Israel, Lebanon, Syria

Israel, Syria, and Lebanon: Thinking Outside the Box

Maybe you all can help me understand an idea that I’ve repeatedly encountered among various neoconservative Mideast watchers, with regard to the question of whether or not to engage Syria.

In a nutshell, the idea is that the best way for Washington to get what it wants–namely a Syrian regime that doesn’t threaten American or Israeli interests in the region–is to isolate Damascus, instead of engaging it with the aim of facilitating a peace agreement between Syria and Israel.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is out of touch with recent historical experience. With the exception of the first few months after the Hariri assassination–which witnessed a Syrian withdrawal of troops, etc.–the tough isolationist policy toward Syria did not seem to reap many lasting benefits. As tough as things got for Damascus during the dark days of 2005-08, the regime never showed any signs of buckling and Bashar al-Assad eventually emerged more popular than ever (just as Hezbollah did after the 2006 war).

The second problem with this idea is its odd shortsightedness. Here’s an excerpt from a Hudson Institute event featuring Lee Smith, Jeffrey Feltman, and Elliott Abrams, in which the latter expresses this idea very directly:

MR. ABRAMS: The Bush administration did not favor, at the time it began, Syrian-Israeli negotiations because they let Syria out of the box we had carefully constructed for Syria. Syria was – in that period, if you go back to, for example, the number of European foreign minister visits over a 12-month period, very, very, very small. Syria was quite isolated. And the price it paid for the break in this isolation was zero.

Now that’s mostly a criticism of the government of Israel; much less so a criticism of the government of Turkey in the sense that if two governments want to negotiate and they ask you to facilitate, I think your culpability is a great deal less than if you are the author of this engagement. There was no point – there was nothing to be gained by criticizing the Turkish role and I don’t believe the United States ever did criticize the Turkish role. The problem, I would say, was trying to figure out what Israel or the cause of peace or the Syrian population or the Lebanese population or the Iraqi population gained from this. And I think the answer is nothing. (Download the entire transcript here)

Andrew Tabler also recently made a similar argument (i.e. with respect to Israel letting Syria out of the box) in an event hosted by the Middle East Institute, saying:

“I think it’s also quite ironic that… for all the talk about regime change during the Bush administration, it was actually Israel that saved Syria in that debate.” [NB: Tabler does not actually argue in favor of isolating Syria.]

Am I missing something here? Do these folks really believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that a few more years of uninterrupted isolation would have brought the Syrians to their knees, and that had it not been for the Turkish-brokered peace talks, the Bush policy would have been a success? This strikes me as a very peculiar position.

In my opinion, if you’re going to be against an engagement policy, you need a better reason than: “It lets Syria out of the box.”  You can argue that the Syrians aren’t democratic enough to be friends of the United States, or that they shouldn’t be “rewarded” for working against American interests, etc., but these are not particularly convincing reasons either.

At the end of the day, if the goal of the U.S. policy toward the Assad regime is to end the state of war between Syria and Israel, problematize the Syrian-Iranian relationship, and create lasting stability in Lebanon, how would this goal not be best achieved by directly pursuing a Syrian-Israeli peace deal? Tell me what I’m missing, people.

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33 thoughts on “Israel, Syria, and Lebanon: Thinking Outside the Box

  1. You are not missing anything, they are… Missing common sense.

    For Elliott Abrams and other Syria haters it is a personal battle that started decades ago. Elliott was part of the Reagan administration … He watched US troops leave Lebanon to Syria, and he watched his secretary of State George Schultz swear to never visit Syria again in 2003 after Hafez Assad managed to pressure Lebanon to changer it’s mind about the May 83 peace agreement with Israel that George Schultz thought was a done deal.

    Imagine how Elliott the loser, who never won a battle against Syria, feels today … After playing chess against the Assads during the 8 years of Reagan admin and another 8 years of Bush administration.

