“Dialogue is in Syria’s and America’s interests,” by Cordesman

Dialogue is in Syria's and America's interests
Anthony H. Cordesman
THE DAILY STAR, July 27, 2007

Editor's Note: The following is the third and last part of a series of articles on Cordesman's recent visit to Syria with colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS].

One clear message from the Syrians we spoke to was that Syria had no intention to attempting to send troops back into Lebanon or in attempting to reoccupy the country. Several Syrians felt that leaving Lebanon had helped push Syria toward economic liberalization and development, while staying in Lebanon had bred corruption and economic indifference. At the same time, there was an almost exaggerated fear of having a "hostile" Lebanon on Syria's border and the outcome of the UN investigation into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. Moreover, Syrian and Iranian ties to Hizbullah were one of the few areas where it was hard to have a frank discussion.

President Bashar Assad also stated that Syria did recognize Lebanon's independence, that he had been to Lebanon and saluted the Lebanese flag, and that it would be possible to exchange embassies if Lebanon no longer had a hostile regime.

The US and Syria cannot agree on policy toward Lebanon at this point in time; there will not be sudden changes in US proclamations on the issue or the Accountability Act, and the UN investigation will play out its course. Lebanese politics will remain a divided, sectarian and ethnic mess, and Hizbullah will not suddenly go away or become another political party.

At the same time, the key issue is not the past but the future. If Syria repeatedly makes it clear that it does recognize Lebanon and has no intention of sending troops back that is a message well worth sending. If Syria quietly makes it clear it is not supporting Sunni Islamist extremists with links to Al-Qaeda in Lebanon – Palestinian or Lebanese – that will be a positive message as well. If Syria quietly shows it is discouraging Hizbullah adventures on the Israeli-Lebanese border and is not sending in new long-range rockets and offensive weapons to Hizbullah, that message will be a major step in improving the possibility of progress on the Golan Heights.

No one can criticize Syria for wanting a friendly regime in Lebanon, or strong economic ties. These are vital Syrian national interests. At the same time, "spoiler" operations and marginal adventures in trying to shape Lebanese politics by force, do not serve Syria's national interests and are doing much to alienate Europe and the United States. A positive, peacefully proactive Syrian policy toward Lebanon could do far more to help create the kind of regime Syria wants, avoid dragging Syria into Lebanon's endless confessional quarrels and morass, and greatly improve Syria's relations with the US and outside world.

This series of articles has focused on Syrian actions in Syria's national interest that could lay the groundwork for improved relations with the US. It has not suggested a single concession by either side, but it is clear that the US should respond by acting in its own interest as well. Each step above would be a new reason for the US to increase its dialogue with Syria, and pursue other areas of mutual cooperation.

More tangibly, there are several other steps the US should take. Not having an ambassador in Syria and not actively engaging with the Syrian mission in the US is pointless. If the US wants to encourage change in Syria, the best possible way is to have the strongest US country team in Syria. Similarly, the US does not have to send a Secretary of State or Deputy Security on a new round of visits to Damascus, but shunting Syria aside or not taking the time to listen is counterproductive and dangerous. It encourages precisely the Syrian actions the US objects to.

There is no country in the world where the US should focus its diplomacy and policy solely around punitive measures or "sticks." The US should not make any more concessions in pursuing its own national interests than it can expect Syria to make – which to all practical purposes is none. The US does, however, have strong national interest in many incremental actions by Syria of the kind just listed. It should be prepared to provide carefully limited incremental incentives or cooperation. All or nothing diplomacy inevitably tends to be nothing diplomacy.

The US, like Syria, should make its objections to the other states conduct and policy clear. It should not, however, demonize Syria and should make it clear that it has no interest in regime change in the sense of trying to force a new government on Syria. The US has nothing better than the present regime to offer, and the risk of Syrian internal instability or a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is serious enough to indicate that any near-term alternative is likely to be far, far worse. Encouraging evolutionary reform and change is one thing, and something many Syrians would encourage, but Iraq is the last experiment the US should ever make in neoconservative fantasies about the merits of violent change and instant "democracy."

