Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Dealing with Syria

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Update from AIJAC

September 4, 2009
Number 09/09 #02


This Update contains three opinion pieces on Western, and especially US, policy toward Syria, - commenting especially on the implications of a major blow-up between the Iraqis and Syrians last month, with the former withdrawing their Ambassador in protest over alleged Syrian involvement in terrorism in Iraq.

First up is Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who argues that Syrian President Assad is essentially saying "thanks, but no thanks" to US President Obama's efforts at outreach, across a variety of issue areas. He cites the blow-up between Iraq and Syria as one problem among many along-side other unpromising behaviours by Damascus with regard to Hamas, Lebanon and Iran. Tabler argues that rather than using Iraq as a benchmark of Syrian behaviour, it would be better for the US to concentrate on getting cooperation from Assad on Lebanon, where efforts are both urgent and "more easily benchmarked and verified." For Tabler's full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Israeli political analyst Dr. Jonathan Spyer, who visited Australia last year, also looks at the latest accusations coming out of Baghdad against Damascus, and says the Syrian response is classic Syrian behaviour. He says the use of violent intimidation coupled with indignation about any accusations of involvement is a pattern that has served the Assad regime well. Spyer further argues that "conflict provides the regime's raison d'etre, its means of rule, and the way it communicates with its neighbors" and to expect changes of behaviour from efforts at engagement is likely to be fruitless. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. Spyer had another interesting piece this week about how antisemitic ideas that migrated from the European far-right to the Middle East are now migrating to the European left, as in the recent Swedish "organ stealing" story.

Finally, Elliot Abrams, former head of the Middle East at the US National Security Council, also looks a the implications for Syrian policy of this latest spat between Iraq and Syria. Abrams argues that it is now clear that the new administration's efforts are not having the desired effect on Syria. While admitting that the previous Administration did not do much better, he is particularly critical that human rights are now being dropped from the agenda to further a policy he argues is not bringing any significant benefits. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

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Syria Clenches Its Fist

By Andrew J. Tabler

ForeignPolicy.com, August 28, 2009

Assad to Obama: Thanks but no thanks.

Early last week, nearly seven months to the day after the Barack Obama administration took office and began its careful, critical engagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rumors swirled in Washington and the Middle East that the White House was preparing to turn a new page with Damascus. The first test of this new relationship would be over the issue that caused the breakdown in U.S.-Syrian relations more than six years ago: the flow of jihadi militants from Syria to Iraq.

The Obama administration's outreach to Syria had been clear and forthright. It included six high-level visits by U.S. officials to Syria, Washington's announcement that it would return an ambassador to Damascus, a reported letter from President Obama to President Assad, and the facilitation of export licenses for aircraft parts waived under U.S. sanctions against Syria. A Centcom-led delegation visited Damascus two weeks ago and concluded a tentative agreement with Syria on a technical assessment of Iraqi-Syrian border posts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, miffed at being left out of these promising talks, visited Damascus last week to seal the tripartite deal. The string of blasts that greeted him upon his return on Aug. 19 -- the bloodiest in more than 18 months and now claimed by an al Qaeda affiliate -- has led Baghdad to demand that Syria expel Iraqi Baathists and jihadi militants from its soil and recall its ambassador. Damascus responded in kind, effectively blowing up Washington's initiative on the launchpad.

Until last week, talks over Iraq-related regional security issues appeared to be a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak U.S.-Syrian engagement process. Washington has quietly asked Damascus over the last seven months to use its influence to promote reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Following the most recent visit to Damascus by U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Syria, along with Turkey and Egypt, pressed Hamas to allow Fatah members in Gaza to attend their party's conference earlier this month -- an important first step in forming a united Palestinian position. It didn't happen.

Damascus instead took credit for an alternative "breakthrough" -- Hamas' recent announcement that it would accept and respect the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinians in return for Israel's conceding Palestinians the right of return and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this position falls dramatically short of the conditions of the "quartet" (comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations): that parties to the peace process recognize Israel without preconditions, abide by previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and renounce violence as a means of achieving goals. On peace talks with Israel, Damascus continues to demand that Israel commit to withdrawing from the Golan Heights to the line of June 4, 1967, and resume Turkish-sponsored indirect talks from where they left off last December. Israel, which favors direct negotiations without preconditions under U.S. auspices, has refused.

