Asad's Visit to the UN: Why the US Needs to Change its Syria Policy
One of Syria Comment’s readers wrote yesterday that "President & Mrs. Assad are coming to New York in September. The President is going to address the UN General Assembly."
All Damascus has been talking about the scheduled visit of President Asad to the UN meeting in September. Asad's presence in New York will surely "drive the Bush administration crazy," as one foreign diplomat assured me. Washington has been doing everything to keep Syria isolated and to block Bashar's efforts to arrange high level visits with other heads of state. Earlier this year, the US blocked President Asad’s scheduled trips to Brazil and Austria. Recently, it scotched the must anticipated visit of Turkey’s leader to Syria. Two days ago, local papers announced that the delivery of 7 Airbus planes to Damascus had been delayed indefinitely, due to pressure from Washington and Paris. No high-profile Americans have been able to visit Damascus since Washington pulled its ambassador from the country. When a delegation of congressmen recently visited Lebanon, they were told not to come to Damascus.
President Asad’s visit to New York is an attempt to break through this isolation. Farid Ghadry and the Syrian opposition in Washington have written that the US should deny Asad an American visa because he is a terrorist. So far, Washington has intelligently ignored this advice.
People in Damascus have asked me whom the President should see while he is in the States. The president’s agenda is something that Imaad Mustafa, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, and the President's new public affairs office will arrange. They should do so with care.
Undoubtedly, Bashar will try to get some time alone with Turkey's leader while they are both in New York. He should also take his charming and effective wife with him and try to get on 60 minutes or some comparable news show. If he is smart, he will stay through the weekend and appear on the morning news shows. He should also meet with 5 or 6 opinion makers, such as David Ignatius and Thomas Friedman, to explain Syria’s policies. They will not write glowing reports about Syria. Why should they? Syria has been cracking down on public freedoms in Damascus, arresting Kurdish opposition leaders, and throwing its weight around in Lebanon. More importantly to the US, Asad came out squarely against the US invasion of Iraq. All the same, they should see American interests in cooperating with Syria.
Now that the United States is planning to draw down its troop numbers in Iraq and has lowered its sights on what can be achieved in its regional ambitions, the two countries have much to talk about. Both countries are trying to solve their Iraq problems. Syria no longer has to fear that the United States is preparing a permanent presence in Iraq, which many believed would be used as a base to strike Syria. All the same Washington has pursued a policy of "regime change on the cheap" in Syria. It consists of squeezing the country economically and diplomatically until it falters. Already Syria’s economic growth rate has been halved since America invaded Iraq. Syrian politicians are convinced that Washington wants to destroy the Syrian regime, not change its behavior.
As David Hirst recently wrote in the Guardian:
Officially the US might say that all it wants is a change of Syrian behavior; but, said a senior [Syrian] official, "we have concluded in recent months that they really want to bring us down". European diplomats tend to agree that an apparently systematic refusal to engage the regime at any level reflects the influence of neo-conservative hawks, for whom Syria is a prime candidate for regime change in the region. Even if George Bush isn't ready to embark openly on such a policy, the neocons are strong enough to block any inclination in the opposite direction.Bashar is trying to break the neocon monopoly on Washington’s Syria policy and to reach out to the West the only way he can, by going to the people. He must go over Washington's head. When asked whether Assad would meet with U.S. Officials, Syria's U.N. representative answered: "It is our duty to seek a dialogue because it may solve the problem between both countries (i.e. U.S. and Syria)".
American officials will shun Asad during his visit. Some will try to vilify and embarrass him, but that will be a mistake.
America's highest interest right now is to guarantee a smooth withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and to leave behind a stable and secure state. To do this, it needs the cooperation of all Iraq's neighbors. Syria would like to cooperate with the United States, but only if it is assured that Washington is not trying to bring down the regime. The two countries share a common interest in subduing extremism and jihadism. They also share an interest in ensuring that Iraq has a united and stable government, as Bashar al-Asad has said many times. But as long as the United States stubbornly hues to its policy of "regime change," the US will remain Syria's number one enemy, and Damascus will refuse to open a second front against extremists. The possibility of meaningful US-Syrian cooperation in Iraq is slight so long as the two countries are at war. Secretary of State Rice has tried to dampen down the rhetorical firefight that has raged between the two countries. In one press conference, she hushed reporters who sought to provoke anti-Syrian remarks from her, by reminding them that Damascus had withdrawn its troops from Lebanon. She did not want to push Syria to the wall. She is also on record saying that Washington does not seek “regime-change in Syria, but a change of Syrian behavior.” These small tokens of American flexibility are not enough to convince Damascus that Washington has changed its spots. Everyone knows that the State Department loses most of its battles with Defense or the Vice-President’s office. It will take more than Rice's off-hand remarks to reassure Syria that the US does not ultimately seek Asad’s overthrow.
