As 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.