French efforts last year to coax Damascus to open an embassy in Beirut and appoint an ambassador there led many to speculate that Damascus was willing to turn a new page with its western neighbor, Lebanon. But Syria's ambassador to Beirut spends most of his time in Damascus, and statements on Lebanon are put forward by pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians such as Wiam Wahhab who, due to his role in helping Damascus call the shots in Lebanon prior to Syria's 2005 withdrawal, has earned a reputation as one of Syria's last unquestioning proxies in Lebanon. Following the defeat of Syria's allies in Lebanon's June 7 elections (despite intensive Syrian efforts to swing the poll Syria's way), Damascus and its allies have stymied the formation of a government by the pro-independence March 14 block. Meanwhile, an interview Aug. 25 in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar with a senior U.S. official made apparent Washington's frustration with Syria, most notably its smuggling to Hezbollah of increasingly advanced weaponry across the Lebanese-Syrian border, which Damascus still refuses to demarcate despite promising to do so.

Concerning relations with Iran, on Aug. 19 (the same day as the Iraqi attacks) Assad said during his fifth state visit to Tehran that the June re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the controversy surrounding which he attributed to "foreign intervention" -- meant that "Iran and Syria must continue the regional policy as in the past." The visit, combined with recent reports of a crash in northern Syria of a short-range missile developed by Syria, Iran, and North Korea, as well as the Assad regime's continued refusal to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency's questions about uranium particles found at not one but two Syrian nuclear sites, shows Damascus remains firmly ensconced in the Iranian-led "resistance axis." As for human rights and domestic reforms, not only is the regime rounding up dissidents as usual, but it is now going after its lawyers and the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization as well. Damascus clearly feels that it has been let off the hook.

Washington intended the Centcom-led mission as the first step on a long road to reconciliation with Damascus, with the potential for even higher-level engagement by U.S. officials. But last week's battery of negotiations and bombings, as well as the charge of diplomatic distrust it generated, shows just how explosive and uncertain engaging Damascus over Iraqi border security really is. The only way to truly "solve" this issue would be for Damascus to publicly disavow the al Qaeda facilitators within its country and expel the Iraqi Baathists who support them from its soil. Last week's deadly blasts in Iraq clearly show Damascus is unwilling to take such a step.

This is because the actual problem of fighters entering Iraq has less to do with security arrangements along the border and more to do with the Faustian bargain Syria's minority Alawite-dominated regime cut with Sunni-based al Qaeda fighters who regard their hosts as apostates. This agreement, forged during the height of Assad's Cold War with the George W. Bush administration, underlies the al Qaeda facilitators and the "rat lines" of jihadi fighters they operate in and out of Iraq. Syria is unwilling to cut them off over fears of risking domestic attacks. In short, Damascus wants high-level U.S. engagement without making hard sacrifices.

During the 1970s and 1990s, when the United States tried ultimately unsuccessful policies of "constructive engagement" with Damascus, Washington would have allowed Syria to skirt the issue and quietly deal with the issue from "behind the scenes." But last week's blasts and other jihadi attacks originating out of Syria this year show that giving Damascus a pass on the issue allows the Assad regime to keep its hand on the foreign-fighter tap. This leaves the strategic initiative in Damascus' hands to use as leverage as the United States withdraws from Iraq. U.S. support for its Iraqi allies to roll back the fighters are likely to remain Washington's safest bet.

With Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations stalled, the easiest issues to benchmark and verify concern Lebanon, where U.S. officials are still trying to promote the country's sovereignty and independence. The formation of a government, the delineation of the Syrian-Lebanese border, and shutting down the Syrian-dominated PFLP-GC bases are three urgent issues that require U.S.-Syrian cooperation. All three are more useful barometers for gauging Syrian intentions than the Assad regime's murky relationship with al Qaeda and former Iraqi Baathists, as the former can be more easily benchmarked and verified. And most importantly for Washington and Damascus, progress on all three is more likely to lead to tangible improvements in U.S.-Syrian relations in the year to come.

