Monday, February 5, 2007

Syria's Fifteen Minutes Of Fame

You've got to take anything anyone says about Iraq right now with a grain of salt, but this interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is definitely an eye-opener. Not really for anything he says, which is relatively boilerplate stuff, but the way he says it. Here's his response to whether Syria can stop the violence in Iraq:

First of all, the problem in Iraq is political, and talking to Syria as a concept means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside Iraq. We're not the only player. We're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue, and our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence. [Emphasis added.]

Another one that jumped out at me:

Sawyer: But in America they believe that you are all powerful, and you say the word and the border will stop.

Assad: Powerful is different from being omnipotent power that you can control everything completely. You cannot control your border with Mexico, can you? You're the greatest power in the world, you cannot control it with Mexico, so how do you want Syria to control its border with Iraq?

And while we're on the topic of that famous porous border and what it represents, there's more to it than meets the eye. This Joshua Landis article describes in depth some of the logic behind Syria's past policy of openness towards Iraqi refugees, which was based on Baathist pan-Arab nationalism, as well as some of the reasons they've recently drastically altered that policy, much to Iraq's chagrin. He concludes a thorough analysis of Syria's motivation with this:

Syria will continue to seek improved ties with as many parties as possible in Iraq. It is genuinely fearful of the consequences of a meltdown and the failure of Washington's mission to bolster the present government. It does not like America's presence in Iraq, but for the time being neither does it want the US to fail in keeping the government afloat. As Foreign Minister Muellem declared a few weeks ago, Syria does not want American troops to withdraw precipitously, although, it does want to be included in talks.

Syria's recent policy shift toward Iraq underlines how futile and self-destructive Washington's policy of excluding Syria has become. US prospects of stabilizing the situation in Iraq are not good, but without cooperating from Syria, they are surely worse than they have to be. Syria shares many of Washington's objectives in Iraq - not all, to be sure, but enough to make cooperation the only wise policy.

But even if everyone gets on the same page and agrees that turning Syria is the strategic key to mitigating the disaster we've created in Iraq, that begs the question, Is it possible? Steve Clemons seems to think so:

Bashar al-Assad and the clique of nine who surround him and are the real decision-makers inside Syria are also self-preservationist/realists. Some in this clique are modernist reformers and others are nefarious thugs, but they are all ultra-rational...

Reform should always be on the table of American negotiators... but there are things that we can offer al-Assad and his backers to move them on a Libya-like course.

We need to drop our counter-productive obsessions with regime change and do a deal that offers Syria's rationalists an arrangement that meets their needs and begins to turn our fortunes a more positive direction in the Middle East.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. This administration is busy encouraging everyone within Iraq to settle their differences through negotiations and the political process. It's advice we'd do well to follow ourselves.

Update: Just to make it clear, none of the above is intended to make the Syrians out to be choir boys. Apparently things are heating up behind the scenes in Lebanon, with both the CIA and Syrian intelligence upping the ante in the power struggle between Hezbollah and the Siniora government. (Thanks again to Joshua Landis.)

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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