Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Syrian Boogyman

Posted in Syria by Dan on March 17, 2010

The United States and Syria appear to be making some headway.  Throughout the entire year, some very important people have been traveling to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  U.S. Envoy George Mitchell has met Assad three times already, with the main discussion concentrating on the stalled peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns arrived in Damascus last week to talk about bilateral issues between Washington and Damascus; one would guess that Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and Israeli-Syrian peace were on the agenda.  And of course, President Barack Obama nominated the first U.S. Ambassador to Damascus in five years, tapping Robert Ford for the job (by the way, you can read a little more about this in my article that was published by the NWJI).

So with all of these breakthroughs occurring between the two former rivals, it’s not surprising that many people in the IR field and in the media are expecting dramatic improvements over the next few months.

Well, maybe too optimistic.  The same bloggers that were hopeful a few months ago are now complaining about the lack of real progress.  The blogosphere is full with these sorts of arguments.  Republicans and some Democrats are claiming that the meetings between American and Syrian officials are more like symbolic gestures than real events.  Elliot Abrams took this a step further, berating President Obama’s entire foreign-policy based on what he views as a slow first year between the United States and Syria.  Jennifer Rubin of Commentary takes a similar tone, making the case that Washington needs to stop giving away “freebees” to Syria without some strings attached.  As she puts it, “could it be that having given Assad pretty much all he wants up front, we have no leverage to extract anything further from him?  Could be.”

Could be indeed.  Syria’s strategic standing in the Middle East is now enhanced, due in part to American recognition and due in part to America’s sudden return to Damascus.  But surely Mr. Abrams and Mrs. Rubin understand that diplomacy is not a cut and dry affair?  Based on their impressive credentials, I would hope so.

No one said this was going to be easy.  Not all U.S. objectives (Syria moving away from Iran, Syria making peace with Israel, Syria keeping tabs on insurgents going across its border with Iraq) is going to happen.  And likewise, not all Syrian demands will be met either, like an ending of economic sanctions and investment in U.S. markets.  Diplomacy is not a zero-sum game.

And just as diplomacy is not a zero-sum game, it’s also not a miracle-pill that will magically cure all ills.  Discussion and dialogue between allies takes time, and even more so when allies were once formidable enemies (Syria still remains on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism).

But before we can understand how diplomacy works, we have to understand what is going on with this new U.S.-Syrian relationship.  Unfortunately, it seems like some bloggers and neoconservative commentators are getting the facts completely wrong.

Let’s get a few things straightened out first.  Number one, it’s the United States that wants to desperately engage Syria, not the other way around.

It is President Obama that is extending his hand, not the Syrian Government. First off, the White House is still trying to salvage its Mideast peace initiative. Despite Israeli arrogance and Palestinian political division, Israeli-Palestinian peace remains a primary foreign-policy goal for the Obama team (George Mitchell has a lot of jet-lag and frustration to prove it). Like it or not, the United States needs Syria’s cooperation on this problem.

Damascus holds tremendous weight among Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, evident in their willingness to take in Palestinian refugees. Syria’s image as a defiant defender of Arab rights is only going up, confirmed by a recent poll that shows Bashar al-Assad as the most popular leader in the Muslim world (http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/16/people_of_the_year_2009_middle_east_edition). And of course, we cannot discount Syria’s role in Iraq, both as a covert supporter of Islamic militants and as a safe-haven for former Baath Party officials.

It’s great that Washington is starting to take Syria seriously. But it’s not simply because Syria is under extreme pressure from economic sanctions and international isolation (although this may have contributed to Syria’s modified behavior).  To the contrary; it’s because Syria is at the heart of every problem that the U.S. is concerned about (Arab-Israeli Peace, Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran). Name any other country that has this type of influence.

When all is said and done, the nomination of Robert Ford is a very good start, but we should keep the entire affair in perspective.  One year of engagement is not going to reverse five years of diplomatic absence.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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2009’s Most Valuable Player

Posted in Syria by Dan on December 31, 2009

Assad is my pick for the 2009 MVP

As the decade comes to a close- and as people worldwide celebrate the New Year with friends, family, and a whole lot of Champagne- I have decided to unleash my MVP of 2009.  Drum-roll please…….and the winner is….Mr. Bashar al-Assad.

