—— Forwarded Message
From: Samii Shahla
Date: Thu, 29 Jun 2006 13:22:26 -0400
Subject: In dealing with Iran, don’t forget Syria
Thursday, June 29, 2006
In dealing with Iran, don’t forget Syria
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Credit Bashar Assad with seeing, early on, the advantages of being Iran’s water boy in the Middle East. Syria has slipped under the American radar as the Bush administration prepares to haggle with Iran over its nuclear program. The Syrian president feels emboldened, so that in his latest interview with the daily Al-Hayat he dispensed advice to the Arab states on how they might enhance their “role” vis-a-vis Iran, ignoring how his own subordination to the Islamic Republic undermines this.
The American-Iranian dialogue, or more accurately contact, is today the big topic of discussion in Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is getting ready, reportedly by reading, and praising, Christopher de Bellaigue’s excellent book on post-revolutionary Iran, “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.” She also recently communed with her predecessor, Henry Kissinger, to distil meaning for Iran from his opening to China, a former ideological archenemy. With Washington’s eye on Persia, very few in the administration seem to have much time, or ideas, to focus on a second-rate annoyance like Assad.
The Syrian president likes that just fine. He has recently been mobilizing his comrades in Lebanon, even as the parliamentary majority stumbles under the combined weight of Saad Hariri’s political limitations and the destructive small-mindedness of the Aounists, motivated principally by loathing for the Future Movement. Meanwhile, Hizbullah, sitting at the nexus of the Syrian-Iranian relationship, refuses to disarm, maintains a dangerous alliance with Palestinian groups, keeps Lebanon’s other communities in line by way of street intimidation, consolidates its state within the state, and tries to convert Lebanon into a bastion of “resistance,” mainly in the service of the party’s sponsors in Tehran.
This reality has led to two false assumptions, one in the Middle East, the other in Washington. The first is a belief that the United States and Iran, in order to address the multifarious interests involved in the Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah-Palestinian quadrille, will try to reach a package deal transcending the nuclear question. The second, this time an American misperception, is that Syria doesn’t much matter, that it is less important an actor than Iran, the Palestinians and Hizbullah, who all represent more visceral headaches than the depleted Assads.
The notion of an Iranian-American package deal on the Middle East surfaced soon after President George W. Bush announced the US would participate directly in talks with the Islamic Republic. This was not unexpected: The Bush administration had earlier expressed a desire to hold talks with Iran over Iraq, setting off the alarm bells of Iraqi Sunnis. However, Bush is very reluctant to enter into the bazaar with Tehran, because his democracy project doesn’t permit it, because there are powerful people in the administration opposed to broad discussions, and because there is fear among some officials that Iran has a better chance of emerging stronger from intertwined negotiations than the US does.
That is understandable. From an Iranian perspective, there are also many reasons to limit discussions to nuclear matters. Iran has no intention, it seems, to sell Hizbullah down the road; it has no incentive to make concessions in Iraq at a time when the US is floundering there; it is perfectly satisfied with developments in the Palestinian territories, since this only further polarizes the Middle East against the US and Israel, while turning Iran into a champion of Palestinian rights; and, most significantly, it realizes that talking about nuclear arms locks the Americans in a process where they cannot easily bomb Iran. This buys the Islamic Republic time to develop atomic weapons, even as it can raise its demands on an international community eager to avoid war.
This is where Syria comes in. The US is shortsighted in not realizing that the weak link in the Iranian-dominated chain is that dwindling family running affairs in Damascus. However, though weak, Syria is also an important channel through which Iran manages its relations with Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamists. It is a weapons conduit to Hizbullah, a Hamas headquarters, a militant passageway into Iraq, a spoiler in Lebanon, and, somewhat less ostentatiously, a spoiler in Jordan. Assad is pleased to be lower on the Americans’ hit list, but he’s not doing anything to be forgotten. Does it make sense to have no strategy to deal with him?
This is hardly an injunction to drive American tanks into Damascus. However, the current US approach of advocating “behavior change,” not regime change, in Syria is more a bureaucratic compromise justifying inaction than a policy likely to succeed. Syrian behavior has indeed changed – for the worse. There are avenues short of war for transforming the Syrian regime, and, paradoxically, they pass through the Arab states, which are now reluctant to see Assad go because they fear an uncertain aftermath. However, the Arabs have a strong incentive to remove a leader who exports instability to the region to better anchor himself in power. By compelling its Arab allies to welcome the Syrian opposition, to build up coalitions inside the regime and outside that could cut off and oust the Assads, to show backbone in cracking Syria’s Iranian alliance, to build up an Arab consensus in favor of deep change in Damascus, the US would display more creative diplomacy than it is displaying today. At the least, such steps would mean more leverage to effect genuine behavior change in Syria.
What the Arab states still refuse to address is that Syria’s inherent instability increases their own. Iranian influence in Damascus is a byproduct of the Assads’ decline, and nothing suggests this decline won’t get worse and prove calamitous when the ruling family can no longer hold on to power. It’s better to start preparing now for a makeover, so that any movement toward a new Syria can be a stable one. For once, Washington may be able to find that its Arab friends are useful.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.
Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star
—— End of Forwarded Message