Monday, May 07, 2007

Less than Zero

Joshua Landis has some interesting commentary on the recent meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem - as well as other diplomatic intrigue - at the recent Sharm al-Sheikh conference of regional powers (ostensibly assembled to discuss matters related to security in Iraq).

The recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Syria may be a manifestation of a nascent strategy to de-link Syria from Iran (which would then, presumably, make it easier to isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon by eliminating Iran's middleman). This reading is not made any less credible by the obvious empowerment of Iran in the region, and the perceived need to assemble and fortify an effective counterbalance. The question remains, however, what would the US offer Syria in return for its cooperation? The return of the Golan Heights, and the killing of the tribunal investigating Syria's role in the Hariri assassination, are the two most obvious Syrian objectives.

These concessions may yet prove to be a price too high for the Bush administration, though - despite the sudden sense of urgency brought on by Iran's ascendancy. Landis' description of this episode provides an illustration of the operative dynamic between Iran and the US, and what may be making Bashar Assad suddenly seem like a good choice of friends:

Mottaki, Iran's F.M. walked out of the dinner, where Rice and he might have met, before Rice arrived. The Americans tried to spin this as Iranian prudery at work. Evidently, the excuse was that a Ukrainian violinist in a red dress had a plunging neckline. Mottaki couldn't abide the flesh and took Iranian leave. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cracked, "I'm not sure what woman he was afraid of, the one in the red dress or the secretary of state."

Mottaki was more honest. He explained that the US needs Iran more than Iran needs the US. The US had not prepared for the meeting properly and was not willing to discuss the an agenda important to Iran, consequently Iran passed up the chance to talk to the Americans at the ministerial level. [...]

Iran is in an increasingly strong position in Iraq and can afford to wait for America to recognize its failure. This is why Mottaki walked out on Rice. He doesn't want to give the Bush administration a photo opportunity for nothing. Beggars can not be choosers. This is the message Iran is sending Americans. [emphasis added]
Ouch. That's gotta sting a bit. Landis goes on to make the radical argument that Iraq's current sectarian-based, Shiite-led government has been cooperating closely with its neighbor, Iran. I know, I know, this is shocking to me as well, as the Bush administration and its ideological fellow travelers have assured us that Maliki is an anti-Iranian, non-sectarian, uniter interested only in a peaceful, integrated and inclusive Iraq. Here is Landis (with grains of salt distributed for consumption, due to the nature of the sources cited):

Very troubling documents have surfaced recently that demonstrate that Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki is helping Iran infiltrate the two leading Shiite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr, America's enemy in Iraq, and of Hakim's Badr forces, which is backed by the US.

Saudi Arabia is upset by Iran's internal takeover of the Iraqi security forces, which has been done under American noses. Not only has Maliki been unable to stop this, but increasingly, it seems he is supporting it. Iran's takeover is documented in this report by Memri. Iraqi secret memos written by Maliki to Sadr warn the Shiite militia leader to hide his lieutenants during the surge lest Washington kill them. More detailed is this Washington Times article, which quotes from a 40-page Saudi assessment of Iran's influence over Iraq's security forces. The author of the report, Mr. Obaid, writes: "Ordinary police and military officers now have a stronger allegiance to the Badr Organization or the Mahdi Army than to their own units." Hakim's Badr Organization, which is 25,000-strong and has roughly 3 million supporters, is the "key vehicle Iran is using to achieve its military, security and intelligence aims." The Saudis believe that Iran has thuroughly penetrated the new Iraqi state that the US is building.

With this in mind, Landis' conclusion is tragic, yet accurate. Here are the first couple of paragraphs, but do go read the rest:

The meeting was a mitigated win for Syria because it signaled an end to Syria's formal isolation by the Bush administration. President Bush was wrong about Iraq. It did not become a show piece of American power or democracy promotion. Bashar, who called the US invasion illegal and an expression of imperialism that would be a disaster for Iraq and the whole Arab World on a par with 1948 or the WWI post war settlements, has been proven largely correct. Even Saudi authorities agree. They are Washington's closest allies; they now call the occupation illegal. Americans recognize the adventure as a disaster. Bashar proved he could read the Arab street better than Bush. The administration predicted that by this time Arabs would be laying wreaths at its feet for bringing them freedom, progress and the American way. Syria is coming out of isolation just as Washington finds itself out in the cold, its policies out of sync with the rest of the world. Bashar is not the "blind eye doctor" or "bumbling" neophyte, as most analysts argued. Bush and America were blind.

There is nothing sweet about this victory, however. Everyone is a loser. The Iraqis most of all.

Touching on something Matt Y discussed the other day, a chaotic force such as war does not usually cooperate by lining up all parties in a neat zero sum scheme, with inversely proportionate winners and losers. In the case of the Iraq war, the list of "losers" dwarfs the "winners" side, and the imbalance is only growing.

(h/t to badger for the Landis link)

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