    Same applies to Dennis Ross, and other friends of Israel. Since the 70’s they have always been there in Washington, occupying different posts … Trying to weaken, isolate, change, get rid of the Assads who have also always been there in Damascus.

    Posted by Alex | June 22, 2010, 11:49 pm
  2. do you know this book:
    “israel en danger de paix” ?

    Posted by mc | June 23, 2010, 1:49 am
  3. Alex,

    The Assads are doing great. How do you explain the fact that Syria cannot take care of the Syrian drought victims?

    How come it needs hand outs from the UN to take care of its own people?

    Oh, by the way, Asad has also made it to the list of worst dictators in the world:,12

    Yes, yes, the Asads are always winning. But millions of Syrians are losing.

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 1:49 am
  4. In my view, both Syria and Israel have benefited from the status quo. Syria has had its fair share of problems domestically and the still applied emergency law solidifies power in the hands of the ruling minority. With peace, this emergency law would suddenly seem outdated. For Israel the benefits are somewhat more obscure. Previously the Golan Heights had a strategic value militarily. I guess access to water is the thorny issue nowadays. In any case, that front has been quiet throughout the decades, unlike south Lebanon, so why bother negotiating when Syria is in a position of weakness? It makes less sense now, however, to not engage in peace negotiations. Syria badly needs economic opportunities, which will increase quite subastantially with a peace agreement and the likely ensuing lifting of the sanctions. Israel is facing a severe deteriation in its image abroad, and frankly, that country is just heading the wrong way, domestically, foreign policy, you name it. I think now the onus is on Israel whether or not they will be willing to swap land for peace with Syria. Their backers in the US will of course do what it takes to ensure Israel gets what it wants, or doesn’t want. But I believe that the image of Israel is also becoming more nuanced in the states. And that is a dangerous thing!

    Syria’s ruling minority needs to stay in power, and in the long run, increased economic opportunities will be the only way to ensure a coming peaceful transition of power in this country. Economic hardship will increase opposition to the regime.

    Posted by Doc | June 23, 2010, 1:52 am
  5. Qifa you are not missing anything here, let me clarify:

    1. The Syrian Nation and its leaders are evil (Not withstanding our love for our Syrian brothers like Alex)

    2.They are supporters of Terrorist organizations ( Hamas, Hezbollah, and now The IHH )

    3. They Covet Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan.

    4. The Syrian Leaders are evil, thieves, Murderers, Harbourers of terrorists, Have a secret nuclear plant ( oh sorry Israel took care of this), Have WMD’s, Supply Hezb with missiles etc etc etc

    5. Have stolen Israel’s chief ally in the ME- Turkey

    6. Akbar and AIG have been right all along!

    The point really Qifa is that Israel and Syria don’t really want peace! If it was simply all about that then we wouldn’t be asking spurious questions!

    Posted by Enlightened | June 23, 2010, 2:47 am
  6. Maybe what you are missing is this:

    The neo-con goal is not to bring peace; Its to bring surrender. They dont just want the Palestinans, Syrians and Lebanese to sign a peace deal. They want them to sign deals that relinquish all claims to any land or resources. They wanted to put Syria (much like Hamas and the attempt against Hizballah) into a “box” that they believed they would beg to be let out of.

    What they didnt and still don’t get is that none of Syrias neighbourhood allies give a shit what the US wants or is fearful of the US the way Arab regimes usually are.

    But hey, as an opponent of normalizing anything with the Zionist, long may the likes of Abrams, Ross, Pearle and co. rule the American Mid East roost.

