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Thursday, July 27, 2006

'Talking' to Syria: The view from Israel

Last night, the United States 'counseled' Israel to talk to Lebanon regarding the 'disputed' Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area at the foot of Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the country.

I have already enumerated some of the problems with that strategy. Mount Dov is an area that fell into Israel's hands in the 1967 War, i.e. it came from Syria, since Lebanon was not a participant in that war. The United Nations classifies Mount Dov as 'occupied Syria,' which means that most of the world at least professes that Syria is the party with whom Israel must discuss the issue. For Israel to talk to anyone about Mount Dov right now would hand Hezbullah a victory, since Mount Dov has been their pretexte d'etre since Israel withdrew fled from Lebanon in 2000. Israel may have an interest in retaining Mount Dov due to its own security considerations - the commanding view that it gives of both Syrian and Lebanese territory - and that interest may militate against negotiating with anyone about it, at least for now. And finally, while as a lawyer, I could counsel the Israeli government - were it interested in giving Mount Dov away - to deposit it with an international agency in a type of interpleader, and allow the agency to resolve ownership between Syria and Lebanon, in the real world both those countries would have to consent, and Syria has already said that they will not talk to Lebanon without first having been gifted all of the Golan Heights, a turn of events that looks highly unlikely at the moment.

All of the foregoing indicates that while 'talking' to Lebanon may prop up the government of Fuad Siniora, and may provide an undeserved victory - however pyrrhic - to Hezbullah, talking to Syria might actually lead somewhere and, if one ignores Syrian support of Hezbullah, not reward Hezbullah's current aggression. Therefore, the real question presented is whether Israel (and the United States for that matter) should be talking to Syria.

In today's Washington Post, David W. Lesch argues that yes, the United States (and by implication Israel) should be talking to Syria, lest Syria launch a war against Israel to get attention:

From Syria's perspective, the crisis is seen as a search for relevance. Damascus needs at least a few arrows in what has been an empty quiver of diplomatic leverage. Assad wants to be taken seriously. He believes the sincere overtures he made to the United States and even Israel in his first few years in power were categorically rebuffed -- and in fact they were. After all, he was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Once before, an Arab leader felt rebuffed in much the same way. That was in 1973, and the leader was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He launched an Arab-Israeli war to reactivate diplomacy and improve his bargaining position with regard to return of the Sinai Peninsula. The United States was smart enough to recognize these motives at the time, and it engaged in a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Leaders reach out in interesting, and occasionally lethal, ways. The Bush administration should not, however, react to the current situation by continuing to isolate and threaten Syria. Recognize the situation for what it is, because, like it or not, Bashar al-Assad is sticking around. Just because diplomacy is what he is ultimately searching for should not obviate the possibility of diplomacy.
I'm not sure I understand Lesch's argument: Syria wants to be taken seriously and therefore we should take them seriously or they will threaten us? In fact, Syria has already threatened the United States and Israel - this week. On Monday, the New York Times reported:

One Syrian official issued a strong warning against a proposal that was gaining momentum on Sunday for an international force to guard the Lebanon-Israel border. Deploying such a force without the cooperation of Syria and Hezbollah, the official said, will risk repeating 1983. That was a pointed reference to the 241 United States service members and 58 French soldiers killed in attacks on military installations by suicide bombers. It has long been considered likely that Hezbollah sent the bombers with Syria’s blessing.
Lesch is suggesting that because Syria will act like a bratty child and attack Israel if it does not get its way, the United States (and by implication Israel) should negotiate with Syria and take it seriously. But in the real world, countries are not treated as bratty children whose tantrums need to be pre-empted by giving them what they want (in fact, I would not suggest pre-empting children's tantrums by giving them what they want either). Moreover, Lesch glosses over Sadat's role in Egypt's peace with Israel. Sadat came to Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset to tell Israelis that Egypt recognized Israel and wished to live in peace with it. The negotiations that led to the Camp David treaty began only after that gesture by Sadat. And because of that gesture, it is almost a mantra here that if Sadat had lived, our relations with Egypt for the last twenty-five years would have been much better. Unlike Assad, Sadat really wanted peace with Israel, and understood he had nothing to gain by war.

