Israel, Peace negotiations, Syria

Can Syria be the Linchpin in Obama’s Mideast Strategy?

syria-israelAs someone who came to consciousness during the period of Syrian control of Lebanon, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sympathetic to those Lebanese who regard Damascene politics with an innate sense of trepidation. Growing up in such an environment, I’d heard the old box-of-matches-and-pail-of-water argument countless times, while listening in on discussions about Syria’s role in the region. This was a straightforward argument to make, particularly in the context of Lebanese politics. Does it matter that the Lebanese parties were perfectly adept at starting their own fires or inviting Syria to start fires for them, and that no one (besides Syria) was very good at putting them out on their own? Syrian heavy-handedness in Lebanon made up for this fact, hence the persistence of the arsonist-fireman argument, which Jonathan Spyer rehashed recently in The Jerusalem Post:

The method to be used to achieve [its emergence from isolation] will be the tried and tested Syrian practice of holding a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a fire hose in the other. That is – Syria will offer itself as the indispensable mediator for the solution of problems which Damascus itself has helped to create, and for which its clients and allies are directly responsible.

The logic of this argument has recently begun to wear thin on me. Has Syria played a “spoiler” role in the past? Sure. Is it doing so at the moment? Maybe. These, however, are not the most relevant questions anymore. To my mind, it has become increasingly pointless to try and isolate the spoiler when there is no credible strategy for them to spoil. By sponsoring Hamas and Hizbullah, it’s not as though Syria has thrown a rusty monkey wrench into a smoothly purring, well-oiled machine. The machine itself is rusty and held together by temporary fixes, makeshift parts, and lots of duct tape. It’s already limping along, smoking from the bonnet and leaking all over the road. The monkey wrench that Syria has tossed into it is only one of many that have already been deposited within by Americans, Israelis, Arabs, and the Palestinian leadership itself.

Given this state of affairs, therefore, I would not be surprised if President Obama’s “backstage” Mideast strategy revolved entirely around the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Why? Because this is the only area of potential success in a sea of structural failure. If Obama wants to squeeze a single drop of good news out of this conflict within his first term, his only real option is Syria.

Critics of this line of reasoning point to Bashar al-Assad’s  insistence that a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement would not come at the expense of his  alliances with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran. “Why bother engaging Syria,” they ask, “if Bashar is not going to flip?” (It is a remarkable irony of history, and a sign of how far we’ve come from the late 1970’s, that the ally Syria is being asked to give up — and from whom, therefore, Bashar seeks  minimal cover — is not the PLO but rather Iran and its Levantine proxies.) While the “Why engage?” question is legitimate, I feel that it leads to more credible and compelling responses than the question “Why not engage?” The first of these compelling responses is, simply: because Syria is practically begging for it and has much to gain from a successful deal. The second response is that a deal would necessitate changes on the ground that would amount to a de facto ‘flip’, a new strategic equation. The third response is that there are simply no other credible alternatives at this stage. Israel may be willing to tolerate an indefinite state of low-intensity warfare, but the U.S.-allied Arab regimes must realize that the higher the body counts go, the worse they will look. This fact makes some people furious. But anger and frustration with Syria’s ability to outmaneuver its adversaries and win the battle of public opinion in the Arab world is not a reason to continue to shut it out.

In fact, it is a reason to do the opposite. By giving the Syrians a leading role in the peace process pageant, Obama and his Arab allies will finally acquire the ability to leave the dead cat at Syria’s doorstep. Or, to go back to the old metaphor, Syria will be less inclined to play arsonist or fireman when it is tasked with building a new house.
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31 thoughts on “Can Syria be the Linchpin in Obama’s Mideast Strategy?

  1. I prefer to think that Obama should work with Syria because he will get the best advice there.

    There will be no separate Syrian track agreement … they might start Syrian Track negotiations. but events in the region will force them to look at Palestine and Lebanon and Iraq …

    I don’t think anyone (Syria included) can ignore the fact that everything is connected.

    Posted by Alex | February 2, 2009, 12:56 pm
  2. QN,

    Let’s see where Syria can spoil:
    1) Lebanon. Unlike Bush Obama does not really care about that. Nor would Israel care if Hizballah took over Lebanon (that would actually be in Israel’s interest). Only the Saudis would throw a hissy fit. Therefore, spoiling in Lebanon is of little consequence to the peace track.
    2) Support of Hizballah and Hamas. The “boss” has gone mad strategy is working quite well. Hamas and Hizballah have lost their effectiveness. And with Netanyahu coming to power…
    3) Agitation of the Arab street. This is a myth. The Arab street has zero power relative to the dictators. Furthermore, after Iraq, the Arabs seem less inclined to change their dictators. In fact, Nasrallah’s admonitions against Mubarak backfired.
    4) Iraq. With the US on its way out, this is much less of an issue.