There are also many practical aspects of US and Syrian relations where improvements might be made in ways that serve both nations' interests. There is no reason not to book educational and cultural exchanges and relations, despite bureaucratic neglect, delays and pointless time consuming procedures. Exports of medical goods and services, legitimate visas, and similar low-level actions that benefit both the Syrian people and US interests in Syria are all areas where careful review might improve the current situation. Carefully reviewing the details of the Accountability Act and various US regulations to see where the US can encourage economic reform and modernization in productive ways is another area for progress. Selective cooperation in counterterrorism and intelligence, with tight security to prevent embarrassment to either side is still another area where common interest may lead to an improvement in relations.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.

Comments (7)

Kamal said:

What do you all make of this?

Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quotes Michel Aoun saying the problem in Lebanese-Syrian relations is “a mere media problem and not a political problem. Some (factions) want to direct accusations against Syria to distort its image. This media problem has been imposed on the world to implement some people’s objectives internally and externally.”

Commenting on the chain of killings that has struck Lebanon, Aoun was quoted as saying: “The assassinations that happened in Lebanon are the making of hands and criminals that remain unknown because certain (forces) do not want them to be known. What is important for them is to drag this crisis into the hallways of the United Nations to distort Syria’s reputation.”

“Corruption in Lebanon is part of the government plan,” Aoun was quoted as saying. He expressed “hope that the Saniora Government ministers be interrogated” on corruption charges.

He held the Saniora government responsible for the presence of Fatah al-Islam group in Lebanon “if not in connivance with it.”


The Free Patriotic Movement denied Thursday remarks attributed by official Syrian media to its leader Michel Aoun earlier in the day.
The FPM, in a statement posted on its web site, said “some Lebanese” radio and television stations quoted from the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) and the Sham Press Website a statement allegedly made by Aoun in Germany.

“FPM stresses that the statement attributed to Gen. Aoun is totally baseless. All the statements that General Aoun made in Germany and that have been distributed to the media, did not include what was included in the mentioned statement,” the statement said.


July 27th, 2007, 3:07 pm


Joshua said:

This is interesting Kamal and shows evident tension between Aounist and Syrian interpretations of events.

Like the interesting poll you posted the other day, which demonstrated growing Lebanese distrust of Syria and Hizbullah, it suggests heightened tensions within the pro-Syrian alliance.

The question that you can answer better than I is whether you think this reflects a general fragmentation in Lebanon or only a fragmentation among the opposition.

Second, does it suggest a French policy of pealing Aounists away from Hizbullah and Syria is working?

July 27th, 2007, 4:56 pm


Kamal said:

This is Tony Badran’s interpretation:

“As for why the Syrians made these false claims, suffice it to say for now (and I’ll come back to it later), that in the Michel Aoun-Michel Suleiman feud over the presidency, the Syrians may have just put out an item to “burn” Aoun (or, more subtly, to create the impression thereof).”

July 27th, 2007, 5:24 pm


t_desco said:

As’ad AbuKhalil expressed some doubts about that Pew poll:

“Some questions regarding the Latest Pew Global Poll. I have been reading and thinking about this Pew global poll for the last two days. I shared with a handful of friends/colleagues to see their opinion too. We all seem to be skeptical–I am talking about the Middle East section. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is not necessarily intentional, but there are serious problems. When Americans take their polls and surveys overseas, problems arise (in translation and in methodology). My best example is from one massive study by University of Michigan’s Ronald Inglehart who has done more global surveys than anybody. But in his massive book, Human Values, which contains the results of global surveys, people were asked how they feel about having Muslims as their neighbors. According to the study, more than 90% of people in Turkey said that they would not like to have Muslims as neighbors. That leads you to believe that some misunderstanding, or mistranslation happened along the way. Many questions (like ones about suicide bombings) don’t translate and the methodology needs to have section for the language of each region or country. I want to know how questions were translated. It says that in the section on Lebanon questions were asked in Arabic, (and in French and Arabic in Morocco). Who did that? Some of the polls are subcontracted, and some polling firms in Lebanon (from either side) can obtain the results that you want. If I compare the survey with all surveys in Lebanon, it just does not make sense, especially about attitudes to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, Hizbullah, etc. Of course, there is no unanimity on those issues, but the results just don’t make sense. On Palestine, Ali for example observed to me: “As for the finding that only 60% of Palestinians see Israel as the greatest threat. I think that is just bizarre. I have no idea what that is measuring.” And what really aroused my suspicion are attitudes to Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah. And when ask about attitudes to Saudi Arabia: how do they phrase the question? The words “favorable” and “unfavorable” don’t translate easily into Arabic. Do people think of Aljazirah (as in historic Arabia) or do they think of the government? I just came back from Pakistan (can I tell you about my experience with lizards there?) and I can categorically tell you that I don’t believe that a mere 9% of people in Pakistan support suicide bombings. I told you that I felt strong negative vibe in the audience when I spoke in a relatively moderate Muslim audience (at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad) against suicide bombings. It was clear to me at least there is a sense of a near unanimous support for them. Also compare the results with the result of a 2002 poll by Pew in Pakistan. I also find it hard to believe that there is more support for suicide bombings in Jordan and Nigeria than in Lebanon. Take the issue of attitude to Bin Laden. Some 38% of people in Pakistan express confidence in Bin Laden, and yet only 9% find suicide bombings (the specialty of Al-Qa`idah) to be justifiable? Does not make sense there. I also believe having read the methodology that the fact that the poll was conducted in face-to-face interviews mars and distorts the results. People in those countries are less–far less–to express themselves freely when they are talking to a group of strangers asking them questions that clearly sound Western-originated. Even phones are tapped in those countries, so you have to look at those results with a bag of salt and peppers. And when you look at the question on perception of US military threat, the picture becomes clearer. In that section, you find the attitudes in the region are rather close in condemnation or fear of threat. Here, people may feel more feel to express themselves as opposed to questions on Bin Laden where the wrong answer can get you in jail or in Guantanamo. The question on Hamid Karzai is telling: because again there are no penalties if people express negative views as opposed to the wrong answer on Saudi King. And according to survey, there are more favorable ratings for Hizbullah in Ethiopia than in Lebanon: even if you factor in the changing opinions in Lebanon and the rise of Sunn-Shi`ite conflict, Lebanese public opinion draw a different picture. And then you look at the appendix of polls to be released later, and you discover that “the very favorable” ratings of Hizbullah are higher in Kuwait than in Lebanon. Also notice Q55 on page 145: 74% of Lebanese consider Israel the biggest threat, while 43% consider Syria the biggest threat, and some 38% consider US the biggest threat.”
(The Angry Arab News Service, July 26, 2007)

(my emphasis)

July 27th, 2007, 7:44 pm


Kamal said:

I don’t dispute his reservations, but As’ad AbuKhalil posts all the findings of the amateurish and pro-Hizballa Beirut Center for Information and Research on his blog, without any similar critique. When he says the results clash with other Lebanese polls, is he referring to the BCRI? Does he (or anyone) honestly think Amal Saad Ghorayeb is more credible than Pew?

July 27th, 2007, 9:41 pm


G said:

Does he (or anyone) honestly think Amal Saad Ghorayeb is more credible than Pew?

Regime agent Landis does.

July 28th, 2007, 1:02 am


Kamal said:


For those who don’t read Arabic, Johnny Abdo’s interpretation is that Syria “tests” the pliability of potential puppets by making extreme pro-Syrian statements on their behalf and studying their reaction. He draws a parallel to an incident where a statement was made by Syria on behalf of Lebanese president-elect Renee Mouawad. (Mouaward was considered pro-Syrian by his detractors, but was not pro-Syrian enough for Syria’s taste. His replacement, Elias Hrawi was a much more reliable puppet.) According to Abdo, Mouawad denied ever making the statement attributed to him, and was swiftly murdered by car bomb. Abdo suggests Syria might have a similar fate in store for Michel Aoun if he displays further disobedience.

I’d like to hear the opinion of some Aounists on this issue.

July 30th, 2007, 7:32 pm


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