    Posted by mo | June 23, 2010, 4:41 am
  7. One can raise the same issue that you have QN by also arguing that policies of engagement with the Syrian regime have resulted in naught.
    I can understand, although I do not support, US foreign policy that supports human rights regime abusers if such policies end up in promoting stability and peace. But in the case of Syria , the Assada want it both ways, they want friendly relations with the US and yet they want to lead and support groups strongly opposed to the US.
    Isolating Syria does not mean that the regime will fall apart over night but it does transform the regime into a pariah state that can still cause problems but its international image and influence would be degraded as to become another North Korea.
    I believe that the above is the logic of the neocons in DC and one could obviously disagree with it but the position is not untenable.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | June 23, 2010, 7:25 am
  8. Ghassan

    The problem with the “lets-make-them-another-North-Korea” argument is that Syria has more or less occupied that rank of ignominious states for a long time, and it hasn’t really had much of an effect whatsoever. Today, Syria has found plenty of leverage to break out of its US imposed isolation, winning allies across the Arab and Muslim world, Europe, and Central Asia, making the US look like the one who is isolated and behind the times.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe it’s fair to argue that “policies of engagement with the Syrian regime have resulted in naught.” Which policies of engagement? There isn’t really even a Syria policy, let alone a policy of engagement.

    When the U.S. comes forward with a realistic and robust strategy that breaks out of the “cut your ties to Iran and then maybe we’ll talk” paradigm, that’s when we can really start speaking of a true engagement policy.

    And I don’t see why this is so hard for people to understand. Does the US tell the Egyptians: “Hold free and fair elections if you want to receive more aid!” or does it tell the Saudis: “Crack down on your religious hardliners if you want to speak to us about anything…”?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 23, 2010, 7:52 am
  9. QN says:
    “Does the US tell the Egyptians: “Hold free and fair elections if you want to receive more aid!” or does it tell the Saudis: “Crack down on your religious hardliners if you want to speak to us about anything…”?”
    But that is what I tried to answer in my previous post:-) Egypt and Saudi , as undemocratic as they might be, at least do not openly support the groups whose only raison d’etre is to fight anything connected to the Great Satan.
    BTW, I beg to differ on the assessment that says that Syria is doing that much better than North Korea. The only major Syrian positive development was their ability to regain influence in Lebanon thanks to Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese politicians.
    What passes for Syrian strength is its ability to be a spoiler and that is not a very demanding task.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | June 23, 2010, 8:48 am
  10. Qifa,

    Can the period of Gulf War I to 2005 be considered policy of engagement with Syria? The official line is that the Americans gave Lebanon to Syria in exchange for going against Saddam. Am sure this gift also came with a caveat about attacks on Israel. The attacks from Lebanon did not stop and culminated in the repulsion of the Israeli Attack Forces from Lebanon.

    The question is how were US interests advanced by engaging Syria through the 90s? The Assad’s play a great game. No matter what happens they insulate themselves from the outside – unfortunately mainly at the cost of their citizens.

    AIG, How come Israel needs hand outs from the USA to take care of its own people?

    Annual Military assistance @ 3 billion USD.

    Annual colonization assistance @ varied from a low of $12 million to a high of $80 million, based on the number of Jews leaving the former Soviet Union and other areas for Israel. Between 1973 and 1991, the United States gave about $460 million for resettling Jewish refugees in Israel.

    Annual Loan Guarantees valued @ 3 billion USD

    Annual support to schools and hospitals @ ~3 million USD

    Endowments to support Israeli R&D. The BIRD and BSF Foundations.

    And what about the emergency AID that is provided as in 2006 emergency weapons delivery or the 1.5 Billion USD in 1985 to help your economy cope with soaring inflation and economic stagnation.

    Oh and let’s not forget the few billions of MY tax dollars in the 1990s to push you along in the peace process (1.2 Billion USD).


    And that’s not counting wealthy American Jewish remittances that subsidize the Israeli government’s colonization of occupied land.

    Spew all you want AIG – your lies/double standards and hypocrisy can/will be called out one by one.

    That said, I think the Arab Regimes should welcome Israel into their midst. Ties should be normalized immediately. I can no longer tell the difference between Israel and… well you name the Arab country. Israel is as egregious, undemocratic, violent, unprincipled and corrupt as any Arab regime. And her citizens… well they are just as intolerant as the citizens of her neighbors.