    The above, combined with the Hariri tribunal, the nuclear issue, the recession, the price of oil and the awful drought we are going through render Syria very very weak at this stage. Even Obama will not be able to convince Netanyahu to put the Golan into play.

    And let’s see the US congress repel the Syria Accountability Act first. In short, Obama is going to choose his battles wisely, and he will not fight this one because he knows that there is a good chance that the Syrians just want negotiations but no peace. The price of figuring out if they are bluffing or not is just politically too high even for him. There will need to be some huge gesture by Syria proving that it is serious to change things.

    Posted by AIG | February 2, 2009, 3:17 pm
  3. AIG

    Interesting argument. You are suggesting that Syria will not be a factor in Obama’s Middle East strategy because it is not nearly powerful or relevant enough to tempt the Americans into courting them or the Israelis into making concessions.

    I’ll have to think about this, but here’s a quick question. You say that there is a good chance that the Syrians just want negotiations but no peace. Why would this be the case if Syria was as weak and irrelevant as you say it is? In other words, if all their strategic cards have been neutralized and it’s only a matter of time before they reach the end of the plank, why would they not be serious about striking a deal with Israel to get the Golan back along with serious U.S. assistance?

    It’s one thing to say that Syria wants the peace but has a weak bargaining position. It’s another to say that it doesn’t really want a solution but only wants to negotiate.

    Finally, what kind of huge gesture would be needed, in your mind?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2009, 3:35 pm
  4. QN,

    When we talk about Syria let’s make it clear we are talking about the Syrian regime. The Asad regime is interested in talking but not in peace, because it wants to be internationally recognized without actually having to move out of the “resistance” camp. If they leave the “resistance”, this would immensely weaken Asad internally and put his regime in jeopardy. Really, except for his “resistance” reputation, what does Asad have going for him???

    Asad would need to make Sadat like gestures. Coming to Jerusalem to address the Knesset is one such example. Of course, this will not likely happen because it will put the regime in jeopardy and Asad will not take the chance.

    For the Asad regime, what matters is not the welfare of Syria, but their welfare. They can continue exploiting a very weak Syria for a few more years before reaching Zimbabwe levels.

    Posted by AIG | February 2, 2009, 3:48 pm
  5. QN –


    I took the liberty of cutting and pasting Mr. Khaled Abu Toameh comments in order to answer your question above and save time.

    This is how our Arab dictators survive. They constantly blame the miseries of our people on the Jews and the West and the Crusaders and the infidels and the Zionist lobby and the imperialists. They use all these slogans. Arab leaders always need to make sure that their people are busy hating somebody else, preferably the Jews and the Americans. Otherwise their people might rebel, and God forbid they might demand reforms and democracy.

    The huge gesture would be a public meeting with Netanyahu on the Cooking Channel.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 2, 2009, 3:49 pm
  6. AIG

    That doesn’t quite answer the question. You were saying that the loss of its ability to spoil in any relevant way has neutralized the Syrian cards, and this — coupled with the Hariri tribunal, the nuclear issue, the price of oil, and the awful drought — has made the Syrian regime very weak. And so I repeat: why wouldn’t this impel the regime to go for a deal?

    Your argument about the regime’s legitimacy being in jeapardy is inconsistent with your statement: “The Arab street has zero power relative to the dictators.” Why wouldn’t Bashar be able to get along just like the Jordanians and Egyptians?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2009, 3:56 pm
  7. Interesting bit of news here: Alon Liel comments on Erdogan’s spat with Peres. (For those who don’t recall, Alon was deeply involved in promoting the Syrian-Israeli negotiations.)

    Writing in Yediot, Alon Liel — who served as an Israeli diplomat in Turkey and was the director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry — reminded readers that in November 2007 Peres made history when he addressed Turkey’s parliament.

    “And it was the same Peres who was dealt, along with all of us, a stinging slap on the face by the Turkish prime minister who briefly turned Davos into the sewer of Istanbul,” he wrote.

    “It’s true that Israel occupied territory, but Turkey is also holding occupied territory. It’s true that Israel has violated U.N. resolutions, but Turkey has ignored dozens of such resolutions. It’s true that Israel is far from perfect, but don’t tempt us to mention all of Turkey’s crimes,” he wrote.

