Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Syria? Nah.

As I argued in a previous post, there is a most peculiar dynamic being played out in the Iraq theater between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and the United States on the other. In that earlier work, I used the metaphor of a wrestling maneuver known as a headlock to describe the painful stalemate, and counterproductive stubborness, locking in all parties involved.

To put it simply, Syria and Iran have used their influence, geographical advantage, infrastructure and other assets in an attempt to complicate our mission in Iraq. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Iraq endeavor would be proceeding smoothly without the interference of that country's two neighbors, and I am wary of those that would point to the meddling of Syria and Iran in order to justify military confrontation with either nation. That would only extend the parameters of the current disaster.

There is ground to be made up in terms of stabilizing Iraq, however, if we could engage a cooperative Iran and Syria rather than a hostile version of each (admittedly, the benefits would have been greater earlier on in the occupation, but we must make do with the situation as it now stands).

By way of background, once we moved into Iraq, Syria and Iran figured (correctly in my opinion) that they were next on the list of regimes-to-be-changed. Like any rational actor, each regime decided that it would be better to tie the US down in Iraq rather than stand idley by waiting for their number to be called. As part of this strategy, Iran has been inciting a measure of controlled chaos through various armed factions, and Syria has been lax in policing its borders and reluctant to crack down on insurgent elements residing within those same borders.

Thus far, the Bush administration's response has been to try to cajole each adversary through harsh language and hollow threats. Iran and Syria have been, predictably, unpersuaded. They will not cease their meddlesome activities in Iraq until the United States offers each security guarantees and other concessions. Think of it this way, it is as if they each have us pinned to the wrestling mat, and we are promising them that as soon as they let us up, we're going to take them out. Then we have the chutzpah to complain loudly that they're not letting us up so that we can proceed to dismantle their regimes.

But it gets worse, because it is in the long term interests of both Iran and Syria to have a more stable, peaceful Iraq. In other words, they may actually want to let us up. There is room to explore the common interests, and forge a workable policy of cooperation, if we could just get past the utter fear of diplomacy that pervades the current White House. We must at first agree to actually open diplomatic negotiations with each nation (what Fred Kaplan would call, International Relations 101), and then, pursuant to those negotiations, we should remove the threat of regime change from the equation (assuming we get fair value in return).

In that earlier piece, I cited an article in Foreign Affairs by Vali Nasr that set forth some of these ideas. Said Nasr in brief (the article has much more):

Still, Iran will actively seek stability in Iraq only when it no longer benefits from controlled chaos there, that is, when it no longer feels threatened by the United States' presence. Iran's long-term interests in Iraq are not inherently at odds with those of the United States; it is current U.S. policy toward Iran that has set the countries' respective Iraq policies on a collision course. Thus a key challenge for Washington in Iraq is to recalibrate its overall stance toward Iran and engage Tehran in helping to address Iraq's most pressing problems.

Foreign Affairs is, once again, housing words of wisdom within its covers, this time from Volker Perthes who opines on the tale of two Syrias: one of potential, the other of stalemated reality. The implications extend far beyond Iraq (as is the case with Iran as well):

Western leaders should indeed take this opportunity to reengage Damascus, recognizing that Syria is a major player that can be ignored only at the risk of continuing turmoil. By taking into account legitimate Syrian interests, they could persuade Assad to work constructively with the Lebanese government and with international efforts to stabilize Lebanon, withdraw support from forces trying to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and prepare his own country for diplomatic reengagement and eventual peace with Israel. All this would also separate Syria's agenda in the Arab-Israeli conflict from that of Iran. [...]

There are a number of things that Syria could do to help improve stability. It could, among other things, agree to the exchange of embassies with Lebanon. More important, Syria could help settle the dispute over Shebaa Farms (an Israeli-occupied strip of land that Israel seized from Syria in 1967 but is now claimed by Lebanon) by signing an international agreement that recognizes it as Lebanese territory. Regionally, Damascus could use its influence on Palestinian parties to encourage them to resume a constructive dialogue on forming a national unity government in the Palestinian territories. It could also work with the government in Baghdad to improve security in Iraq; Syria has been a haven not only for Iraqi insurgents but also for the fortunes of former Iraqi officials. [...]

Syrian officials have made clear what they want in return for cooperating with the West on regional issues. They want the United States to stop ostracizing Syria and threatening the Assad government with "regime change," they want to establish a role for Syria in the region, and, most important, they want to regain their Israeli-occupied territory through a renewed peace process.

That seems like an acceptable price to pay if the Bush administration and other Iraq war supporters are to be believed when they claim that Iraq is the central front of the war on terror, and that failure and/or premature departure would lead to ruinous consequences. Or, in the alternative, we can continue to isolate, ignore and ostracize Syria and Iran in hopes that the cruelty of the diplomatic cold shoulder inspires them to collude in their own demise.

In other words, we could stay the course. And we all know how well that's been going.

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