    Posted by Johnny | June 23, 2010, 9:15 am
  11. Ghassan,
    One minor but vital distinction. These groups aren’t opposed to the US, they are opposed to US hegemony.

    Posted by mo | June 23, 2010, 9:29 am
  12. Johnny,

    Is it true or not that Syria cannot feed its people? What exactly are you calling me out on?

    Israel was just accepted to the OECD. Get used to it. We now have 6 working spy satellites which we have launched by ourselves. The last being the Ofek 9, which was just launched. Our borders have never been more quiet. Syria is under sanctions and is a basket case. Iran is under sanctions and the regime us hated by its own people. Our economy is very strong plus huge amounts of natural gas have just been discovered. We are world leaders in desalination and are constantly bringing plants online while you are not preparing for the water problems ahead. Yes, things are really bad here.

    If you don’t like how Israelis think and vote, that is your problem. You should mind your own business and bring democracy and prosperity to the Arab countries. I know it is much easier to complain about Israel and the US, but that is pure escapism.

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 9:58 am
  13. mo,
    Any two countries in the world are expected to have disagreements about one issue or another. What matters is how these disagreements are dealt with.
    It is one thing to have genuine disagreements and different points of view but it is a completely different issue when one does not miss an opportunity to demonize the other. To be honest I fail to see what is it that Iran has achieved that it would not have been able to achieve had it chosen not to demonize and escalate the tension between it and the US. From where I am standing Iran has not gained a thing besides empty slogans. (It is so unnatural and uncomfortable for me to appear as if I am defending the US foreign policy which I am not. I am disagreeing strongly with the tools of the Iran?Syria policies).

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | June 23, 2010, 10:29 am
  14. QN,

    I think you are not clear about Israeli interests regarding Syria. Israel never shared the Bush administration interest in regime change in Syria (also in Iraq by the way). The Israeli consensus is that it is better to weaken these governments rather than change them. They should be weak enough not to be a security issue for Israel but strong enough to be able to control internal groups that might want to attack Israel. Israel does not want Syria to become like Lebanon that could not control militias attacking Israel for its territory. The best insurance policy Asad has is the fact that the Golan border is quiet and has been for decades. There is not much more Israel needs from Syria. Asad knows that his regime will be changed only if Israel is on board. That is why he is more scared to kill Israeli soldiers on the Golan than American soldiers in Iraq.

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 10:34 am
  15. I don’t think the answer to the question is that complicated.

    Israel won’t make partial peace with Syria if that means giving up the Golan but Syria refusing to abandon support for Israel’s enemies and the Palestinians. Peace between Israel and Syria will have to wait until the West Bank/Gaza issue, and therefore the Israel/Arab conflict, is settled with the Palestinians. Then Israel can make peace with Syria. But it would be stupid for Israel to give up the Golan first without having a complete cessation of hostilities with the Palestinians.

    Given that, there is no purpose to try to push Israel and Syria together as there is no possibility of an agreement.

    Posted by dontgetit | June 23, 2010, 10:36 am
  16. AIG, You seem to deflect any question on Israel by pointing out flaws in Arab regimes.

    I am agreeing with you about all the things you say about Arab regimes. I am only pointing out that Israel is well on its way to becoming one of these regimes.

    So to answer your series of questions the way you answer mine. Is it true or not that Israel needs approx. 7-8 billion in hard cash and loan guarantees from the US to be able to do great things that you claim it does?

    Or is that money from the US only used to expand Israeli borders and ensure white, Jew only settlements?

    Posted by Johnny | June 23, 2010, 11:02 am
  17. Johnny,

    I never use the two wrongs make a right argument, and if I did so mistakenly, I would be happy to be corrected. I never said anything about Israel in what I initially wrote about Syria. It was you that brought Israel into this with your answer to my post.