    Shai, care to comment on this?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2009, 4:01 pm
  8. QN,
    Let me start with your second point. First you are right, that Asad may stay in power. But, he is in a much tighter spot than Mubarak since he represents a minority sect unlike Mubarak and the Saudi King. This will raise the chances that he will lose control, but it will not guarantee that he will lose control. Once there is peace between Israel and Syria, where will Asad’s legitimacy come from? Will not the requests for reforms and change become especially loud? And as AP suggests, who will Asad blame his failures on after peace? I think Asad will not take chances and will decide to remain the head of the Arab “resistance”.

    So now your first question is simple to answer. Asad values his regime much more than the Golan, so he will not take any chances that may make it more likely that he will lose power. The Zimbabwe example is extreme but very educational. There is basically NOTHING you can do to force a dictator to make any deal if he does not care about the welfare of his people and only cares about staying in power. Asad would rather trash Syria completely before giving up any power.

    Posted by AIG | February 2, 2009, 4:12 pm
  9. QN,

    I believe Alon sent Turkey a message saying “you can’t expect Israel not to be angry”. But I disagree with the notion that some have voiced (even in Turkey) which says that Turkey can no longer be an honest broker. The opposite – in a way, perhaps it can now even better serve that purpose. Why? Because it just became the Muslim world’s favorite nation-of-the-year. Behind closed doors, I’m sure Erdogan will apologize to Peres (he basically did, from the rumors we read in the papers), and Turkey will try to mend its differences with Israel in public as well.

    Turkey does have a lot to lose in losing Israeli defense contracts, and a bit in terms of tourism. Plus, Israel is perhaps Turkey’s best “ticket” to the EU and the US. By continuing to show its readiness to help broker peace in our region, Turkey is causing Europe to see it as a very different nation than it was once (i.e. fighting its own occupied minority group). Turkey also doesn’t “need” Jewish lobbyists in DC starting to side with American Armenians soon. In short, Turkey needs Israel, no less perhaps than Israel needs Turkey. And, therefore, this episode will soon pass. But, the Muslim world will still remember Erdogan standing up for them, and they’ll keep giving Turkey much credit for that.

    I hate to say it, but perhaps it was almost a brilliant move on Erdogan’s part (of course also internally, before the upcoming elections). In the long run, it may end up helping Israel, rather than hurting us…

    By reminding Turkey publicly that it too has few “similar issues” (occupation, non-recognition of UNSC resolutions, etc.), Alon was hinting that Turkey should limit its rhetoric nowadays, because Israel can also take off its gloves. I imagine Erdogan will also seek to end this thing soon.

    Interesting that Syria’s Mouallem today announced that Syria is ready to consider restarting negotiations with Israel, should a willing PM be elected in 8 days time. I’m not sure which PM Syria is hoping for – Livni or Bibi… 🙂

    Posted by Shai | February 2, 2009, 4:45 pm
  10. QN,
    In Ma’ariv it is reported that a top Israeli official has said that Israel does not want Turkey any more as a broker with Syria.

    Posted by AIG | February 2, 2009, 5:19 pm
  11. AIG,

    Incorrect. The Ma’ariv article says that this “top official” said that Erdogan can no longer be an honest broker, not Turkey!

    And I’m not even sure that Erdogan won’t be able to do so. Wait a month or two, until after our elections, and then let’s see Bibi turn down Obama’s pressure to restart talks with Syria where they left off, using Turkey (and probably U.S. sitting together – which is what Syria wanted all along).

    Posted by Shai | February 2, 2009, 5:23 pm
  12. “Bush’s Failed Policies” update:

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 2, 2009, 5:29 pm
  13. Shai,
    Right, Turkey can be a broker, but the leader of the party in power can’t be. Wow, you see the half full glass even when there is no glass.

    Forget about any pressure on Netanyahu. Obama needs all the good will he can get from the US congress and will not fight them on the peace issue. He’ll stick to the wars he has a chance of winning.

    Posted by AIG | February 2, 2009, 5:39 pm
  14. AIG,

    Should we discuss that over coffee sometime? My offer still stands… 🙂

    Posted by Shai | February 2, 2009, 5:42 pm
  15. The article ends with “הגורם ביקש להוסיף כי חוסר שביעות הרצון של הממשלה בישראל מופנה רק כלפי ארדואן, והוא לא נועד להביע על תפקוד לקוי של טורקיה כמדינה.” (“The official asked to add that the Israeli government’s dissatisfaction is directed only towards Erdogan, and is not intended to express incompetence on behalf of Turkey as a nation.”)

