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Friday, April 30, 2010

The 'big game' with Syria

What's the US up to with Syria? Why is Obama so determined to 'engage' the Assad regime? It's not just that the pompous President is convinced that he can talk anyone into anything. It's the same tired narrative that all roads to peace in the World lead through Jerusalem - and the Golan Heights.
Although the basic components of US policy had been hinted at earlier, this was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem.

If this sounds like a familiar tune from the 1990s, that’s because in the end it's nothing but a reprise of the view that holds the conflict with Israel as the engine driving all regional dynamics and regime behavior. It’s the politics of grievance.

This line of thinking plays right into the Syrians’ hands, affording them a pass for their actions and duplicity pending the conclusion of a peace deal that may not materialize for years, if ever.

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria's relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based. But the Obama administration’s “big game” is nothing if not a cocktail of this grievance logic and the infamous concept of “linkage”.

This toxic viewpoint was echoed by National Security Advisor Jim Jones at a recent event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict… Advancing this peace would... help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.”

Such an outlook, distilled in Feltman’s testimony, poses as a grand strategic concept that purports to help mitigate the challenge posed by Iran and the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process all at once. It proposes that by draining the swamps of grievance, Syria will be neutralized, and consequently so will Hamas and Hezbollah, leaving Iran “isolated”. This in turn sets the stage for uniting the Arabs and Israelis under the American umbrella facing Iran. While this does nothing to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it could be the blueprint for a future “containment” option, supposedly denying Iran the ability to project power by using the region’s open conflicts.

It’s the new domino theory. Only there’s nothing new about it. As some of us reasoned, Bashar al-Assad made his gamble with the Scuds calculating that this peace processing impulse would be the administration’s default position. If the US endgame is a comprehensive peace deal, one that by definition involves Syria, then Assad can buy immunity and even leverage, simply by declaring he wants peace.

Thus, Obama becomes trapped by his own “big game”. If Syria is deemed necessary for his regional peace/containment edifice, then the US will not be able to declare engagement a failure and suspend it, or else the entire edifice collapses. The result is the confused paralysis evident in the administration’s reaction to the Scud crisis: doubling down on engagement and the need to convince Assad that his “real” interests lay not with Iran but with the US.
And Assad is laughing all the way to the bank. What could go wrong?


At 9:10 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

And if Assad decides to slap down Abu Bluff's request to join the "proximity talks" this weekend, he gains even more from torpedoing the "peace process" since a humiliated Obama will simply redouble his efforts to woo the Syrians. The Syrians pay no real price for defying the US. Just the opposite.


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