Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hillary on Syria: Thanks for the Candor So We Can See Why You Are Totally Wrong

By Barry Rubin

I adore it when policymakers speak clearly because it allows you to understand their arguments and—all too often—to see how thin or wrong-headed they are. In this case, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explains U.S. policy toward Syria, also shedding light on its thinking regarding Iran and other radical states.

She said:

"I always start from the conviction that countries act from their own self-interest as they define them. Part of diplomacy is to open different definitions of self-interest."

I couldn’t agree more with her first sentence. But that means the policymaker must understand with complete honesty, accuracy, and fullness how the country defines its self-interest. Western policymakers usually fail to do this.

Let’s begin by making it clear that the word “regime” here is more important than that of “country” as a starting point. Syria is ruled by a dictatorship that controls the state, steals the nation’s assets, and suppresses opposition or freedom.

So how does the Syrian regime define its self-interest? Here are some points:

--To stay in power which means to continue as a dictatorship of a small number of people that rests on a larger communal (Alawite) and institutional (Ba’th party, military and security forces) base.

--This requires an ideology of radical Arab nationalism and of xenophobia. The problems caused by the regime’s nature, greed, and repression must be blamed on someone else—the United States, the West in general, and Israel. Thus, fomenting hatred, conflict, and separation from America and the West is in Syria’s interests.

--With the base of the regime resting so much on a non-Muslim (Alawite) community, the rulers possess a special need to reach out to the 60 percent Sunni Muslim Arab majority by demonstrating their own Muslim credentials. And nowadays this means Islamist commitment. Syria's keeping these people happy by its "heroic resistance" in backing Sunni terrorists in Iraq, Sunni Islamist Hamas, and Hizballah (which is Shia Muslim but very popular among Syria's population). The Resistance approach is thus in Syria’s current interest.

--Free-market capitalism is bad for the country as currently constituted. Why, wouldn’t that help its citizens? Sure, but it puts money into the hands of an independent middle class which will possess direct links with the West. So it is not in the current interest of the country.

Anything America offers along these lines is not useful unless presented as a concession without strings, like financial aid. By the way, Syria has long refused to make concessions on human rights that would lead to the signing of an association agreement with Europe. Refusing to do so is in the regime's interest (especially since the Europeans are moving toward unilateral concessions despite Syrian intransigence).

--Expansionism is in the regime’s interests. Presenting Syria as the beating heart of Arabism, the leading fighter against Israel, and so on, distracts the population from its problems, creates alternate people to hate and blame (not the regime), supplies reasons to support the rulers, and offers the potential for pride (Arab, Muslim, Syrian) and loot. Controlling Lebanon is the most valuable asset of all. (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait for similar populist purposes.)

--Thus, Syria needs to try to control Lebanon and the Palestinians; to seek to destroy Israel; and to gain as much influence as possible in Iraq and Jordan. Aggression and subversion are real political and economic assets. Or, to put it in Hillary's terms, they are in the national interest.

--If the conflict with Israel were to end, the regime would face domestic problems from two directions: on one side, people would demand more freedom and prosperity; on the other, they would attack the regime as traitorous for making concessions to the demonic enemy. If Israel was a normal state in the region, its interests would always conflict with that of Syria. The Golan Heights has no real use for Syria except as a base from which to attack Israel. Maintaining the conflict is in Syria’s interests.

--I will talk about the alliance with Iran, which is also in Syria’s interests, in a moment.

So far, it doesn’t look like the United States has many assets for changing Syria’s definition of self-interest. There is only one thing the United States can do from the standpoint of Damascus: unilateral concessions. Hand Lebanon to Syria is at the top of the list, also money without strings, accepting Syrian influence in Iraq, get rid of the tribunal looking into Syrian terrorism in Lebanon, and end Syria’s international isolation, etc.

It is true the United States has things the Syrian dictatorship wants. The problems are: it has far fewer such assets than Clinton thinks and the regime is unwilling to pay for them by offering anything in exchange.

Thus, Clinton will fail and her failure is totally predictable.

But the secretary of state does offer one additional claimed asset:

"Given what's been going on in Iran and the instability that appears to be present there, it may not be in Syria's interest to put their eggs into that basket. So we're testing the waters, and I think they're testing the waters. They obviously want to know what's in it for them."

First, Iran is not unstable in any meaningful sense. We are dealing with thuggish dictatorships in both cases. The Syrian regime killed more than 15,000 of its own people to put down an internal Islamist rebellion a quarter-century ago. Do you think they’re scared of a few demonstrations in Iran, especially since the United States and Europe refuse to support the opposition?

The team of Spiritual Guide Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad running Iran are trusted friends for them. They know these people. Syria has no real reason to change policy toward Iran.

A lot more can be said about that: Who seems stronger today in the Middle East? Iran, steaming ahead toward getting nuclear weapons, confident, spreading influence into the region, fearless, or the Obama administration with its apologies and rejection of power politics?

If anyone is worried about putting all the eggs in one basket nowadays it is America’s Arab partners.

There are also a huge number of assets Syria is getting from the alliance with Iran: Islamist legitimacy; money; arms; cooperation in fighting Israel, spreading both countries’ influence among the Palestinians and in Lebanon and in Iraq.

Iran is offering Syria easily more than ten times as much as the United States can.

So, Clinton says, the United States is testing the waters. Any harm in that? Doesn't seem so at first. But if you look at the waters and see them to be full of sharks--that is if you do a proper analysis as appears in this article--that should be enough of a test and you still retain all your body parts.

Is Syria testing the waters? Sure it is, to find out if the United States is really a big sucker which will hand to Damascus something for nothing.

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