Assad, on the other hand, would never dream of coming to Israel to seek peace. Like a bratty child, he knows only threats and tantrums. And thankfully, in today's reality, he has nothing to back up his threats. As blogger Bliss Street Daily points out that at this point, Syria is really just a proxy for Iran, a country that has shown interest in gaining US approval for its nuclear adventures, but which has shown no interest in discussing Mount Dov or the Golan Heights or anything else with Israel:
The bottom line here is that this is Syria's entire modus operandi in Lebanon – to bully, threaten, and blackmail its way into relevance and prominence, but do so in the slightly glossed-over mode and terminology of "negotiations" or "talks." Lately, Syria has even tried to use the pretense of offering up information to the U.S. on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda militants in exchange for getting its foot in the door. How, you may want to ask, would Syria know anything about al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon? Simple: Syria's secret police put them there.

This quote above from the New York Times [the same one I cited above. CiJ] conveys the notion that quite possibly Syria has given up the notion of hiding its intentions – having failed at bamboozling concessions from the United States through slick salesmanship, it now can simply try to nail the United States to the wall. This still does not make its actions anything more than a bluff, or as anything more than the fallback position of a desperate bully. Syria is completely beholden to Iran now, to the point of taking orders, and it appears that its instructions at this point are to make it clear to the United States what is at stake for leaving Iran out of any further developments in Lebanon.
This indicates that there is nothing for the United States or Israel to discuss with Syria, because Syria has nothing to offer them. Blogger Across the Bay agrees:
Not only is it self-contradictory, but it's also pathetically obvious in how it is trying to balance two practically mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, the regime has to claim distance so as not to be considered a direct culprit. So that's why you hear the propagandists selling you the line that really Syria only supports Hezbollah "morally" and "diplomatically" but does not supply it with arms or funds, etc. But then, despite just making themselves totally irrelevant, they tell you that "Syria is indispensable for any solution." Never mind that history and the track record 100% (that's 100%, no exception whatsoever, feel free to check!) suggests otherwise, but it's clear that really Syria is in fact a secondary player here (in the Iran axis) despite the misplaced conception by the thugs in Damascus that they're really a "player." They're a client-proxy. The two are different things, but it's difficult to realize that when you're a thug and thuggery is what you think of as and call your policy (hence, as I said before, the so-called "cards" that the regime loves to talk about, are its policy). The comment by Anthony Cordesman in that SF Chronicle piece actually nails it: "Syria usually gives way for a while under pressure, but then goes to covert operations, more support of proxies, and resumes activity the moment there is a new window of opportunity."

Therefore, the administration's, and Olmert's, dismissal of the Syrians is not only logical, and based on experience, it's also the right policy. That won't stop the Syrian propaganda from trying to sell itself, by offering snake oil coated with explicit threats (after all, what else do they have to offer?)
(Ex-) Syrian blogger Amarji also agrees that there is nothing to discuss with Syria:
Let's face it. The die has been cast. All actors have already made their choices. All other bets are off for now. The Israelis will have to muddle through whatever quagmire they are creating for themelves in Lebanon for a few more weeks, if not months. The Assads will have to stick to their choice of allies, or find themselves hopelessly alone and perhaps, six feet under. The time for negotiations have long passed. The Assads have long become hostage to their own allies, their own policies, their own tactics and their own avarice. They are hardly in a position to help themselves now not to mention anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Americans and the French will have to muster enough will to put together a little package that can save Israel from itself, and Lebanon from everybody else keeping it as a viable entity. They will also have to keep the Assads, for all their dabbling and penchant for trouble-making, under lock and key, or risk having another country in the Middle East blow up in their face, which might just happen no matter what anyone does anyway, as the die might have been cast in this regard as well, the smuggness of Syrian officials and analysts notwithstanding.
Aside from the real politique considerations that the three bloggers raise, i.e. that Syria has nothing to offer, I am concerned that for the United States or Israel to negotiate with Syria now would be seen as a reward for Syria's support of Hezbullah, however weak Syria and its support for Hezbullah may be. We shouldn't be rewarding that behavior now. As for the notion that rewarding Syria has any chance of prying it away from Iran, as has been suggested by other commenters Amarji addresses it the same post I linked above, and I addressed it here.


At 5:58 AM, Blogger Fares said...

Nasralla is getting screwed by Iran
PEACE To Lebanon


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