The winner might come as a surprise to some, but when dissecting all of his accomplishments over the past year, there is no other statesman in the world that deserves the credit and recognition of doing so much with so little .

Bashar al-Assad has not only transformed his country overnight, but he has done so in such a way that only a skilled politician could match. The Syrian economy is finally starting to improve, thanks to some innovation that was previously overlooked by the elder Assad when he was in power. Declining oil productivity has forced- and is continuing to force- the Syrian Government to address the natural-resource dependency that so many Arab regimes in the region take for granted. With the price of oil fluctuating, you would think Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would follow the Syrian model.

Without a doubt, the greatest accomplishment of President Assad has been his political talent. Despite his government’s horrible human-rights record, he has the United States and Saudi Arabia- two countries that have been historically ambivalent to Damascus- crawling to his doorstep. Regardless of which country we are talking about, Syria is more important than ever. The West is trying to convince Assad to limit his strategic alliance with Iran, and the Islamic Republic is countering this demand with incentives for the Syrian regime. The question for the future, of course, is whether Assad is talented enough to make the right decision.

And what about his popularity among Arabs as a whole?  Well, thanks to Israel’s debacle in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Assad has been credited as one of the main players that brought about Israel’s “defeat.” For all of their ideological and religious differences, many Sunnis and Shias portray Assad as a primary defender of Arab rights. In fact, a recent poll within the Arab World concluded that Mr. Assad is currently the most popular politician in the Middle East…an amazing development considering the globe’s persistent outcry over human rights abuses and his financial support for terrorist groups.

There is one more thing that could have contributed to Assad’s current standing; internal security. Domestically, Assad’s regime has been able to boast unity and security in an area that is frequently held hostage to violence and radicalism (a.k.a. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to some extent, Iran). Obviously, security comes at a price; Syria’s intelligence service is known for its ruthless espionage, and crack-downs on political activists are routine. But it is security nonetheless.

Do not be surprised if Assad gains even more stature in the coming year. With the Iranian nuclear program only increasing in significance and attention, Syria’s position will be all the more crucial. My prediction is that the Syrian regime will probably remain silent, especially if a military-strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is in the works. But either way, I do not see how Syria could lose.

To everyone out there, HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

-Daniel R. DePetris

A Middle Eastern Peace Accord Is Contrary to Syrian National Interests

Posted in Syria by Dan on July 30, 2009

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The Syrian Arab Republic (under the Assad family) and the United States Government in Washington has always been at odds as to what should be included inside a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace accord.  George W. Bush’s administration, as well as President Obama’s White House, has strongly advocated for a complete eradication of Hamas violence towards the state of Israel.  The United States has also ordered Hamas officials to recognize the legitimacy and sovereignty of Israel as a Jewish State.  Syria, on the other hand, construes Israel has the main instigator and bully in the Middle East, thanks to its aggressive posturing towards Palestinian factions inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.  So the logic goes, the Israeli Government must begin to improve its understanding of Arab culture, recognizing that all Palestinian men, women, and children should be granted the same rights as everyone else.

Ever since Bashar al-Assad inherited the Syrian presidency from his father Hafiz in the summer of 2000, the Israeli problem has often been labeled as the primary foreign-policy responsibility of his inner-circle.  In stark similarity to the elder Assad, Bashar has made it publicly known that Jerusalem’s unending desire for a “Greater Israel” will be shunned as both arrogant and imperialist by his government.  The expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, he echoes, is a deliberate attempt by Israel to stall the prospects for a two-state solution…a resolution that would finally entitle the Palestinians to their own state.  In fact, Syria’s active stance in the peace process as of late has actually strengthened Damascus’ leverage against its Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian enemies.  Muslims throughout the world now view Syria in a positive light, claiming that President Assad is the one core Arab leader who will remain a  confident and defiant voice against Zionist intrusion.

While all of these disagreements have mitigated somewhat under President Barack Obama, tensions between the U.S.-Israeli camp and the Palestinian-Syrian alliance remain with the utmost intensity.  Of course, this bleak reality is not dissuading former Senator and now U.S. Mideast-envoy George Mitchell from meeting directly with the Syrian president himself.  According to the Reuters news agency, the controversial face-to-face meeting conducted this past week was constituted as a success by both American and Syrian mouthpieces.  Mr. Mitchell described Mr. Assad’s behavior as both “candid and positive:” a man eager to assist the process of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In a dramatic transformation from the forceful policies of his predecessor, Obama’s White House believes that the inclusion of Arab grievances is the only possible way a genuine peace agreement could be formulated and sustained in the long term.  As George Mitchell states, “if we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace.”

