"Let's Make a Deal," by Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan at Slate has written an excellent article explaining what it would take to make a deal with Syria. I have copied a bit of the article below. (Warning: he quotes me.) One of the important questions that weighs on all those pushing engagement is what Syria really wants. Here is a bit of Fred's article.
I also appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio for an half an hour interview, Thursday, September 14, 2006, about Syria. (Slide the bar to the second half hour).
Here is the Kaplan article:
Megan Stack of the L.A. Times quotes me in an article entitled, Syrians Foil Strike on U.S. Embassy. I like Megan Stack and she has written many good stories on Syria and Lebanon this past year; however, her editors must have cut a paragraph because it sounds like I support the notion that the Syrian government was behind the embassy bombing, which I explained to her was a silly notion. Here is how she quotes me:
Let's Make a Deal
It's time to talk to Syria.
posted Sept. 15, 2006
It's a golden moment for a diplomatic overture to Syria.
This week's armed assault on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus should have shown Syrian President Bashar Assad that his country isn't as immune to the region's terrorism as he might have thought.
The Syrian security guards' successful repulsion of the attack and defense of the embassy should have shown President George W. Bush that the two countries might share some interests—and that the terrorist threat isn't as monolithic as he's made it appear in recent speeches.
The incident comes in the wake of the summer's disastrous war between Israel and Hezbollah, which should have shown all concerned that military power alone—even when unfurled by the once-invincible Israel Defense Forces—cannot resolve the region's political conflicts.
It's worth trying to strike a deal with Assad because: 1) He can be bought off (he's offered to be bought off before, on several occasions); 2) yanking him away from Iran will pull the rug out from under Iran; 3) getting him to temper his support of Hezbollah will defang Hezbollah.
But to buy off Assad requires buying him—giving him something in exchange for his switch. And that's something George W. Bush is loath to do.
An alliance with Iran gets Assad security, economic aid, and investment. Supplying arms to Hezbollah gets him leverage in Lebanon and street cred with Arabs. If he changes policies and does what Tony Snow wants him to do, what does he get in return?
Joshua Landis—whose blog, Syria Comment, is the most informative clearinghouse of analysis on the country—thinks that Assad wants better relations with the United States; that he turned to Iran in part because he needed to turn somewhere and had no alternative.
Assad is a secular leader, faces his own Islamist threats from within (as the embassy assault dramatized), and must wonder how durable his alliance with the mullahs of Iran might be. Even before George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, Assad tried to revitalize relations by offering the administration intelligence on Saddam's plans and forces—but he was rebuffed.
In other words, it's a big mistake to regard Syria as an implacable foe—much less to lump it along with the myriad regimes and movements (Iran, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, North Korea, and so on) that Bush views as a monolithic force of darkness in the global war on terrorism. (This Manichean view may be Bush's most unfortunate misconception. By not understanding the nature of his enemies, he cannot defeat them; and by failing to detect the fissures that divide them, he passes up opportunities to play them off against one another.)
What would Assad need to change his ways? Landis and others suggest a few incentives: a guarantee that neither the United States nor Israel would attack Syria; excision from the official list of nations that sponsor terrorism (a step that would permit aid and investment from the West); some liberty to flex political influence in Lebanon; and negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan Heights.
In exchange, Assad would have to earn Syria's removal from the terrorism list (that is, he would really have to stop sponsoring terrorism); he would have to stop funneling arms to Hezbollah and, instead, support Hezbollah strictly as a political party; and he would have to accept Israel's existence within the framework of a two-state accord with the Palestinians (which—though it's always dangerous to be optimistic about such things—a new, possibly unified, government in the Palestinian territories seems on the verge of doing).
This is a lot to bite off. It's not at all an appealing idea, whatever the trade-offs, to legitimize the resumption of Syrian influence in Lebanese politics or the stiffening of Hezbollah's political power. But those things are going to happen anyway. Should they happen with Syria in an alliance with Iran—or in a security arrangement that involves the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union?
We need allies to maintain influence and stability in the Middle East, and we hardly have any these days. It may be time to resume the practice of "realism" and build up some allies to help do our dealings, even if it means trading favors with the lesser and more malleable of evils.
But questions linger: Why have militants never struck Syria with the force and skill brought to bear against Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Is Syria given a pass by armed groups because of Assad's reputation as an anti-American figure?David Schenker of WINEP and Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, are pushing this conspiracy theory. Tony said, "Every time the regime wants to show that it is embattled or that it shares the same enemy as the United States, there is an incident like this." This is spin - and then these guys claim Arabs always see conspiracy theories. Both these guys repeat ad naseum that Asad is a bumbler and hardly in control of Syria - then they describe him a superman who can manipulate every jihadist in Syria. If the 5 or 6 jihadist events in the last three years in Syria were all sham events, we must conclude that Syria has no jihadism or extremist presence working against the regime. This means that the other leaders of the Middle East are out of control and bumblers because they cannot police their countries as Bashar al-Asad can. We must conclude that they should all be taking lessons in leadership and in providing security in the countries from Asad.
"The speculation has been that the Assad regime has put people up to this," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who spent last year living in Damascus. "Are they in league? Have they cut a deal?"