    To remind you, Turkey also has a President, and in any case, the actual mediation was not done by Erdogan, but rather a lower-level official that ran between the two teams during the 4 rounds of talks. Erdogan was apparently very close to a breakthrough during Olmert’s last visit.

    Posted by Shai | February 2, 2009, 5:55 pm
  16. Has Aoun hired Nasrallah’s Speechwriter?

    According to Naharnet, Michel Aoun has described the upcoming parliamentary elections as a “universal battle in which air and maritime fleets would be deployed.” I think the technical term for it, oh General, is ma3rakat al-umma.

    He also apparently said that Saniora, Hariri, and Jumblatt should be tried in a court of law on charges of hurting relations with Syria. The man who traveled to Washington to cavort with AIPAC, the man who so perfectly fit the neocons’ bill for their man in Beirut, the man who rarely uttered the word Syria without scowling, grimacing, or making some reference to terrorism… has become Wiam Wahhab.

    In reference to an-Nahar’s investigative piece on his son-in-law’s dealings in the Ministry of Telecommunications, Aoun apparently vowed “to cut the tongue that targets us and chop the hand that stretches at us.”

    Seriously, is there, like, one guy who handles all the speechwriting for March 8?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 3, 2009, 2:34 am
  17. QN

    You like the guy who writes for M14 more? : )

    Posted by Alex | February 3, 2009, 4:15 am
  18. The Land of Hopenchange is not in full view is it?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 3, 2009, 3:27 pm
  19. Akbar,

    That ink stained finger was not worth a million dead Iraqi.

    Posted by Alex | February 3, 2009, 5:50 pm
  20. Alex –

    And maybe freeing the slave and keeping our Union wasn’t worth 600,000 lives. These are difficult questions to answer.

    But you’re off by about 1 order of magnitude. So much for accuracy.

    Your “million dead Iraqi” number is more in line with Saddam Hussein’s rule than with GWB.

    And Alex, being the humanitarian that you are, did you bother to lift a finger while Saddam was filling his mass graves? I bet you can post a link showing yourself demonstrating in front of the Iraqi Ba’athist embassy. Let’s see it!

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 3, 2009, 7:26 pm
  21. Akbar,

    You should know by now that I am a fan of Hafez Assad (except the excessive response to the Brotherhood’s revolution in Hama), and I wonder if your sources have explained to you that when everyone, including your freinds at the republican party were cheering Saddam in the 80’s, not to mention supplying him with Chemical weapons, Hafez Assad (and I, as a young teenager) hated Saddam.

    Want to take a look at Mr. Rumsfeld paying Saddam a visit and selling him the good stuff?

    As for your issue with my alleged order of magnitude exaggeration,

    First, I guess you forgot that American and international sanctions on Iraq since 1991 led to hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis before the 2003 war even started .. go do some research Akbar … from reliable sources please.

    As for the 2003 war … why don’t you read this most recent article:

    We have a better grasp of the human costs of the war. For example, the United Nations estimates that there are about 4.5 million displaced Iraqis–more than half of them refugees–or about one in every six citizens. Only 5 percent have chosen to return to their homes over the past year, a period of reduced violence from the high levels of 2005-07. The availability of healthcare, clean water, functioning schools, jobs and so forth remains elusive. According to Unicef, many provinces report that less than 40 percent of households have access to clean water. More than 40 percent of children in Basra, and more than 70 percent in Baghdad, cannot attend school.

    The mortality caused by the war is also high. Several household surveys were conducted between 2004 and 2007. While there are differences among them, the range suggests a congruence of estimates. But none have been conducted for eighteen months, and the two most reliable surveys were completed in mid-2006. The higher of those found 650,000 “excess deaths” (mortality attributable to war); the other yielded 400,000. The war remained ferocious for twelve to fifteen months after those surveys were finished and then began to subside. Iraq Body Count, a London NGO that uses English-language press reports from Iraq to count civilian deaths, provides a means to update the 2006 estimates. While it is known to be an undercount, because press reports are incomplete and Baghdad-centric, IBC nonetheless provides useful trends, which are striking. Its estimates are nearing 100,000, more than double its June 2006 figure of 45,000. (It does not count nonviolent excess deaths–from health emergencies, for example–or insurgent deaths.) If this is an acceptable marker, a plausible estimate of total deaths can be calculated by doubling the totals of the 2006 household surveys, which used a much more reliable and sophisticated method for estimates that draws on long experience in epidemiology. So we have, at present, between 800,000 and 1.3 million “excess deaths” as we approach the six-year anniversary of this war.

