, 2006, 1:38 am


norman said:

Even the daily star is calling for talk between the US and Syria,
Between Syria and Israel, a strategic breakthrough for peace is possible

By John K. Cooley
Commentary by
Monday, October 30, 2006

Nearly unnoticed amid the justified global furore over North Korea’s nuclear test is that Syria has been flashing peace signals at Israel and the United States. It is unwise to ignore them.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to be doing just this, however, when she failed on a recent trip in the region to visit Damascus, often a crucial stop on past American emissaries’ Middle East peace tours.

Syrian President Bashar Assad told a BBC interviewer earlier this month that Syria was prepared to return to the peace table with Israel, insisting that he needed an “impartial” umpire, perhaps from the European Union. But he said the Bush administration couldn’t play this role, because the US doesn’t have “the will or vision” to pursue peace in the Middle East, nor is there concrete US-Syria dialogue.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice premier and veteran statesman, responded with a public invitation to Assad to “come to Jerusalem and talk,” as President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had in 1977. In so doing, Sadat initiated the process that led Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty in 1979.

Arab commentators wondered if, as a recent editorial in The Daily Star put it, Peres was “trying to breathe life into a facet of the Arab-Israeli peace process that his boss, [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, has tried to smother” – or whether he was trying to make “Assad look intransigent by making him an offer he couldn’t accept.” Sadat, after all, had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s invitation only after Sadat himself had offered to come. Assad hasn’t so offered.

To the BBC’s direct question as to whether Israel and Syria could live side by side in peace, accepting each other’s existence, Assad responded with an emphatic “yes.”

Virtually all Arab and Muslim leaders – whether regarded in Washington as “radical,” like Assad, or “moderate,” like King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – share Assad’s perception that the Bush administration is seriously biased in Israel’s favor, and that it will make no serious move without Jerusalem’s assent.

Although less publicly defiant toward the West than the leaders of “axis of evil” members Iran and North Korea, Assad, like them, is driven by his relative diplomatic isolation. This leads him to warn his people and other Arab regimes that war with his main enemy – in Syria’s case, Israel – can’t be ruled out.

The inconclusive results of this summer’s destructive 34-day war in Lebanon, and the widespread opinion in the Middle East that it was a proxy war between the US and Iran, feeds this state of mind. Assad told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa that Israel might attack at any time, backed militarily by the United States.

It’s not difficult to agree with Israelis such as Peres who urge Olmert to stop rejecting Syrian overtures outright. It would also help if Olmert reversed his declaration that returning Syria’s Golan Heights, captured in 1967, is an “impossibility.” Reclaiming that land is Syria’s indispensable goal, one it nearly achieved when President Bill Clinton umpired direct peace talks in 2000 between Syria and Israel at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which eventually failed.

Former Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu understood that a peace deal with Syria to return the Golan, where UN observers have successfully watched over a cease-fire since 1973, would be a strategic breakthrough. It could help bring peace to other Arab-Israeli fronts, including the one created by Israel’s nearly 40-year occupation of the West Bank.

Many US and some European analysts agree with the Israeli view that Iran, possibly seeking nuclear weapons, is Israel’s most dangerous enemy. If so, ending Syria’s alliance with Tehran would benefit Israel and the US.

This can’t be achieved by refusing to talk with Damascus. There’s plenty to talk about: turning August’s Lebanese-Israeli cease-fire into durable peace and ending Syrian and Iranian arms support for Hizbullah and the Islamist leaders of Hamas. Hamas, which came to power in elections last January in Gaza and the West Bank, is now deprived of Western aid – a penalty due to Hamas’ refusal to formally recognize the state of Israel. This lack of aid is bringing intense suffering to ordinary Palestinians.

Like its now nuclear-armed commercial partner, North Korea, which has supplied Syria and Iran with missile systems, Syria feels surrounded. It is squeezed between Israel, American forces in Iraq and a Lebanese government at odds with Damascus over suspected Syrian involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Instead of shunning Syria, the Bush administration should re-engage with Damascus. If properly managed, this could nudge Olmert, or his possible successor, toward successfully concluding peace with Syria. It’s worth trying.

John K. Cooley, a former correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. His latest book is “An Alliance Against Babylon: the US, Israel, and Iraq.” This article first appeared in the Monitor and is published in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.

October 30th, 2006, 1:55 am


qunfuz said:

The eyes, Josh, belong to the bronze age princess of Tuba. Do I win a horse’s head? Or dead canary? Or something?

