November 25, 2006

Probable U.S.-Syrian Discussion Points

Itamar Rabinovich sketches out the broad parameters of discussion that would need to be broached should high level direct dialogue between Washington and Damascus resume (incidentally, often lost in the din about 'should we talk to Syria?' is the fact that, unlike Iran of course, we have not ruptured diplomatic relations, but merely recalled our Ambassador after the Hariri assassination, meaning we presently have a charge d'affaires and active Embassy in country):

--The bilateral relations between the U.S. and Syria. These relations are presently at a nadir. Bush and his administration consider Assad and his government a hostile entity that is assisting the anti-American "rebellion" in Iraq, supporting Palestinian and Lebanese terror, and trying to destroy Lebanon's sovereignty and the stability of Fouad Siniora's government. President Assad and his regime, on the other hand, believe Bush's U.S. is trying to bring them down. An American-Syrian dialogue would start by restoring the relationship to its 1990 level. Syria would then seek an American promise not to undermine the regime, an improved atmosphere and an upgraded relationship.

--The Lebanese issue. Here we can anticipate problems. Syria considers Lebanon a strategic asset and a legitimate area of influence, while the U.S. is determined to protect Lebanese sovereignty and the 2005 anti-Syrian "revolution." Syria wants the investigation into the Hariri assassination shelved, while the U.S. is determined to resolve it. Bush is an ideological president who considers spreading democracy an important mission. The establishment of the Siniora government was a very significant achievement for him, as was the "expulsion" of Syria from Lebanon. For him, having the U.S. recognize Syria's "special status" in Lebanon would be difficult and embarrassing. Naturally, the decision to establish a special court to investigate the assassinations of Hariri and Gemayel are serious obstacles.

--The Golan Heights and relations with Israel. Assad wants the Golan back. Unfortunately, he must be seen as working toward this end, whether through negotiations or an armed conflict. The U.S. favors the principle of "land for peace" but has no desire to reward Assad, at least not at this stage. If an overall American-Syria understanding is reached, Bush will probably change his mind. However, at the moment the clear message from Washington to Jerusalem is that the U.S. is opposed to a renewal of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

--Relations with Iran. Various Syrian spokesmen tell their interlocutors and the Western media that the alliance between Syria and Iran is not insoluble and that Damascus has been pushed into Tehran's arms out of a lack of choice, due to American hostility. These claims can be tested only by a U.S.-Syrian dialogue.

--The ongoing crisis in Iraq. The U.S. expects Syria first and foremost to hermetically seal its border with Iraq, and thus prevent the infiltration of weapons and fighters. More generally, it will want to see Syria as a partner in stabilizing Iraq, such that it can withdraw its forces without a sense of defeat and an authentic Iraqi government can function. Syria is interested in a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and wants to see a friendly government across its eastern border. Syria currently considers the Iraqi arena a lever for counter-pressure on the U.S. and cooperation with Iran. But in the long run, the Iraqi chaos may threaten Syria's stability as well.

The Lebanese thicket would arguably be the most difficult to navigate, not least given Pierre Gemayel's recent assassination and reports like these.

Posted by Gregory at November 25, 2006 05:58 AM
Comments

"The Lebanese thicket would arguably be the most difficult to navigate, not least given Pierre Gemayel's recent assassination".

You don't say! Come now Gregory, you've had a great old time lashing the Bush administration for its practical blunderings and pathetic ideological attachments. Now tell us what specifically YOU would do in Lebanon. I gather you're not one of the old-fashioned James Baker High Cynical school of foreign policy realism. Apparently you may subscribe instead to a much more highly evolved (and wordy) Steve Clemons-Anatol Lieven-Michael Lind school of 'ethical realism' or some similar not yet too clearly explained foreign policy concept.

So let's see how this superior brand of realism would guide us in a specific case. Just how much of Lebanese democracy and sovereignty (if any) would you think it reasonable to sacrifice to Assad and Iran? And in return for what? Remember that by killing Gemayel, Assad is saying in effect that he doesn't think we have much to offer that he can't take for himself. And in Iraq he thinks he has us by the short and curlies, and so presumably doesn't think he needs to offer us much either. So how low a price would you be willing to accept from Assad? Or is this buying-selling metaphor just evidence of my ignorance and lack of evolved foreign policy insight? Tell us then of your superior framework for thinking about the proposed negotiation. Be specific though.