Mitchell’s trip to Syria, although a demonstration of symbolic significance and a renouncement of past U.S. policy, does not distinguish itself from the stalemate of past visits.  The current American-Syrian relationship is still as fragile as it was eight years ago: nowhere near the level it needs to be for a full-hearted cooperation to emerge.

Undoubtedly, this is not entirely President Obama’s fault.  Bashar Assad’s regime is notorious for saying one thing, and then doing the complete opposite.  For the past ten years, the Syrian Government continues to speak of hope, peace, and prosperity towards Americans and Europeans alike, all the while stressing for the days when Syrians and Israelis could get along without violence and political hostility.  ‘We are all working towards a day when Arabs and Israelis can live side by side as economic partners, states the Syrian mantra, ‘as well as a time when the Israeli and Palestinian people will end their long-lingering disagreements.’  These comments certainly sound like advocates of international peace and universal human rights….well…if they weren’t coming from a known state-sponsor of terrorism.

Despite the recurring tone of optimism emanating from President Assad and his cabinet, he has failed to show the international community that he is serious about an Arab-Israeli partnership.  He fails to follow up his words with deeds, such as terminating his financial and military support to Islamic militant groups.  In fact, Israel claims that Syria has increased its material support to Hezbollah militants in Southern Lebanon over the past few months: evident the Shia-militia’s rising missile capability.  When adding Hamas’ power into the picture, it becomes clear that Damascus continues to use terrorism as a major tool of statecraft, extracting attention that the regime would find difficult to attain otherwise.

In addition, Assad has shut down any proposal that would open up Syria’s borders with Israel:  an economic relationship that could orchestrate Syrian compliance to the Israelis in a direct and legitimate fashion.  In perhaps the most counterproductive policy towards the Israelis, Assad remains adamant in his quest to strengthen his alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a clerical government that is both belligerent to the western community and its own people in the same capacity.

With Israel continuing to display its ability to respond to security threats in the Persian Gulf, either through sophisticated air-force exercises or naval-fleet maneuvers, Tehran’s power and the destabilizing effect of Islamic proxy groups is the only deterrent Mr. Assad holds against western military incursion.  It is this beneficial and unbreakable situation that exposes the sad truth about Mr. Mitchell’s most recent diplomatic visit:   while overtly courageous and optimistic, Washington seems to have picked the wrong time to engage the Assad regime.

No amount of western appeasement could possibly persuade Assad from breaking his ties to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.  The benefits derived from the Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas link not only provides Syria with a security umbrella against an Israeli bombardment…it also supplies Damascus with an unending sense of relief in an otherwise turbulent region of the globe.  Considering the fact that Syria’s military is desperately lacking the funds, manpower, and technology to defend the state from an invasion, the “Rejectionist” security relationship is the only defense shielding Assad from a disgraceful exile that has historically plagued other Arab autocrats.

While acknowledging that the rhetoric between the United States and Syria has warmed as of late, and while understanding that Bashar Assad is open to direct dialogue, one must remain skeptical of his real motives.  Would a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue fully convince Syria to abandon its ties to terrorist organizations?  The answer is a straightforward and resounding no.  Syria withdrawing its support for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas would make as much sense as the United States breaking its ties with Western Europe.  Both would be illogical and detrimental to each state’s national interests.  Trusting President Assad to hold up his end of the bargain should be out of the question, especially when this same man has routinely shown his true “two-faced” persona in the past.