Andrew J. Tabler is a Soref fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


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Analysis: For Assad, conflict is a raison d'etre

Jonathan Spyer

THE JERUSALEM POST, Sep. 4, 2009

The Baghdad government's assertion of Syrian responsibility for the explosions which killed more than 100 people in Iraq on August 19 has refocused attention to Syrian policy vis-a-vis its eastern neighbor. Syria's approach in Iraq offers a prime example of diplomacy, Assad-style.

For this reason, among others, Damascus's Iraq policy should be closely studied - particularly by advocates of the broader stance of engagement with the various elements of the Iran-led regional alliance.

The specific advantage of the Syrian relationship with Iraqi Ba'athists and jihadists lies precisely in its murkiness and ambiguity ( in contrast to Damascus's relations with other local Islamist elements such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad). So the question of whether the bombings were committed by Iraqi Ba'athists, Iraqi Islamists or some combination thereof may never be known.

Iraqi officials believe that the late claim of responsibility by an al-Qaida-linked group was an attempt to divert attention from the Syria-Ba'athist link.

But the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri alMaliki's accusations could feasibly be asserted highlights a number of important facts.

Syria has over the last six years played a vital role in nurturing and harboring the Iraqi Sunni Islamist and Ba'athist insurgencies. Maliki, in pointing the finger at Syria, angrily claimed that 90 percent of the terrorists entering Iraq to take part in the insurgency smuggled themselves into the country by way of Syria.

Following the invasion of Iraq by US and allied forces, and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, Damascus offered shelter to former officials of the Iraqi Ba'ath party. With the beginnings of insurgency in Iraq, Syria hosted the key line for young Sunni jihadists looking to fight the Americans in central Iraq. The aspiring insurgents would arrive at Damascus airport, and be funneled directly to the border and then across it.

The Iraqi Ba'athists, who are deeply engaged in the insurgency, are still in Syria. The border remains unsealed.

The direct involvement of Damascus in aiding the Sunni insurgency was a key factor leading to the crisis in US-Syrian relations six years ago.

Since coming to power seven months ago, the Obama administration has been involved in a cautious but energetic attempt to engage Syria. The American desire to mend fences with Damascus derives from Syria's importance in the totality of Obama's apparently very considerable Middle East ambitions.

The Syrians have a carefully nurtured client system which enables them to frustrate progress in a number of conflict zones - including the Israeli-Palestinian arena and Lebanon. But since Obama wants to withdraw from Iraq, and since the Syrians have played a direct role in aiding anti-US forces in that country, it is in Iraq that Washington most urgently requires Syrian cooperation.

The US has indicated that it is willing to make gestures to coax Syrian compliance. Six visits by senior US officials have taken place in recent months; Washington has announced that it will return an ambassador to Damascus; important elements of the US-sanctions policy toward Syria - regarding the supplying of export licenses for aircraft parts - have been quietly waived.

The result so far may be seen in the Baghdad explosions and Maliki's furious accusations against the Damascus regime. Of course, for seasoned watchers of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular, the logic is not hard to infer. Why on earth should Syria give up such a useful tool of pressure on the United States and on Iraq as the fostering of insurgency? It appears to be producing dividends, and its value will only rise as the US withdrawal from Iraq continues.

And it apparently costs nothing. So - best to keep the Americans and Iraqis on their toes, while at the same time professing a commitment to dialogue.

Assad's characterization of Maliki's accusations as " immoral" is a classic example of the Syrian Ba'athist style: de facto intimidation coupled with prim indignation that anyone could suspect them of such a thing.

This textbook case of Syrian behavior should serve as a warning to the US administration. We are told that Obama is about to launch a comprehensive attempt to solve a series of interlinked problems and conflicts in the Middle East. The current outreach to Syria is no doubt intended to bring the Syrians " on-side," because of their unique capacity for frustrating all attempts at progress in key areas of regional strife, if and when they choose to do so.