    In fact, you are evading my questions. But I will answer yours. In the past, especially in the 70s Israel needed very much the US aid. But now, it really doesn’t. What matters is the aid as a percentage of GDP. Currently the $3 billion dollars US military aid is a measly 1.5% of Israeli GDP. Without the aid, the Israeli GDP per capita would also be 1.5% lower, it would be $29,550 instead of $30,000. That is still one of the highest in the world.

    As for the US loan guarantees, Israel does not need them. Israel has a strong credit rating and can easily raise money in foreign markets. Furthermore, in recent years, the shekel has become quite strong relative to the dollar because of the growth of Israeli exports and because of the big foreign investments in Israel.

    And to the point I was making. You take care of the Arab countries and we will take care of Israel. Let’s meet again in 10 years and compare the results.

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 11:17 am
  18. Check out this event, where similar arguments were made, by some of the same people, in an equally blind fashion:

    Posted by Sarah | June 23, 2010, 11:40 am
  19. AIG said: “Israel was just accepted to the OECD. Get used to it. We now have 6 working spy satellites which we have launched by ourselves. The last being the Ofek 9, which was just launched. Our borders have never been more quiet. Syria is under sanctions and is a basket case. Iran is under sanctions and the regime us hated by its own people. Our economy is very strong plus huge amounts of natural gas have just been discovered. We are world leaders in desalination and are constantly bringing plants online while you are not preparing for the water problems ahead.”

    Oh yeah? Well, we invented hummus.

    So there.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 23, 2010, 2:05 pm
  20. Not only have you invented Hummus, you hold the Guiness record for the biggest plate. It’s so big, You don’t even need a spy satelite to see it!

    And I ask, what the hell does one do with those tons of Hummus?!

    Posted by G | June 23, 2010, 2:32 pm
  21. Eat it. Of course.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | June 23, 2010, 4:08 pm
  22. QN,

    Yes, but can you send the hummus to space?

    Seriously, who did invent hummus, the Phoenicians or the Arabs?

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 4:19 pm
  23. No, we cannot send the hummus to space. But if consumed in large quantities (and with plenty of garlic mixed in), it is itself a highly combustible substance that may, one day, be used to send our own astronauts to space.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 23, 2010, 4:36 pm
  24. “Who did invent hummus, the Phoenicians or the Arabs?”

    Ha Zionists! Even their jokes are aiming to divide people.
    Why don’t you stuff your mouth with humus – wherever it comes from – and stop boasting?

    Posted by quelqu'une | June 23, 2010, 5:30 pm
  25. The real reason behind the Neocon-Zionist conspiracy on the middle east is NOT to steal our oil. Don’t you know?
    It’s because Hummus will be a crucial component in the current push to divest the West of its dependence on fossil fuels.
    As QN pointed out, Hummus makes a great combustible and will eventually be powering all the cars and factories in the US and China.
    Why do you think Israel is so eager to claim the copyright on the Hummus name?

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | June 23, 2010, 7:50 pm
  26. quelqu’une,

    I am not boasting, just reporting facts that may finally bring you to the understanding that Israel will be around for a very long time:,7340,L-3909935,00.html

    By the way, I think hummus is the proof that Israel wants to integrate into the middle east and is willing to change it culture. It is much better than regel krusha (gelled leg):

    Regel krusha is up there with haggis (forgive me grandma wherever you are). If you guys don’t behave we will memoricide you first and then force you to eat regel krusha.

    Posted by AIG | June 23, 2010, 8:10 pm
  27. AIG Said:

    “By the way, I think hummus is the proof that Israel wants to integrate into the middle east and is willing to change it culture.”

    LOL AIG, that has to be the funniest line I have heard from you in 3 years!

    Any way here is a lesson for you if you really want to integrate, the Arab equivelant of Hagus is “Kroosh” ( Stuffed sheeps stomach with rice, mince and pinenuts, sewed, then boiled until it gives off the most putrid smell), I refused to enter the house whenever my mother made it for my father!

