Belmont Club

Half a Step Late

The US is sending its first ambassador to Syria in six years, showing that “President Obama wants to work with Syria” even as reports from Newsmax hinted the special tribunal in Lebanon would name Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of ordering the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Are we watching a sophisticated diplomatic game or a comedy of errors?

These are among the several hints of event taking place behind the scenes.  The US and its Sunni allies may have been trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Teheran. Teheran has been resisting and Damascus may be playing both ends against the middle. One drive down the court is contained in a report in the Jerusalem Post that Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt has returned from a meeting with the Syrian President saying he would support the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri “as long as he remains committed to the Saudi-Syrian agreement for resolving the crisis surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon report, expected to be released within days.”

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday, saying, “My meeting with the Syrian president was excellent,” Lebanese paper an-Nahar reported.

The return of the Syrian-Saudi track was in marked contrast to the announcements of its obituary only a few days ago. Al Jazeera quoted Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun as saying the deal was at a “dead end”. The reasons for its death were variously given, many suggesting last minute interference by the US. Other reports suggested mutual suspicion: that Assad blamed Hariri for dragging his feet while the King of Saudi Arabia was incensed at what he believed was Syrian welshing on their end of the deal.

But the Saudi-Syrian track may be on the road again. After Hariri’s meetings in Turkey Erdogan is heading to Damascus to thresh out, with Syrian and Qatari leaders, what the future of the Lebanon should be.  But this effort will not go unanswered. Iran and Hezbollah’s riposte will not be long in coming.

The question is where the US stands in all this. One of Assad’s complaints is that President Obama has dealt himself out of proceedings, “adding that the Syrian president had a number of occasions to open a new page of ties with Washington through direct dialogue with Obama, but he passed up those opportunities.” This may have hastened the arrival of Ambassador Ford in the Syrian capital with order to join the poker game.

CBS news says Ford’s appointment to Damascus may herald a “new era” in US-Syria relation, though what that means, who can say. Ford was nominated by Obama during a recess appointment, bypassing Congress, but he had not taken up his post until just now, probably in order to avoid giving the impression that he was rewarding Damascus for its bad behavior.  The main argument for normalization is that events are proceeding with or without the US and it is acting belatedly to join in the actual backroom dealings.

“The US diplomat will need to rebuild trust between his country and Syria, both government and public alike. The eight years of Bush damaged America’s image in the eyes of ordinary Arabs – in many cases, beyond repair,” a Syrian professor told CBS News.

“Obama is a realist who realizes that if he wants to achieve substantial results in the Middle East, he needs to go through proper channels,” said political analyst Sami Moubayed.

But the proper channels have been endangered of late.  The backroom boys are hearing a commotion out on the street. An Israeli minister, born in Tunisia pointed out that widespread upheavals in the region over the past year have shown the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be only the artificial center of Middle Eastern volatility. Minister Silvan Shalom said “for many years people have said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of regional instability, but now we see three centers of instability that are not connected to Israel: Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan.  “This is indeed a historic development. Tunisia is a moderate country with ties to the West. We are following the developments – also because of our relations with (Tunisia) – and we hope the international community will prevent Islamist elements from taking over the country.”

Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia and the secession in the Sudan are destabilizing in part because they contain elements of conflict against the centuries old status quo, with its system of authoritarian governments and the protection of minorities in exchange for obeisance to some notional form of established ideology. Maybe Israel is an offense to the region not because it occupies some worthless stretch of real estate but because of what it represents: a working democracy. If other non-Jewish countries start challenging the status quo themselves then it will be impossible to divide the region again along Islamic/non-Islamic lines.  The boundary will be drawn where it truly belongs.

But such a diplomatic strategy might require the realignment of policy along the democratic/secular versus Islamic/feudal axis instead of accepting the current method of going “through the proper channels” — which may confuse the conventional wisdom in Washington. It would require accepting that the Middle East could be in a pre-Fall of the Berlin Wall situation as rising expectations, driven by access to online information and economic crisis, discredit the ancien regimes — including Islamism.  AFP reported that countries all over the region are watching Tunisia with anxiety fearing the contagion would spread to their doorsteps.

Governments across the Middle East anxiously watched developments in Tunisia on Sunday after the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fearing the spread to their doorsteps of violence and popular revolt. … The world’s largest pan-Islamic body, the Saudi-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said the strife in Tunisia was an “internal matter” while urging people to “protect public and private properties.”

The failure of the pointless Middle East Peace Process and the crises in Tunisia, Lebanon and the Sudan are warning signs that the current diplomatic paradigms may be hopelessly wrong. Being half a step behind in Lebanon or blindsided in Tunisia isn’t that dangerous in itself; but if these are symptoms of a deeper underlying obsolescence of mental models then the danger is deeper. What if the Obama administration is sitting history out while believing it is its master?  What an irony it would be if an administration which believed all its achievements were in the future found that all its ideas were trapped in the past.

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