Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ammar Abdulhamid, "The delusion of a dialogue with Syria," Daily Star, December 27, 2006.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the fundamental problem in the Middle East is not intervention by the West. On the contrary, the real problem is that, for all their dabbling, the Western powers seem capable of neither war nor dialogue. This leaves everyone in the region at the mercy of the Middle East's oppressive regimes and proliferating terrorists.

Advocates of the Iraq war lacked an understanding of the complexities on the ground to wage an effective war of liberation and democratization. As a result, their policies merely ended up eliminating Iran's two major regional rivals: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's regime. This presented Iran with a golden opportunity to project itself as a regional hegemon, and Iran's leaders are unlikely to let this opportunity slip away.

Advocates of dialogue with the Iranians and their Syrian allies, like former US Secretary of State James Baker, labor under the delusion that they can actually reach an understanding that would enable a graceful US exit from Iraq and help stabilize that wounded country. The delusion is based on two false assumptions: that the Iranians and the Syrians can succeed in Iraq where the US has failed; and that the international community can afford to pay the price of ensuring their cooperation.

True, Syria and Iran are playing a major role in supporting Iraqi insurgents, and Syria is still encouraging the trafficking of jihadists and weapons across its borders with Iraq. But the idea that these activities can be halted at will is naive.

For one thing, the interests of the Shiite communities in Iraq and Iran are not the same. Iraqi Shiites have never accepted Iranian dictates, and many took part in Saddam's war against Iran in the 1980s. After all, the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, and if they are now willing to coordinate their activities with their Persian counterparts, their main goal will always be to secure an independent course as soon as possible, even while they carry on with their internecine disputes within Iraq. Iran is in no better a position than the United States to convince them to resolve their differences.

President Bashar Assad of Syria faces a similar dilemma. Although he has opened Syria's border to jihadists and has allowed Saddam's supporters to operate freely there, that choice may not be entirely his. Syria's aid to Saddam in maneuvering around the United Nations' oil-for food program brought Iraqi money to inhabitants of the border region, who have always been closer in customs, dialect, and outlook to their Iraqi neighbors than to their fellow Syrians. In the absence of government investment, local inhabitants' loyalty went to Iraqi Baathists who helped improve their lot. Indeed, even local security apparatuses have been unwilling to comply with instructions from Assad and his clique to seal the borders.

Under these circumstances, neither Syria nor Iran seems capable of delivering anything but mayhem in Iraq. What, then, would the proposed dialogue between the US and these states achieve other than continue to empower their corrupt yet ambitious regimes?

The story gets more complicated when one considers the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Assad wants nothing more than to see this affair forgotten - and the proponents of dialogue think that they can give him what he wants in the hope of breaking Syria's alliance with Iran.

But that is merely another erroneous (not to mention amoral) assumption. The alliance between Syria and Iran dates back more than two decades, and was explicitly reaffirmed by the two ruling regimes as recently as January 2005. Indeed, the two are now joined at the hip. Assad's recent refusal to attend a summit in Tehran with his Iranian and Iraqi counterparts was a mere tactical move designed to appeal to the proponents of dialogue.

In fact, Iran has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, and annual bilateral trade tops $1 billion. Growing Iranian influence over the Syrian security apparatus is well established, and Iran is funding an effort to create Syrian Shiite militias to compensate for Assad's sagging support in the army and in the minority Alawite community. Assad cannot turn his back on all of this. No deal would be sweet enough, even if it included the return of the Golan Heights. For Assad and his supporters, survival is more important than sovereignty.

Still, to read the well-known names of commentators and policymakers who are recommending engaging Syria and Iran is a testament to how inconsequential and cut off the Western powers have become from the realities on the ground in the world's most turbulent region. That, it seems, is the price of their arrogance.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author, blogger and dissident. He runs the Tharwa Foundation, an independent initiative that focuses on diversity issues in the region.

[Abdulhamid takes as given that talks with Iran and Syria would aim at a graceful withdrawal from the quicksands of Iraq and/or and an end to the Iran-Syria alliance. But the US has never shown any signs that it intends to leave Iraq. Each of its 14 permanent military bases are larger than most cities in the BC Interior.

The Bush Administration has a pathological tendency to subcontract diplomacy in cases where it imagines that direct talks will confer "legitimacy" on the other side. Negotiations with North Korea, for instance, are left in China's capable hands. Talking to the Taliban appears to be a job taken on either by Karzai, whose "legitimacy" is both imaginary and second-hand, or by Musharraf. The European Union negotiates with Iran. Russia talks to Hamas. Presumably, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah confer among themselves. Hezbollah and Hamas speak with the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries. The United States and Canada are simply out of the loop, muttering about isolation and leadership.

Moreover, the Bush Administration does not engage in dialogue; it appropriates. The Iraq Study Group's discussion of dialogue with Syria--and Iran (why not)--was not a proposal, but an appropriation of ideas that have become current in recent months. Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke's reports on their "exercise in mutual listening" with Hamas and Hezbollah, published over a period of 4 months earlier in the year, may have struck a nerve when they highlighted US-backed Allawi's failure in the Iraq elections, Hamas' success, the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement - and the inability of the West to predict, shape or even understand these seminal events.

Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon left even supporters of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power speculating that maybe it was time to negotiate with Syria. British commanders had negotiated a monthlong ceasefire with the Taliban in Musa Qala, and Pervez Musharraf had done the same in Waziristan and was about to carry on with another agreement in Bajaur province. Negotiation was in the air.

Although Bush's critics do not like to credit him with anything more than stupidity and an ability to follow the instructions of his handlers, nevertheless, he has always had a special relation to what is going--and coming--around.

The US has long hoped that it could confer "legitimacy" on someone willing to clean up the mess in Iraq as long as they were willing to do it without disrupting the grab for oil--which is also not going very well. In the early days, the UN was tempted, but was deterred when one of its stars was killed in an attack on its offices in Baghdad. Since then, the private sector has done what was necessary to qualify for a lot of reconstruction money.

Iran and Syria have entered the picture because Israel is still looking for some redeeming value in last summer's costly invasion of Lebanon.

Abdulhamid does not believe that the fundamental problem in the Middle East is intervention by the West. "For all their dabbling," he says, "the Western powers seem capable of neither war nor dialogue." ]

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