    So we already have our equivelant of the Hagus, we really have no need for your invented European version, we are quite happy with ours!

    Posted by Enlightened | June 23, 2010, 11:40 pm
  28. Lah ya Enlightened. Kroosh is good and it takes quite a bit of preparation and culinary savyness (I watched my mom make it many times as a kid), and her version did include whole garbanzo beans in the mix. But I do recognize that kroosh is an acquired taste, some folks didn’t like it, but I did.


    You keep on selling your israeli nirvana vis a vis the non-existence tension between the various jewish groups. I happen to think it is there just by reading israeli papers.

    Really would like your take on the latest tension at the school for girls, where many parents do not want to send their girls to go to school with other jewish girls just because they happen to be dark and of oriental jewish heritage. The tension reached a point as to have the supreme court interfere. The parents’ defense is that it had to do with religious studies and not racism. But aren’t these schools publicly funded?

    Posted by Ras Beirut | June 24, 2010, 12:21 am
  29. Ras Beirut,

    What nirvana am I selling? Of course Jews disagree vehemently with each other but we solve the problems predominantly in peaceful ways.

    As an atheist I am the last person to explain or justify what the ultra orthodox do. They mostly do not serve in the IDF and many of them are not even Zionist. They certainly do not accept liberal democratic norms. What is interesting is that the tension was between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi ultra orthodox and here comes the interesting part, the Mizrahi went to the Israeli supreme court to get a ruling! It is like someone who believes in Islamic law going to a secular court. Obviously, the Israeli supreme court ruled against segregation. And then it sent the people segregating to prison for contempt because they didn’t abolish the segregation. Of course, the ultra orthodox were not happy and had a huge peaceful demonstration. But so far, everything is proceeding according to the rule of law.

    The parents defense that did not hold in court was that the Mizrahi girls were not religious enough and may corrupt the other girls.

    Posted by AIG | June 24, 2010, 12:46 am
  30. Ya Ras Beirut;

    I fully concur, it is a very acquired taste!


    There are some interesting opinions floating around about the ultra orthodox and their lack of representation in the army for instance, furthermore their schools receive very heavy funding from the state, and a lot receive social welfare! Why do they particularly believe that they don’t have to contribute to the state that gives them so much like other Israeli citizens do? Now I truly believe in a non segregated secular education, and I will send my children to a secular school!

    I just don’t fully understand why the Israeli state has let them get away with not participating in military service for instance, do you truly think they contribute to the Israeli state like other citizens do or they are simply taking advantage of their citizenship and not returning anything back towards the state?

    Curious from a secular point of view, whats your take on the issue?

    Posted by Enlightened | June 24, 2010, 5:35 am
  31. “What is interesting is that the tension was between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi ultra orthodox and here comes the interesting part, the Mizrahi went to the Israeli supreme court to get a ruling! It is like someone who believes in Islamic law going to a secular court.”

    Where did you expect them to go to get a ruling? In the Mediterranean sea?
    The perpretors hardly understand their victims’ need of justice.
    And you talk about “the liberal democratic norms” : hahaha! Please give up the hummus jokes, you much more funny when you’re supposed to make serious statements about “the liberal democratic norms” of the Zionist state – in which the use of torture is sanctioned by a legal system that routinely rejects petitions seeking to grant detainees access to lawyers.

    Posted by quelqu'une | June 24, 2010, 12:11 pm
  32. Thinking in one language and writing in another is sometimes confusing, please read my second sentence as :
    Perpetrators of injustice hardly understand their victim’s crave for justice.

    Posted by quelqu'une | June 24, 2010, 2:24 pm
  33. AIG,

    Were those recently discovered gas reserves you speak of the ones off the coast of Gaza?

    Posted by Nasser Victor | June 25, 2010, 4:42 pm

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