The Americans want " solutions." They believe in " end-games." The trajectory of events in Iraq should indicate to the administration that for Syria, the game has no end. Conflict provides the regime's raison d'etre, its means of rule, and the way it communicates with its neighbors.

Regional stability can perhaps make progress in spite of the Syrians, when they are sufficiently intimidated (see Lebanon, 2005). Trying to make Syria a partner in the search for peace and stability in the region will guarantee the failure of the quest


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Appeasing Syria

The Obama approach to the Arab world and to dictatorships is failing

by Elliott Abrams

The Weekly Standard, 09/01/2009 12:00:00 AM


The Obama administration has been trying out a new policy toward Syria since the day it came to office. The Bush cold shoulder was viewed as a primitive reaction, now to be replaced by sophisticated diplomacy. Outreach would substitute for isolation. Thus there have been six visits to Damascus by high-level administration officials, including two by George Mitchell. Moreover, the administration has signaled that its handling of export license applications for Syria will be more "flexible" than that of the Bush administration, which tried to deny every shipment it could.

Well, the returns are in. Within the past week, Iraq has withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus and accused Syria of involvement in terrorist incidents in Baghdad. Iraqi TV has also aired a confession by an accused al Qaeda terrorist, a Saudi who claimed he had been trained in Syria--by the Asad regime's intelligence services. Nor is this all. Syria continues to support Hezbollah's blocking of the formation of a government in Lebanon, backing Hezbollah in its demand for a "blocking third" that would prevent any decisions Hezbollah opposes in any new Cabinet. The Palestinian terrorist groups remain headquartered in Damascus, and under no visible restraints. And on August 19, President Bashar Asad paid a visit to President Ahmadinejad in Tehran, to showcase his support of the latter during the current Iranian political crisis.

None of this is new. Throughout the Iraq war, jihadis who wanted to go to Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis would not cross the Saudi/Iraqi, Jordanian/Iraqi, or Kuwaiti/Iraqi borders--all of which were carefully patrolled. No, they would fly to Damascus International Airport, where young Arab men with no papers, no destination, and no visible means of support were welcomed and guided onward to the Iraqi border. It is obvious that in a police state like Syria it would have been simple to police the airport; even the mere requirement that young men have valid visas would have slowed or stopped the flow of jihadis through Syria. But that, of course, was not what the regime had in mind, and as the Iraqi government has now publicly stated, Syria remains a haven for jihadis and terrorist organizations killing people in Iraq.

Watching the smiling Mitchell shaking hands with Asad, Syrians knew that any hope of American pressure for human rights progress was in vain as well. Neither Mitchell nor Obama has ever mentioned the subject publicly, and if Mitchell has asked Asad to release any particular political prisoners that fact has been kept secret. In fact the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, Muhanad Al-Hasani, was imprisoned on July 28, four weeks after Mitchell's last visit.

Syria is an excellent test case of the new Obama approach to the Arab world and to dictatorships that the Bush administration tried to isolate. The new policy is failing.

The Obama staff can argue that Bush's isolation policies did not produce the desired results--they did not change Syrian policy toward Lebanon, the Palestinian terrorist groups, terrorism in Iraq, or human rights in Syria. True enough, but there are two responses. First, Bush's policy was far too soft. While the Bush administration used some trade and financial pressure against the Asad regime, it did not take the direct action against terrorists and terrorist facilities there that might have made the regime back away. Jihadis flowed into the Damascus airport, through training camps, and across the border into Iraq, to murder Coalition forces and civilians--but the United States never threatened or imposed the kind of punishment our military, across the border in Iraq in full strength, might have wielded. Second, whatever the weaknesses in Bush's policy, he knew and he stated repeatedly that the Asad regime was a vicious dictatorship that was an enemy of peace in the region. The new Obama policy has produced no change in Syrian conduct, but it has produced a change in American behavior: Now we have even lost the moral clarity with which America used to speak about the nature and actions of the Asad regime.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.