Posted by: Brown at November 25, 2006 02:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What can Bush offer syria? He will be gone in 2 years or less, and anything he gives syria can be taken back by the next guy, unless it's a formal treaty. What's the chance Bush can get some sort of formal treaty through Congress?

Anything Bush offers syria would be perceived as bad for israel. Relaxed sanctions? Arms sales? Help getting Golan back? Anything at all that looks good for syria will look bad for israel. Any agreement between Bush and syria would look like treason against israel. It might make the difference for a successful impeachment.

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with starting negotiations with no intention of accomplishing anything. It would look like we were trying something. And at some point we could claim success. Like, thwe syrians could promise to control their border better and we could promise to give them money and surveillance equipment so they could control the border better, and the public might consider it a success.

Posted by: J Thomas at November 25, 2006 04:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think that Greg was taking a specific position here, just quoting someone who outlined the topics of discussion.

If Bush had any sense, he'd want syria back in Lebanon -- first off, the Syrians kept Hezbollah from getting out of hand, and secondly, if Assad is worried about Lebanon, he'll really need to see the Iraq situation resolved much more quickly.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at November 25, 2006 06:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Saudis may be willing to lend their clout and a lot of money to keep Lebanon afloat and out of Syrian hands. Saudi King Abdullah married a Lebanese woman and has a mother from the Shammar tribe of Arabia/Syria, so he is very interested in what is happening there.

I believe that we would be making a mistake talking to the Syrians just after their latest political murder. It's the UN Investigative Inquiry, it's Lebanese democratic values, it's autonomy for a beleaguered minority of Christians in the region, and it's talking with a country that harbors terrorists like Kamel Mashaal, the terror-lord of Hamas, who calls the bombings in the West Bank and Gaza steps to destroy Israel.
Syria is trying to murder and blackmail its way back into the good graces of the US and UN. I could understand the feckless spineless UN bending under the pressure, but the US is perceived by the Christians in Lebanon as in some way their Guarantor, and the Cedar Revolution was the only unsullied plus for US diplomacy in the region until Syria ordered its Orcs to kill Hariri, Gemayel, and other Christian and Sunni leaders.

If the US doesn't stand up for Lebanon, we might as well pack it in and abandon Israel as well. The message the US would be sending would be that Osama was right, Americans are not bloody-minded enough to stomach long-term military engagements and are isolationists at heart.

Posted by: daveinboca at November 25, 2006 07:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I believe that we would be making a mistake talking to the Syrians just after their latest political murder.

There's no guarantee the syrians did this one. Now that we're ready to blame each political murder in lebanon on syria, anybody who doesn't want us to negotiate with syria can just kill somebody to stop us. That includes israel and also any lebanese political party that values bad US/syria relations over the particular politician killed. And it includes iran, russia, etc. Israel is the most obvious candidate,though, and syria is maybe the second-obvious candidate.

If the US doesn't stand up for Lebanon, we might as well pack it in and abandon Israel as well.

The converse isn't true, though. Israel has no friends in lebanon and vice versa.

Posted by: J Thomas at November 25, 2006 08:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The U.S. expects Syria first and foremost to hermetically seal its border with Iraq, and thus prevent the infiltration of weapons and fighters."

In 1987, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate and famously demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" But I guess that was then and this is now. If any sections of the Berlin wall still intact, we could give them to Syria.

Nations have always had the right to determine who and what comes into their territory. Iraq would be perfectly justified in preventing foreign fighers--or people who are foreign fighters but who Iraq thinks might be--from crossing the border from Syria into Iraq. But the West used to think that border controls designed to keep people in, as opposed to keep people out, were immoral, and we condemned the Berlin wall on that basis.

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist at November 26, 2006 05:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

test
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Posted by: mkjfneyufh at November 26, 2006 07:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Indispensable Paper of Record Once Again Dispenses The Indispensible:

Another Killing in Lebanon


It is too early to know who ordered this week’s assassination of the Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, but there are many reasons to suspect Syria. Mr. Gemayel opposed Syria’s unrelenting campaign to dominate Lebanon’s fragile democracy. If the cabinet now loses even one more minister, through intimidation or worse, Lebanon’s pro-Western government will collapse — a collapse that Hezbollah, Syria’s ally and henchman, has been publicly seeking.

