Belmont Club

Let me try again

Bret Stephens at Commentary details the history behind what the Obama administration may now try: a rapproachment with Syria. He describes the repeated triumph of Washington’s hope over experience and results which might compared to the battered wife syndrome.  The Assads seem to have the remarkable ability to keep spurning Western diplomacy and insulting it into the bargain, but they “still love him”. And they always will.

“Start with Syria.” Thus did Aaron David Miller advise the incoming Obama administration on where its Mideast peacemaking priorities should lie. Miller, a former State Department official who first made a name for himself as a leading American negotiator in the Arab-Israeli peace processes of the 1990’s, had lost his faith that a deal between Israel and the Palestinians was possible, at least in the near term. But he was more sanguine about the prospects of an Israeli-Syrian deal, and confident about the good that could come of it. … Say what you will about the advisability—either for Israel or the United States—of engaging the Syrians, the growing consensus on the notion constitutes one of the great surprises of recent Middle East diplomacy. For when it comes to the Syria track, the U.S. and Israel have walked down this road before, again and again, almost always with disappointing results.

Stephens proceeds to recall at great length the history of negotiation in bad faith between Damascus and the US and Israel — and Lebanon. Then, after the recitation of failed attempts we arrive the inevitable conclusion: the current administration may believe that Syria is it’s best hope for Peace in the Middle East.

In reviewing this sorry history, one must ask: Why, exactly, did it fail so badly? Was the Syria track cursed by bad luck? Did its failure owe to problems of process and tactics? Or were the very premises of the negotiation—that Assad had made or would make a strategic choice for peace, that there was a deal to be reached on terms acceptable to him and to Israel, and that he and successors would abide by the deal—fundamentally mistaken? Was the peace “missed,” as the title of Dennis Ross’s memoir implies, or was there never any hope of one to begin with?

It is really a two part question: why is the West so persistently in pursuit of engagement with Syria and why is Damascus so intransigent? The answer to both questions lies in something once said by Yitzak Rabin, which Stephens quotes. It describes the asymmetry in the desire for peace between the West and Damascus.

“At least Arafat is prepared to do things that are difficult for him,” Rabin told Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s Middle East point man, in the summer of 1995. “Assad wants everything handed to him and he wants to do nothing for it.”

As someone mentioned in casual conversation to me, Syria actually benefits from being the Bad Boy of the region. If it were to normalize its relations with Israel and become an ordinary, peaceable trading nation, it would lose its Front Line status with the Arab world, stop being a destination for any but the second tier of diplomats, drop to page ten in the newspapers and in general become nothing more than a fly-blown, insignificant Middle Eastern country. Syria is a world leader at trouble, but have you bought any Syrian-made consumer goods lately?

On the other hand, Israel and even Lebanon stand to do quite well as ordinary, peaceable trading nations. They produce other things, besides trouble, although in the case of Lebanon that is arguably less true. So it is natural for Jerusalem to continuously beat a path to the Assad’s doorway and equally understandable for the Assad’s to say, ‘ho hum’. Christopher Hitchens said he had won many a bet in Washington by asserting that, until recently, there was no Syrian embassy in Lebanon. During the last visit by President Sarkozy to Damascus, the French leader won a grudging pledge from the Assads to recognize their neighbor. Think about that. Syria has gotten away all these long years with not recognizing Lebanon and nobody noticed. Read this newspaper article from Dec 2008 to get a sense of just how urgently (not) Syria is setting up diplomatic shop in Beirut. They’ll get around to it eventually and half-heartedly to please Sarkozy, but in their own sweet time.  Yet the Obama administration thinks they can get Damascus to jump through hoops. Good luck on that.

However, I think that Syria is not altogether comfortable being the Bad Boy of the region. It is more accurate to say that Damascus thrives in the niche between complete peace and all-out war. Just as Syria cannot compete in a regular peace it cannot survive a regular war. If all the stops were pulled out, the Israeli Army could be in Damascus and Assad’s palace bombed into a crater. The Syrians do not excel at that kind of trouble any more than they excel at making Ipods. That means that although Damascus can’t be threatened with peace, diplomats know that it fears war. Therefore Syria will be brought to the bargaining table — if such a thing were possible — only when it fears it has gone too far and wishes to return to its safe little rut in the troublemaking mud. The Syrians retreat when they overextend and not before.

That circumstance lends a great deal of instability to any peace process the Obama administration will attempt because in the nature of things, Assad cry ‘more, more!’ until he drives things to the brink, where finally terrified, he will retreat into diplomacy. Thus, there is the paradoxical danger that the administration may actually create instability by engagement. For example, Damascus is likely to demand a price for any return to the negotiating table. What will Washington feed Assad? Concessions wrung from Israel? Little bits of Lebanon? A bigger role for Hezbollah? More opportunity for the guys in Gaza to lob rockets at Sderot?  They may be granted in the quest for peace. But after the photo-ops are snapped, any concessions of this nature to Syria are likely, in the medium term, to give rise to even more unrest in the Middle East.

Ultimately, the best outcome in the region would be for the Assad to be overthrown by local events. But that is unlikely to happen, nor will there be any impetus from the West. Washington has all but put regime change off the table. So they’ll try to buy him off. In a second best world, Washington is likely to woo Damascus, simply because it can’t stop chanting “all we are saying, is give peace a chance”. That’s in its nature as much as trouble is in Assad’s. But here’s another song that is more appropriate to the situation, not from from the peace movement but from Frank Sinatra.

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