Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Syria: Enemy of Our Enemy (2)
This is the second part of my essay, published in December in the anti-war magazine The American Conservative, calling for an end to the neo-con induced hostility towards Syria. Apologies for its late posting, but I forgot that I hadn’t posted Part 2. You can read Part 1 here.
Assad, the wily old "Lion of Damascus," died in June 2000. Since then, under the leadership of his shy, soft-spoken son, Bashar, hundreds of political prisoners have been released and some media restrictions have been lifted. Syria may still be along way from a model Jeffersonian democracy, but it's certainly a less totalitarian society than it was a decade ago. Yet Washington's attitude toward the Arab republic has only hardened.
Syria was castigated for opposing the illegal invasion of Iraq, even though the war was opposed by almost all Syrians. Then when Saddam's WMD couldn't be found, neocons advanced the ludicrous fiction that Iraq's stockpile had been moved to Syria just prior to the invasion.
Syria's military presence in neighboring Lebanon came in for renewed attack when Lebanese President Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut in February 2005. The neocons lost little time pointing the finger of blame at Damascus, even though the political upheaval caused by the killing was to Syria's great detriment.
The country's great crime in the neocons' eyes is not its poor human-rights record--human rights in "friendly" countries such as Jordan and Egypt do not seem to concern them unduly--nor its involvement in Lebanon. No, they resent Syria for its refusal to accept U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the region and for its support of the Palestinians.
When Washington's hawks accuse Syria of being a "destabilizing" force, they are referring to Syria's patronage of both Hamas, the winners of the 2006 elections in Palestine, and Hezbollah, the paramilitary organization formed to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Both groups are regarded as terrorist organizations for their attacks on Israeli civilians and security forces, and their violent acts should be condemned. But the U.S. makes a mistake when it conflates Damascus's support for groups it views as resisting a regional hegemon with the sponsorship of Islamic terrorism generally--much less Islamic terror directed against America.
Yet ironically, while neocons continue to foam at the mouth whenever Syria is mentioned, Israel--the country they most admire in the region--is itself adopting a more pragmatic approach to its neighbor. In May, it was announced that Israel and Syria were engaged in indirect negotiations, carried out through Turkish mediators, for a comprehensive peace treaty. Realists in Tel Aviv accept that there can be no lasting peace in the region without some arrangement with Syria--a peace deal that could involve Israel handing back the Golan Heights, which they have held since 1967, and making concessions on Palestine in return for Syrian recognition of Israel and a commitment to use their influence to rein in Hezbollah and Hamas.
And while Syria continues to be lambasted by laptop bombardiers in Washington, it's been receiving plaudits from those closer to the action. Late last year, then top American commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus praised Syria for taking steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq.
Moreover, neocon attempts to isolate Syria are proving increasingly unsuccessful. In July, President Assad made a high-profile visit to France, which in 2005 had cut off diplomatic relations with Syria. Six weeks later, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man whose elevation to the Champs-Elysees the neocons hoped would reposition French foreign policy to their liking, became the first Western head of state to visit Damascus in five years. And in October, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem flew to London to meet with his British counterpart, David Miliband, for talks.
It was during this visit that the U.S. attack on Syria took place, leading some analysts to claim that the raid was designed to counter diplomatic moves to bring Syria in from the cold: "a final vengeful lunge against a country that others are now wooing but which still attracts profound hostility in Washington," as the Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, put it.
But while diplomatic approaches to Damascus are welcome, it is important that the West engages with Syria for the right reasons. Renewing relations merely to isolate Iran, its longstanding ally, would only make an attack on Tehran--and a potentially catastrophic Middle East conflict--more likely. It is in America's interest to build a new, positive relationship with Damascus for its own sake: Syria has done the U.S. no harm and has the same desire to counter Islamic fundamentalism.
During the recent presidential elections we heard a lot from the Obama camp about the need for change. A visit from the new U.S. president to Damascus and a return invitation to Bashar al-Assad to visit Washington, together with the repeal of the Syria Accountability Act and the adoption of a new, less aggressive tone toward Syria, would go some way to showing that the new administration really does want to make a clean break from the disastrous foreign policies of George W. Bush.
Sadly, the US, despite a thaw in relations since the change in administration, has renewed sanctions against Syria for another year. In a letter notifying Congress of his decision, President Obama accused Syria, of among other things, “pursuing weapons of mass destruction”. I wonder where we’ve heard that one before?