Only by studying the frustrating aspects of Syrian political history will President Obama gain an understanding as what can be expected from Assad’s participation in the Arab-Israeli peace process.  Even if Mr. Mitchell’s efforts are successful and go according to plan without any obstacles, it is hard to sustain the belief that Damascus will re-orient their world view in some magical fashion.  After all, with tens of millions of Arabs currently praising Syria as the prominent guardian of Muslim liberties, Mr. Assad holds no incentive to change his behavior (Bashar al-Assad is ranked as the most admirable Arab leader in the most updated Arab Public Opinion Survey).  Such a result would be suicidal for both his political career and the survival of his clientele Alawite Dynasty.  However, if he continues on his present course, Syria may establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in the very near future.  Interestingly enough, Bashar al-Assad may be one of the only political figures in the Middle East that could actually profit from the deadlocked-nature of the status quo.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Khaled Yacoub Oweis of Reuters and Marc Lynch from Foreign Policy contributed to this blog

The Two-Faces of the Bashar al-Assad

Posted in Syria by Dan on July 11, 2009

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The U.S. must be weary of Asad's recent change in rhetoric

Good news for President Barack Obama in the Middle East.  Over the past few days, it appears that the U.S. foe, the Arab Republic of Syria, is more than willing to improve diplomatic ties with the western world.  According to a July 4 message directed to the White House from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Damascus is more than willing to welcome Mr. Obama with open arms.  Assad was quoted by Britain’s Sky News as saying “we would like to welcome him in Syria, definitely.  I am very clear about this.”  Could this be a dramatic step towards political reconciliation between the Syrian state and the world’s remaining superpower?  In more dramatic terms, is Mr. Assad’s friendly demeanor part of a larger genuine interest…a personal desire to finally bridge the Arab-Israeli divide once and for all?  Or is this yet another attempt to pick up much-needed international support: just as its main ally, Iran, is continuing to experience domestic upheaval?

Before answering these crucial questions, we must first determine why Damascus is altering its behavior towards the United States as a whole.  First off, President Obama’s administration deserves some portion of the credit.  Mr. Obama has consistently advocated for direct American dialogue with all players in the Middle Eastern region, not to mention his constant pleas for tolerance and respect in the wider Muslim world.  The foreign-policy staff of the White House has made it publicly known that positive engagement, in all forms, will be the bedrock of any extensive U.S.-Arab diplomacy.  Soon after President Obama was sworn into office, he began to practice what he routinely preached throughout his fall campaign…namely by choosing to “start-over” with regimes that were previously hostile to the United States under former President George W. Bush.  Certainly, Iran and Syria are two states that fit this description (both states are regarded by the U.S. Government as major state-sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East).

In the desire to up the ante on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the Obama administration decided to send two prominent State Department officials to Damascus for a formal meeting with Syrian officials:  the first such trip by high-level U.S. diplomats since Washington withdrew its ambassador from the country in 2005.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was even seen shaking the hand of the Syrian Foreign Minister, a symbolic show of support for Mr. Obama’s doctrine of unconditional dialogue with former enemies.  Months later, Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell visited Syria in early June.  In the most updated version of the “Obama Doctrine,” the White House has finally confirmed that a new U.S. Ambassador to Syria will be appointed in the coming weeks.  Considering the fact that President Assad is still regarded by the international community as a prominent fundraiser for Hezbollah and Hamas, Obama’s decision to send an American diplomat to Damascus is certainly an unprecedented move.

With all of the practical actions undertaken by the Obama administration, it should not be a surprise that Mr. Assad has returned the favor…at least in language.  Ever since Obama was victorious in the 2008 presidential election, the Syrian regime has continually stressed their unending desire to meet with the American leader.  While encouraging, this sentiment is not some sort of radical change in Syrian behavior towards Washington.  Rather, it is proof of Mr. Assad’s political agility:  he has a remarkable aptitude in gaining international concessions for his short-lived cooperation.

There is one other factor in this debate that is worth discussing…namely President Obama’s mission to distance himself from the policies his unpopular predecessor.  For all of Syria’s ineptitude, its political leadership surely recognizes this phenomenon.  Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo-Bay interrogation center has not been lost in the minds of Arabs, let alone members of Syria’s Alawite ruling class.  While seemingly unrelated, the closure of the U.S. base is a dramatic example of Mr. Obama’s desperation to make all parties happy…for the sake of his political legitimacy.  The president has made it absolutely clear to both Americans and non-westerners how important reformed U.S. policy will be to his presidency.  As he did repeatedly throughout his presidential campaign, Barack points to change as the word that best describes his early legacy as a public figure.  If such is the reality, imagine what a little poking and prodding by the Damascus regime could do for Mr. Assad’s strategic interests.  Unfortunately, Syrian benefits do not necessarily bode well for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The Assad dynasty may be looking to exploit Mr. Obama’s youth and inexperience as a national politician.  An Obama-controlled White House could very well be the Syrians’ best chance to gradually formulate a beneficial territorial agreement with Israel.  Perhaps Mr. Assad does not need to talk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the Israeli’s to unilaterally withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights (a strategic piece of land that was captured by Israel in the 1967 six day war).  He can simply bypass the middle man by going to the “politician that controls all.”

