Saturday, July 29, 2006


In the latest Middle East skirmish, Bashir Assad and his merry band of Ba'athist cutthroats are the proverbial men in the middle. Not free agents acting in their own accord, proxy of the Iranian mullahs whose role is as overseers of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrians stand as the bullwark through which their clients get resupplied and by which their superiors in Tehran get defended. Both ways they get used - for the terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza, a conduit for weapons and cash; for Iran, bait dangled in front of the embattled Israelis to drag them into a war that the mullahs think the Jews can't win.

Consequently, it shouldn't be surprising that the rhetoric coming out of Damascus has been incoherent at best.

They started by saying that Israel brought Hezbollah's latest kidnappings and rocket barrages on itself:

"Occupation is what provokes the Palestinian and Lebanese people," Vice President Farouq al-Shara told reporters. "The resistance in south Lebanon and among the Palestinian people decides solely what to do and why."

Moral support, for the most part, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary that would stir the crisis pot further.

'Twas noteworthy that it was the Syrian veep, and not Bashir Assad himself, that was doing the talking, however. This silence from the (supposed) top continued as Ba'athist Party communiques announced that a Syrian division was being moved to the border with Lebanon adjacent to the battle zone. Not unlike a Levant version of "Where's Waldo?" where the hunt takes place in a minefield.

Then, a week or so later, the awkward eye doctor surfaced, apparently to read what his "subordinates" put in front of him (via CQ):

Syrian President Bashar Assad spoke out on Wednesday for the first time since the outbreak of the war in the North and said a cease-fire was necessary in order to stop the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. The president made the statement in a telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ah, the tone sounds a bit different, no? But still incoherent, since cease-fires don't stop attacks but are the stop OF attacks. You'd think I'd learn to stop actually reading and listening to what people actually say - I've yet to see paying rapt attention pay off in anything except irritation.

Anyway, calling for a cease-fire is quite a climb-down from "The Jews deserve what they get from the Hezbos, and if they don't like it, let 'em come after us, and we'll clean their yamulkes." I rather doubt that Assad, Jr. held that view from the beginning and was only now getting the message out. It appears most likely that the Syrians believe Hezbollah is taking a beating they didn't expect and are calling in their usual UN "get out of jail free" cards to escape any concrete consequences for their terrorist client's (latest) aggression. At the very least, they want to lower their profile, and therefore exposure to Israeli retribution.

Another factor they probably didn't expect is the loud cricket-chirping that stood in for support from the rest of the Arab world (via CQ):

Mideast diplomats were pressing Syria to stop backing Hezbollah as the guerrillas fired more deadly rockets onto Israel's third-largest city Sunday. Israel faced tougher-than-expected ground battles and bombarded targets in southern Lebanon, hitting a convoy of refugees. ...

With Israel and the United States saying a real cease-fire is not possible until Hezbollah is reined in, Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pushing Syria to end its support for the guerrillas, Arab diplomats in Cairo said.

A loss of Syria's support would deeply weaken Hezbollah, though its other ally, Iran, gives it a large part of its money and weapons. The two moderate Arab governments were prepared to spend heavily from Egypt's political capital in the region and Saudi Arabia's vast financial reserves to break Damascus from the guerrillas and Iran, the diplomats said.

The message to Boy Assad is clear: "We fear Iranian (i.e. non-Arab Shiite) domination more than we hate the Jews, and as fellow (Sunni) Arabs you have picked the wrong side. Therefore we will not support you until you switch sides, and we're willing to bribe you as generously as necessary to seal the deal. Or you can perish at the hands of the Jews and their American patrons. Your choice."

This unsettling turn of events may have the Syrians "panicking," in the opinion of the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brooks. With the Arab League, their core constituency, taking a hike, and no invitation being extended to attend the Western confab on the crisis held in Rome last week, Damascus may be fearing the loss of the influence they thought they had, and growing even more "isolated" as far as being a regional player and realizing their own ambitions.

The Bush Administration evidently sees this as another democratization opportunity, with the first step being to coax Syria away from its Iranian orbit (via CQ):

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Israel on Sunday, Bush Administration officials say they recognize Syria is central to any plans to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, and they are seeking ways to peel Syria away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

In interviews, senior Administration officials said they had no plans right now to resume direct talks with the Syrian government. President Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005. Since then, America’s contacts with Damascus have been few, and the Administration has imposed an array of sanctions on Syria’s government and banks, and frozen the assets of Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri’s killing.

But officials said this week that they were at the beginning stages of a plan to encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make the case to the Syrians that they must turn against Hezbollah.

