Michael Totten

The Syrian Track: Much ado about Nothing

_By Tony Badran (cross-posted at “Across the Bay”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2008/05/much-ado-about-nothing.html)_
Jonathan Spyer has penned what is by far the most sober analysis of the current soap opera involving Turkey, Syria and Israel.
Put briefly, Spyer explains why this is a dead end because the main objective of Syrian track enthusiasts in Israel — taking Syria out of the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus — is a fantasy.
But Spyer’s insight lies in his explanation as to why this is the case. As some of you might know, this is something I’ve discussed at length on my “blog”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com. The main deficiency in the prevailing ignorant punditry on the subject is that it sets out from two faulty premises: 1- that the motivating force for Syria’s behavior, including its alliance with Iran, is grievance — i.e. it’s reactive. And 2- therefore the solution lies in finding the right price to settle that grievance.
Spyer’s argument is that Syria has its own objectives and its own role conception — what EU MP Jana Hybaskova correctly dubbed “an over-exaggerated” self-image — and that is the motivation behind its alliance. Or, as Maher Assad tool Samir Taqi put it, “It is naïve to think Syria would behave foolishly and abandon its strategic alliances with Iran and Hizbullah, which are not limited solely to the Israeli-Arab conflict but also touch on topical geopolitical issues. These strategic associations are for the long term.” (Emphasis mine.)
In other words, as many of us have been saying for the longest time, the Middle East (and regime interests and ambitions) doesn’t revolve around the “peace process” — except of course for the Western “peace processors.” Spyer explains what those “geopolitical issues” are, and how they are directly related to the regime’s nature as well as its limited — all violent — assets which “allow it to punch above its weight in the region”:

Syria lacks the size of Egypt and the resources of Saudi Arabia. But it has been able to project power and influence in the region because of its willingness to support radicalism, act as a disruptive force and thus create a situation in which it cannot be ignored. Thus, Damascus backs a host of Palestinian groups opposed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Israel – including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP-GC and others. Syria offered significant support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. And most importantly, Damascus maintains influence in Lebanon – following its ignominious departure in 2005 – via its relationship with the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Hizbullah.
The ability to foment chaos and project influence in Lebanon is key for the Assad regime.

[O]nly by backing the radical power in the region can Syria maintain its powerful role as mischief-maker. No Iran means no more fomenting radicalism, no more reaping the benefits of having to be bought off, no more pro-Iranian militias to help out in Lebanon, no return to Lebanon, and the nightmarish possibility of seeing major regime figures collared for the killing of Hariri. It is a near certainty that the regime will prefer to maintain all of these – with the additional mobilising charge of the “occupied Golan” into the bargain – rather than give it all up and become a minor, status quo power.

This is why, as Spyer goes on to note, the absurd notion of “returning Syria into the Sunni Arab fold” always was an incomprehensible hilarity to me, as I’ve written several times on this blog. Spyer concludes:

In other words, Syria is too deeply committed, on too many levels, to its alliance with Iran to consider abandoning it for the Golan and the Arab mainstream. Syria’s conflict with Israel can’t be separated out from Damascus’s larger regional concerns. Hence, with all due respect to the Turkish mediators, we are faced here with another manifestation of that well-known Middle Eastern phenomenon: much ado about nothing.

Or, as the regime’s Oklahoma-based poodle put it: “inducing Damascus to follow a ‘Syria First’ policy, much as Jordan follows a ‘Jordan First’ policy … is a tall order as it requires Syria making an ideological and strategic about face. It’s entire identity would need to be turned inside out.”
This echoes the assessment made by Hybaskova: “Anything we touched, [the] answer was similar. Syria is different. Syria is unique. As such it quite clearly cannot be a normal, equal member of the international community, of [the] community of states in the Middle East. Syria is so different that it can pursue its relations with its neighborhood differently than normal states. It reserves for itself the right to interfere, to collaborate openly with terrorists.”
And since this is the case, Spyer rightly concluded that all this riffraff is much ado about nothing. The Assad regime will not “flip,” because, as that same regime poodle put it, it views such behavior and identity change as “tantamount to regime change.”