Washington believes it would be an easy matter for Bashar to reverse his policy of opposing America’s presence in Iraq and to crack down on the Syrian Sunni population that gives comfort and assistance to Arab fighters traveling though Syria to fight in Iraq or Baathist Iraqis who have become ensconced here. It will not be easy.
Washington is asking for background security checks on all 4 million Arabs who visit Syria yearly. It is asking for arrests and surveillance of the Iraqi refugee community living in Syria, which is estimated to be around 750,000 strong. It is also asking for a crack down on the Syrian mosques and Imams who propagate an anti-American and pro-resistance line. There are many possibilities for information exchange with Damascus. Syria has already taken the easy steps to meet American demands in a sign of good faith. It has built a large sand wall and placed thousands of extra troops along its 600 kilometer border with Iraq. It has arrested some 1,200 fighters it claims were headed for Iraq. Two weeks ago, it initiated UNDP sponsored workshops to teach ecumenicalism to hundreds of mosque preachers. But it has not undertaken the more painful internal activities required of it or begun to openly support America’s occupation of Iraq.
To appreciate the difficulty Bashar will have in implementing Washington’s full demands, one must compare his present predicament to Hafiz al-Asad’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976. President Asad’s father sent Syrian troops into Lebanon to stop that country’s civil war at Washington’s request. He did so at great cost to his own presidency. By striking down the PLO and crushing Lebanon’s Muslim forces in an effort to defend Lebanese Christians, he enraged Sunni Muslims within Syria.
The Muslim Brothers went on the warpath, accusing Asad of selling out Arabism and Islam. They began a campaign of terror against Hafiz al-Asad’s secular regime and his Shiite coreligionists. It was the bloodiest period in Syria’s history and very nearly drove the country into civil war. Asad put an end to the Muslim Brothers’ organized presence in Syria in a violent showdown at Hama. It cost his government dearly. Some 20,000 Syrians were killed. The shadow of that dark period still hangs over Sunni-Alawi relations today.
Washington is asking Bashar al-Asad to do something similar by cracking down on the Sunni population that sympathizes with the Sunni Iraqi community and opposes the emergence of a Shiite dominated Iraq. Bashar may well be amenable to launching such a campaign and risking a new chapter of sectarian strife in Syria, but he can only do so if Washington supports him openly. So long as he believes Washington is trying to isolate him and topple his regime, he cannot. It would be suicide for him to open a second front against Muslim extremists in Syria, while Washington seeks his downfall. Syria is the one Arab country that has not been wracked by extremist violence over the last 20 years. That is because the government has not swum against the tide of public opinion by embracing American policies in the region. Syrians overwhelmingly believe that the US is waging a war against Arabism and Islam. For Bashar to attack this common perception and to support America’s fight in Iraq, he must have Washington’s backing. It is basic realism.
Those in Washington who insist on continuing President Bush's campaign to "reform the greater Middle East" by ratcheting up the pressure on Syria and refusing to engage President Bashar, even at the price of added instability in Iraq, are foolish. First, such a policy will fail. There is no internal opposition to President Bashar worthy of the name. Second, it is bad for the US. More American soldiers will be killed in Iraq because of it, and Iraq's chances of finding a way out of its downward spiral into chaos and civil war will be diminished. The US needs Syria's cooperation, and it should put its Iraq policy above that of bringing regime change to Damascus.
Washington must choose between stabilizing Iraq and destabilizing Syria. It is that simple. It cannot pursue both policies at the same time.
Bashar’s decision to go to New York and talk to Americans is wise. It shows he is willing to meet Washington half way. Hopefully, someone there will be listening.