This gambit has some rather obvious drawbacks from the Syrian point of view: it would principally benefit Israel, which would no longer have an irredeemably hostile state-within-a-state on its northern border to worry about anymore; it would give them the chance to get back into Lebanon themselves, but under an implicit American imprimatur, rather than in any independent (i.e. colonial) sense. And, most obviously, it would put them at least #4 (behind ourselves, the Israelis, and the free Iraqis) on the mullahgarchy's hit list.

Still, there are some center-right analysts who think that dangling the carrot in front of the dweeby opthamologist is a great idea:

I have long thought that the time was ripe for a diplomatic opening to Syria. Bashar Assad should be offered the same deal as Muamar Khadaffi — basically, stop doing things that annoy us, get rid of your WMD and missile programs, and you can be our friend. And it is good to be our friend, particularly if you are a dictator seeking to avoid regime change. This deal should have been pursued long ago, coincident with the same move by Libya. Alas, we went another way, and since Syria had few allies in the region, Damascus was forced towards Tehran. But it is never too late to sell out an ally, and unless the dictator gene skips a generation, Assad the younger will eventually realize that aligning with Iran only further isolates and weakens his regime.

Is James Robbins right? Would Assad have accordianed to the same ultimatum that we gave Khaddafy? Of course, that begs the question of whether Khaddafy really knuckled under or is just biding his time until the Bushies are gone, the Clintonoids return, and he can get back in the "madman with WMD" business. But taking Robbins' parallel as a given, it is three years later, and choices and alliances have been made. I'm less sanguine than he is about the Syrian regime's persuadability, or about its trustworthiness to abide by the deal if they did bite.

But would even the move, however dubious, be worth the setback it would deal to either end of the chain of which Damascus is the middle link? Michael Ledeen, whose judgment I generally trust on this topic, says, "Oh, hell no!":

Syria’s been a major player in international terrorism for a long time, but the Syrians are clever in their malevolent way; every now and then they give the CIA some useful information, and toss the Agency a real terrorist if they need to curry even more favor than is usual. So even when, as in the case of Hezbollah, it should be obvious to a blind man that the Syrians and the Iranians are totally in cahoots, it is nonetheless possible for our Syrian “experts” to gainsay the obvious and whisper to the New York Times that we can somehow separate the Syrians from the terror masters in Tehran, and have the son of Assad play a constructive role in “the search for peace.”

[W]e ha[ve] the Syrians dead to rights. [I]t [i]s obvious that Syria [i]s actively involved in the murder of innocents. And [yet] people who [know] better insist on denying the evidence.

I think the relevant difference between Assad and Khaddafy, to continue Mr. Robbins' analogy, is obvious: geography and alliegences. Khaddafy is hundreds of miles away from the Levant and the Holy Land, and even farther from The Land Formerly Known As Persia. He's the standard-issue Arab dictator, but not locked into any particular alliance system. And he is a free-agent. That, it seems to me, is what made him easier for us to coerce - he was exposed. No overt friends, but no evert enemies, either. Nothing to be gained from making a conspicuous show of defiance, particularly in light of what had just happened to his Iraqi counterpart.

Assad, though, is boxed in by NATO member Turkey on the north, American-occupied Iraq to the southeast, and estranged Jordan and the dreaded Zionist entity to the south. And Iran is a whoooooole lot closer than would be comfortable for a junior terror partner contemplating a back-stabbing.

In my mind, the question of flipping Syria comes down to who Boy Assad (and/or his Ba'athist remnant) fears more - the Americans or the Iranians. Three years ago the answer would probably have been us. But now? With George Bush the diplodiddling poodle of the EUnuchs on stopping Iranian nukes? With the mullahs steadily undermining Iraqi democracy via the stimulation of intra-Muslim strife with no response at all from the U.S.? With the domestic screeching of the DisLoyal Opposition for defeat & retreat growing, if it were possible, even more deafening? And with Iran confidentally moving ahead with their War Plan R?

Naaaah. Like Benito Mussolini, Bashir Assad is a fascist stooge. Unlike Mussolini (until it was too late), Assad is probably aware of that status. But also unlike Mussolini (especially after it was too late), he has every reason to believe that he's a fascist stooge on the winning side of this global confrontation, and thus with a whole lot to lose if he gets cold feet. The only way to change that perception is to attack Iran and topple the mullahgarchy once and for all.

Win the war, and we make up Junior Assad's mind for him.

And at that point, what would it matter what he thought, anyway?