If Ammar is introducing people like Khaddam to people like the DU criminals of the US administration, does he still pretend to be a democrat?

October 30th, 2006, 3:14 am


ivanka said:

The only non-military way of disarming Hezballa is a peace deal with Syria. Nobody in Lebanon can disarm them. Israel couldn’t. Syria can tell them to put down their weapons and become a political party. It is one of the rare parties the hezb will listen to.

October 30th, 2006, 8:15 am


Akbar Palace said:

Democracies are inherently stronger than thugocracies. Don’t let their media and their lack of determination fool you.

If Iran feels the need to start another war through Syria, or through the use of nuclear weapons, no democratic government will walk away from the challenge.

The Arabs, Saddam, Nasser, and especially the Palestinians, continue to draw the wrong conclusions from minor setbacks.

Relax, change is good.

October 30th, 2006, 5:28 pm


ausamaa said:

Few Simple Facts that might give some insight into what to expect in the future:

1- The US and the West and the “Moderate” Arabs refused to extended even life-saving assistance to the Democratically elected government in occupied Palestine?
So what to expect?
Realism by the West and Israel? Not the norm! Submission by Hamas? It aint coming.

2- The US and the West and Israel and the Moderate Arabs “assisted or hindered by” the Lebanese “Majority” Coalition could not close the Hezbollah Chapter and plain could not.
So what to expect from the West? A hopeful implementation of resolutions 1595-1701? Highly Unlikely.
Submission by Hezbollah and the Opposition? Again, not in the cards by a long shot.

3- Two major US/Western camp gains in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to achieve even their declared objectives namely: Democracy, Stability and a US-Friendly government in either?
What to expect? Staying the course? Too damn expensive, and highly unpopular.
Waking up from the nightmare to a peaceful Iraq? A complete impossibility without serious action and involvement by the you know who! And even then, maybe..!

4- The US/Israel and the West and Arab Moderates played the “Hit Syria Now, Boycott Syria Now” record for years until they rendered the record useless if not totally broke it, with nothing happening!
What to expect? A US/Israeli serious attack against Syria?
Not after witnessing how the opening act unfolded in Southern Lebanon!
Waking up one morning to a domesticated,tamed and obedient regime in Syria? A very remote possibility except in self-serving think-tank papers.

5- North Korea and Iran. Untouchable by the look of it.
What should the west expect? Tactical Nuclear Weapons? Perhaps, but dangerous to the free flow of oil to say the least.
Ahmadi Najad and Khamenie having a sudden change of heart? As likely as Castro initiating a visit to DC!

6- Does all the above represent a major ideologically motivated geopolitical breakdown somewhere, by someone, for the benefit of both the culprit and its cheerleaders, in total disregard to justice, rule of law, domestic and international circumstances, and even in controversy to the “actual” versus the “Rambo Style” balance of power?

Highly likely.

What to do?

-Based on historical precedents; nothing! Make face-saving attempts at damage control, and pray for things to take care of themselves one way or the other.

-Based on Murphy’s Law; left to themselves, things tend to…..

And remember, we have not yet really touched on the “Issue of War on Terror” which someone chose to create. I mean create both the “Issue” and the “Terror”…!

October 30th, 2006, 6:39 pm


Syrian Citizen said:


Damascus, 30 Oct. (AKI) – Syria’s Information Minister Muhsin Bilal has ordered the closure of the country’s only private TV station barely eight months after it first went on air. The Sham statellite channel broadcasting programmes – made up of Arab soap operas – from a free trade zone in Damascus shut down on Monday. According to government sources Bilal’s order was communicated “verbally” to the station owner, Syrian parliamentarian Muhammad Akram al-Jundi, and to its director Maamun al-Bunni.

No reason was given for the government’s demand, the sources said.

Despite broadcasting since its launch on what it said was an experimental basis, Sham had become the fifth most popular Arab TV channel in Syria.

According to some Syrian newsreports the station’s demise can be attributed to moves by a Syrian entrepreneur Muhammad Hamsho to launch his own television station, Dunia. Hamsho who is close to President Bashar al Assad’s government will now be able to attract advertising which previously went to Sham, the reports said.


October 30th, 2006, 7:34 pm


Dr.Ghost said:

Syrians are clinging to their authoritarian leader like a ship-wrecked crew clings to driftwood . But when they reach coast They must make their new ship .

November 8th, 2006, 10:09 pm


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