Engaging Syria, Undermining Iran

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In his comment on my latest on the Israeli-Palestinian saga, WGN host Milt Rosenberg notes that we are now dealing with Iran as much as with the PLO government: behind Hamas and Hizbollah, and alongside Syria and Lebanon, lurks the government in Teheran. “That elephant in the room must be named, confronted and undermined,” he says. While I agree that Iran should be “confronted and undermined” for a variety of geostrategic reasons and in a variety of ways, I do not believe that American military action against Iran is either warranted or feasible. Tehran may want to develop the bomb, but there is a yawning gap between its wishes and capabilities: The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate is still essentially valid. If Israel begs to differ, it should take unilateral military action and bear the cost, relations with Washington included.

Our creative yet effective policy of “confronting and undermining” should start with an opening to Damascus. The rationale is implied in the New York Times’ front-page feature, “Syria’s Solidarity With Islamists Ends at Home” (Saturday, September 4). It had supported Islamist groups abroad and tolerated greater role for religion at home, we are told, but it has recently reversed course, “moving forcefully to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in public life.” The government has asked imams for recordings of their Friday sermons and started to strictly monitor religious schools. In recent weeks more than 1,000 teachers who wear the face veil were transferred to administrative duties. According to the Times,

The crackdown, which began in 2008 but has gathered steam this summer, is an effort by President Bashar al-Assad to reassert Syria‘s traditional secularism in the face of rising threats from radical groups in the region, Syrian officials say. The policy amounts to a sharp reversal for Syria, which for years tolerated the rise of the conservatives. And it sets the government on the seemingly contradictory path of moving against political Islamists at home, while supporting movements like Hamas and Hezbollah abroad. Syrian officials are adamant that the shifts stem from alarming domestic trends, and do not affect support for those groups, allies in their struggle against Israel.

“Alarming domestic trends” cannot but affect Syria’s relations with those movements and their primary external backer. Assad’s connection with Iran can and should be broken. It is neither natural nor inevitable. He is a secularist, whereas Ahmadinejad is a millenarian Islamic visionary. He is an Alawite, whereas Hizbullah and their Iranian paymasters are “Twelver” Shiites. He is an Arab, and therefore unlikely to be indifferent to the implications of Iran’s desire to project its power and influence across the Fertile Crescent and all the way to the Mediterranean. If Assad can be won over to the idea of a peace treaty with Israel, in return for Washington’s recognition of the legitimacy of his regime, a key link in Iran’s strategic design will have been broken. Hizbullah cannot function effectively if the lifeline from Damascus is severed.

Syria presents a diplomatic realist with many creative possibilities. Assad is obviously nervous about the Islamist menace, and probably keen to make a deal if he is then left in peace at home. The Syrians’ true mood is evident in the Golan Heights, taken by Israel in 1967 and held ever since: for many years now there have been no skirmishes, infiltrations, or rocket firings—nothing. It is one of the most peaceful boundaries in the Middle East. It is at least possible—I’d say probable—that Bashir is ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and let it keep some parts of Golan “on lease” (99 years, say) if Syria is openly removed from Washington’s list of “rogue states” that may be in need of a touch of color-coded revolution. Engaging Syria is one way to deplete Iran’s regional assets indirectly. If Assad can be won over to the idea of a peace treaty with Israel, in return for Washington’s recognition of the legitimacy of his regime, a key link in Iran’s strategic design will have been broken.

On the credit side Syria had never been guilty of a terrorist outrage such as Lockerbie, yet Libya’s Gaddafi, having done his penance, is deemed clubbable. In the aftermath of 9-11 Damascus passed on to the United States hundreds of files on Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist individuals and movements throughout the Middle East, many of which targeted Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others besides the United States. Syria has the potential to become America’s more useful partner in the “War on Terror” than a “friend” like Saudi Arabia has ever been—or could ever be.

On the other hand, any “regime change” in Damascus is a risky proposition for as long as the Muslim Brotherhood represents the only alternative to Assad. It is unfortunate that, for some years now, certain U.S. agencies have been putting out feelers to some Islamist activists opposed to the Syrian regime. The end-result would not be very different from the current U.S. de facto alliance with the fundamentalists in Iraq. The Iraqi scenario entailed replacing an unpleasant secularist autocrat with a regime to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s liking. It would be beyond absurd to bring down Bashar al-Assad—a far less unpleasant secularist autocrat who presents even less of a threat to America—for the benefit of the Ikwanis. Bashir is not a priori anti-American and he is less anti-Israeli than either his Islamist partners or his Islamist foes. He may be induced into a deal that would serve U.S. interests in the region at little or no cost to American prestige or treasury.

Engaging Syria would help “confront and undermine” Iran, and at the same time it would help the quest for a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. A new element in the equation is badly needed. The “Oslo Process,” as conceived by those who initiated it in the early 1990’s, had come to an end well over a decade ago. There is no replacement on the horizon. The political principle of Oslo was an ongoing trade-off of various items in bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians working jointly toward a final, permanent peace agreement. This principle has broken down, and the ongoing Washingtonian exercise in futility cannot revive it. Bringing Bashir on board may help.

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