    Posted by Alex | February 4, 2009, 2:45 am
  22. Your “million dead Iraqi” number is more in line with Saddam Hussein’s rule than with GWB.

    Well Akbar when Iraq war started the amount of Saddam’s mass graves during his long rule were estimated being something like 30.000. Naturally not including the Iraq/Iran war. When the American “achievements” in Iraq begun to exceed Saddam’s achievements you pro-Bush propagandists had to add the causalities of Iraq-Iran war to save US “humanitarian” face. Naturally you forget by purpose USA’s and Israel’s role in that war.

    The Iraq one million casualties figure is estimated by Lancet a respected institution.

    Well Akbar no need any more to worry about Iraq. PM Al-Maliki said just US could leave Iraq early. Then Iraqis will make oil deals with Europeans, Russia and China and you Americans and Israelis can begin to consider “Why did it end like this”. USA has many thousand new graves, tens of thousands of new war invalids and hundreds of thousands suffering form the effects of serving in Iraq. On the other side of the balance is “…” (= basically nothing). Sad isn’t it Akbar? Iraq is soon free from – Americans.

    Posted by SimoHurtta | February 4, 2009, 4:03 am
  23. Alex,
    The point AP is making is very relevant. Are you sure that 400,000 dead is not a reasonable price to pay for democracy in Iraq? Imagine the future generations that will benefit from it.

    Was 600,000 American lives too much to free the slaves? What do you think?

    Posted by AIG | February 4, 2009, 4:48 am
  24. Alex,

    Not to diminish the horrible nature of war, the Lancet figures have been discredited by many organizations.

    I trust the Iraqi Body Count figures simply for 2 reasons:

    – they are/were strongly anti-Bush and anti-war, (thus not afraid to estimate high)

    – had many sources on the ground in Iraq

    Another, what I think, is an important point in the IBC numbers: they do not distiguish between deaths caused by “George Bush” and the liberating US and Iraqi government forces and the deaths caused by jihadists/insurgents/suicide bombers. In fact, none of estimates distinguish between deaths caused by “coalition” and “insurgent” forces.

    Judging from the news we’ve been reading over these past few years, I’m thinking a LARGE percentage of the deaths (aka “murders”) the IBC reported were due to the “head-choppers”.

    So the question the historians will have to answer was exactly your question: was it worth it?

    Considering the deaths of Arab and Muslims all over the Middle East, the deaths of Jews and Israelis, Palestinians, etc, I feel that democracy is the only way out of this vice-grip called Middle East despotism.

    Saddam’s 35 year reign meant continued conflict (remember, that’s how Arab leaders lead) either internally with the Kurds and Hussein’s perceived opposition, or externally with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc (with the added use of Scuds and/or WMD).

    Maybe you and Obama would have preferred continued rule by the Hussein clan, but I don’t think Iraqis would.

    In fact a recent poll (March, 2008) shows half of the Iraqis think the “invasion was right”. Reading the same poll through the BBC link, shows that the 49% approval rating didn’t change much since 2004.

    If things continue to approve that number will rise. It will be up to the Iraqis to preserve their freedom and defend it. I hope the US and West helps them.

    Click to access 1060a1IraqWhereThingsStand.pdf

    Click to access 14_03_08iraqpollmarch2008.pdf

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 4, 2009, 9:06 am
  25. Dear QN Blog Groupies

    WordPress is very stingy with its spam protection, hence the occasional comments that end up in its filter. I try to release comments on a regular basis. Apologies for disrupting the flow of civilized discourse.


    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 4, 2009, 9:13 am
  26. Well Akbar when Iraq war started the amount of Saddam’s mass graves during his long rule were estimated being something like 30.000.


    Can you post a link showing where you got this number.


    Whatever outsiders such as you, Alex or myself come up with, in the end, it doesn’t mean very much. The Iraqis are the ones who will either be thanking or denouncing the American “liberation”. Right now, I’d say the Iraqi populace is evenly divided.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 4, 2009, 10:41 am
  27. Alex, Sim,

    I just noticed this article pertaining to the Lancet report/estimate from the BBC ME website…

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 4, 2009, 12:16 pm


  1. Pingback: Sy Says Syria’s Serious « Qifa Nabki - March 30, 2009

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