With Obama’s strong opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West-Bank, President Assad may conclude that the American leader is worth sitting down and talking to…either to voice his frustrations about the Israelis or to advance numerous Syrian grievances.

This type of thinking is certainly logical when taking the Syrian perspective into account.  The fact that President Obama has already opposed Israel’s chronic disdain for the Palestinian population shows that more problems could emerge between the two nations in the immediate future.  It is not an unforeseen development to predict that American and Israeli interests will inevitably clash in the coming months.  Historical events have demonstrated that this dangerous precedent is well worth avoiding:  the more divisive two allies become, the more likely one will blame the other for obstructing success.  Syria would come out as the ultimate victor in this worst-case scenario, not only gaining significant benefits in the process but building up its national image as a popular defender of Arab rights.

An opening of Syrian society and the potential for constructive U.S.-Syrian negotiations is indeed desirable in the long run.  Who could argue that a resolution on the Golan Heights issue would not dampen the hostility between Jerusalem and Damascus?  Yet, although positive feelings are being exchanged between the American and Syrian capitals, attempting to cajole Syria away from the Islamic Republic of Iran will be an increasingly difficult endeavor.  We must remember that this objective is what President Obama is ultimately trying to achieve.  Taking Syrian political history into the equation, no amount of western investment or security guarantees will convince President Assad to drift himself away from Tehran’s mullahs and towards the U.S.-Israeli camp.

I am not saying that such efforts are impossible.  We have seen the same policy work with respect to Egypt in the late 1970’s, when harsh economic times prompted a Mideast re-alignment between Cairo and Jerusalem (to capitals that engaged in two wars over a short six-year time frame).  However, the Syrian case cannot, and should not, be compared with Egypt.  Egypt did not have the capacity to alter the domestic policies of another Arab state, while Syria has frequently been able to indirectly govern its Lebanese neighbor with covert aggression.  Egypt, although powerful in its heyday, was unable to sustain a relationship with militant proxy groups that could effectively resist its adversaries.  Syria, on the other hand, is the number two financer and supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas: two terrorist organizations that have the ability to fight Israel on two fronts while advancing the national power and influence of President Assad’s regime.

The most significant difference is the fact that Egypt could not formulate strong and lasting alliances during its pinnacle of influence (no one can call the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian alliance effective in military terms).  Syria under Assad’s leadership is quite the contrary:  Damascus is perceived as a viable Mideast power precisely because it maintains strong relations with the rising Islamic Republic of Iran.  With each and every advantage uncovered, it becomes increasingly naïve to believe that Mr. Assad would deliberately risk his political rule for a few American dollars.

Finally, we must be realistic as to what the Syrians are asking for.  Syria has demanded that the United States and Israel appease their interests before any security arrangement can be reached.  Not only does Damascus wish for western investment and a lifting of economic sanctions, but is thoroughly lobbying Washington to remove them from the infamous state-sponsor of terrorism list.  This, of course, is hardly realistic.  Syria has much to gain from its continued support for Hamas and Hezbollah.  Even if President Obama decided to remove Syria from the State-Department list, there is no guarantee as to whether Mr. Assad would hold up his end of the bargain.  He may very well be tempted to continue his operations with terrorist groups whose objectives coincide with his own.  The only possible way such an agreement could be enforced is through human intelligence on the ground in Damascus…a formal type of spying that the Syrian regime would certainly not endorse.

Couple these preconditions with Syria’s other demands (the lifting of Syria’s indictment for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights) and the positive language emanating from Assad is more like a smokescreen than a legitimate step towards peace.  I am sure that Mr. Obama recognizes this fact.  I only hope that the president and his newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador will not etch out a deal for the sole purpose of fulfilling campaign promises.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Sam F. Ghattas of the Associated Press and Time Magazine’s July 6, 2009 edition of World Briefing contributed to this blog.