(ya think?)

In a Middle East plagued by constant tragedy and defeat, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the ousting of Syrian troops last year was a rare and precious victory. The United States and the international community must now rally to support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — with cash, security advisers, and anything that might help him and his government survive.

(leave the violence and intimidation to Hezbollah -- those bad, bad boys -- tee-hee)

Damascus must also be told that it will pay a high price — in scorn, isolation and sanctions — if it is found to have ordered Mr. Gemayel’s death, or the deaths or maiming of a half-dozen other anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. Hezbollah must be told that it will be shunned if it tries to grab power through further violence or intimidation.

(thank god for the enduring power of scorn)

The United Nations took an important step this week, approving the creation of a tribunal to prosecute the killers of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister. The only question there is which top Syrian official gave the order.

This page believes that the United States needs to begin a dialogue with Syria, about Iraq and regional peace. But President Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that neither the tribunal nor Lebanon’s independence will ever be on the bargaining table. Europe, Russia and all of Syria’s neighbors need to join Washington in delivering that message.

(Never...ever)

Hezbollah has been insisting on veto power over all government decisions, including whether it will participate in a U.N. tribunal. If there is any possible good to come from Mr. Gemayel’s death, it is that Hezbollah will now have to postpone its announced plan to call thousands of demonstrators into the street to bring down the government. We hope Mr. Siniora can use this time to rally the majority of Lebanese who still believe in national reconciliation and the spirit of the Cedar Revolution.

(we're confident that Syria/Hezbollah WON'T use this time to quash the Harirri assination investigation by killing more cabinet ministers)

We would urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go immediately to Beirut, except we’re not sure she would be welcome after President Bush’s failure last summer to restrain Israel’s disastrous air war.

(And we're confident Ms. Rice -- who by the way is ... un-married -- would respond to the murder and abduction of American soldiers on American territory and the sustained rocket attack on Texas, Arizona and Southern Clifornia by Mexico with a request for direct negotiations.)

Ms. Rice might still do some good if she brought with her a large group of European and moderate Arab foreign ministers. That is a sad admission about the limits of American influence. But Mr. Siniora needs all the help he can get.

(sigh)

Posted by: neill at November 27, 2006 05:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"There's no guarantee the syrians did this one. Now that we're ready to blame each political murder in lebanon on syria, anybody who doesn't want us to negotiate with syria can just kill somebody to stop us. That includes israel and also any lebanese political party that values bad US/syria relations over the particular politician killed. And it includes iran, russia, etc.

Israel is the most obvious candidate,though, and syria is maybe the second-obvious candidate."

So Israel isn't interested in Syria being "officially" implicated in the assassination of Hariri -- as a way to reassert Syria in Lebanon?

Posted by: neill at November 27, 2006 06:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

ah, stupid me, I get it now.

Israel deliberately offed the liberal Lion of Beirut, who was not a threat to Israel, in order to frame aggressive, repressive Syria.

In order to.... foment the liberal Cedar Revolution?

Posted by: neill at November 27, 2006 06:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Frankly, we avoid all these difficult decisions by simply pulling our troops out of Iraq, where they are not serving any US interests. (Other than the national huliliation that will result when we withdraw.) The more things go on, the more it looks like Iran is performing a Bush style overreach in Iran and Lebanon, which their much smaller economy likely cannot support.

A prudent prince at this point would admit Iraq was a failure, and pull on out of there, and not waste more lives on the fig leaf of a dignified exit. Let Iran continue its overreach, and let the Lebanese resentment of foreign domination, and Iraqi resentment of Iran (they did fight quite a war, recall) redevelop.

An opening up of the Middle East really is our hope there, as the attractions of capitalism and freedom will turn young Muslim's heads away from Al Q and Iranian nutballism. Negotiating away Lebanon, p. luka, is a horrible way to accomplish this end.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at November 27, 2006 02:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


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Posted by: SSpharmDoc at December 1, 2006 04:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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