What is it with Bashar al-Assad? One minute, he’s clinking champagne glasses in celebration of Syria’s return to America’s good graces, and the next minute he’s raising a toast with Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah at a Resistance Reunion. The don’t-trust-Syria crowd is having a field day.
There’s something deeply puzzling about this man. Until recently, I was perfectly willing to call him shrewd, but I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t perhaps too clever by half. In 2008, immediately after the signing of the Doha Accord (which was widely portrayed in the international media as an unambiguous victory for Syria’s allies in Lebanon), al-Assad announced that Syria was engaged in peace negotiations with Israel. The timing of the announcement seemed deliberately calculated to restore a kind of balance: it was a signal to the U.S. and Europe that Syria was willing to play ball as long as its interests were protected.
Over the weekend, al-Assad executed another one of his signature swerves when, shortly after meeting with the American envoy, he hosted both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah for a dinner at his palace in Damascus (which, you can bet, probably serves the most delicious food in the Levant). Again, the event seemed designed to keep everybody guessing, although Abdul-Bari Atwan has suggested that the whole purpose of the meeting was to secure Syria’s support to join in a war against Israel, should Iran’s nuclear facilities be bombed.
One wonders how long this balancing act can be sustained, or whether it is likely to yield any strategic returns. I can appreciate Bashar’s desire to accumulate as many cards as he can, but at some point, surely he has to start playing those cards. What happens then? Will he be on a conference call to Ahmadinejad and Mash`al whispering sweet nothings even as he signs a peace deal on the White House lawn?
Certainly Walid al-Mu`allim (Syria’s Foreign Minister) sees no contradictions in his country’s tightrope policy and has no problem envisioning a Syrian embassy in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, some partisans of the Free Patriotic Movement were disturbed by the sight of Hassan Nasrallah representing Lebanon at a meeting of presidents.
In other news, my buddy Sean has written an excellent piece about Martin Kramer’s proposal to force Palestinians to stop having babies.
Finally, I’ll be in Washington this Friday, speaking at a briefing on Capitol Hill along with Jared Cohen (State Department) and Mona Yacoubian (U.S. Institute of Peace), co-sponsored by the Safadi Foundation and the Project on Middle East Democracy. My stats tell me that a fair number of you people are based in the seat of empire, so if you are in the neighborhood and free at 11am, come on down.