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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Giving to Bashar Assad, and taking away

Giving to Bashar Assad, and taking away
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 21, 2006 

While in Beirut this week Senator John Kerry remarked, in reference to any future discussion between the United States and Syria: "Lebanon is not on the table, nor is the Hariri tribunal. So what do you do with Bashar Assad? What does he want?" The statement was reassuring on Lebanese sovereignty, but also showed why wondering about what to do with Assad can often end up being another way of saying: What do you give Assad?
That resigned logic was entrenched in the Iraq Study Group report, drafted largely by a onetime US ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian. Like James Baker, his former boss, Djerejian is nostalgic for when the United States could cut deals with a reliable despot in Damascus. That the despot's son is entirely unreliable when it comes to respecting his engagements has done little to discourage Baker or Djerejian. Basing themselves on a shallow assumption that Syria wants to avoid civil war in Iraq (even though it may be the state most responsible for triggering one), the "engagers" have put little effort into showing how Assad might be compelled to end his destabilization of Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Particularly for a Lebanon threatened by a Syrian return, more clarity is vital.
 But then again, when it comes to Lebanon, neither the Bush administration nor the ruling March 14 coalition, Syria's prime prey, has convincingly outlined the kind of leverage that might prevent the Syrians from reasserting their control over the country. When Kerry asked Lebanese interlocutors for their views on Monday, few of the responses were practical from the perspective of a Democrat-led Congress eager to have more of a say in the Bush administration's regional policies.
Syrian insecurity is often cited as an obstacle to a kinder more generous Syria. For example, writing in The Financial Times last week, Robert Malley and Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group saw insecurity as a reason for Syrian intransigence: "Damascus and Tehran want a different relationship with Washington. But at a time when they believe the US seeks to weaken them, they are unlikely to bend to its requests."
That may be true. But the question that the authors and others have not answered is whether a heightened sense of security will make Assad more willing to surrender valuable political cards that he feels his intransigence has allowed him to accumulate. Syria's support for Hamas, its blunt refusal to recognize Lebanese sovereignty as outlined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, and its destabilization of Iraq, have all paid handsome dividends as far as Assad interprets things, though the reality is doubtless more complicated. The president can also see that his "insecurity" is what brings people to his door with political offerings and words of comfort - even as his behavior has changed not at all.
Perhaps a more promising avenue isn't to reduce Assad's sense of insecurity, but to heighten it so that his regime will make damaging mistakes that can be exploited. This is fraught with risks, but the Syrians, like many others, only really respond when their interests are at stake.
Take their decision to back the Lebanese opposition's campaign to overthrow or neuter Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government. The fact that the bulk of the opposition is Shiite unfortunately, though predictably, has led to an angry Sunni counter-reaction. Yet as any follower of Syrian politics will tell you, Sunni mobilization, whether in Lebanon or Iraq, might one day consume the minority Assad regime. In that case, why shouldn't the international community and Syria's Arab adversaries use the potential dangers of such mobilization as a stick to effect behavior-change in Syria, in a way that reassurances could never do?

From the Lebanese perspective, the greatest difficulty with Syria today is arriving at a modus vivendi on bilateral ties that can satisfy both sides. The Syrians simply won't negotiate. They haven't hidden their desire to return to Lebanon and still refuse to deal with the country as a sovereign entity. When it comes to the Hariri tribunal, Assad has put no prospective exchange on the table, though there are those in March 14 who would probably be willing to swap watering down the tribunal's statutes for verifiable guarantees of Lebanese independence and their own personal safety. In the absence of Syrian flexibility, however, March 14 will stick with the tribunal as the only weapon it can deploy, and for the moment it has the backing of the international community.
A third source of leverage that could be used to alter Syrian behavior is Arab antagonism toward Syria's alliance with Iran. It would be naive to suppose that so beneficial a relationship would be abandoned by Assad for the uncertain prospect of negotiations over the future of the Golan Heights. If anything, the Syrian leader will assume that the Iranian connection is what brought the Golan back to international attention. On the other hand, as Assad watches developments in the Palestinian territories, he knows that somewhere in there lies an ominous message: The Sunni Arab states are striking back against Iran's Arab allies - such as Hamas. While Assad will not soon discard his Hamas comrades, if that Arab counter-attack gains momentum, it would be unwise of the Syrian leader to remain on the wrong side of the fight, particularly if the latter is increasingly defined by sectarian identification.
Assad has overestimated his vulnerabilities, but in so doing has underestimated Syria's ability to shape and benefit from a stable region. By refusing to give up on Lebanon, the Syrian leader has hardened the wall of anti-Syrian hostility in the country, whose leading proponents are now Sunnis backed by an Arab world anxious about Iranian intentions. By encouraging Hamas' rejectionism, Assad has made the task much harder for those advocating renewed Golan negotiations. By tying Syria's fortunes to those of Tehran, he has eroded the earlier Arab consensus that would have better protected his regime from the Hariri tribunal.
It may be valid for the United States and Europe to engage Syria, but not from a position of weakness - which the Iraqi Study Group recommendations would almost certainly lead to. Assad has pushed his country into dangerous corridors that his father would have never contemplated entering. This should make for a more pliable Syrian regime, as it begins to grasp the perils that it has created for itself. Maybe it's time to think about taking advantage of this situation.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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