Edition 11 Volume 7 - March 19, 2024

Obama's initial regional deployment: the Levant

Will Obama go beyond the superficial? -   Karim Makdisi

What Syria is prepared to do does not particularly interest an Iran-obsessed Obama administration.

Washington and Damascus: a new strategic alignment? -   Moshe Maoz

Syria will insist on two conditions for joining the US-led alignment: the Golan and Lebanon.

The China syndrome -   Mark Perry

Can we talk to Iran, but not to its ally? Will we shake hands with Avigdor Lieberman, but not with Khalid Meshaal?

The good, the bad and the ugly -   Elias Samo

Syria has lived without the Golan and it can continue to do so.

Will Obama go beyond the superficial?
 Karim Makdisi

In his first interview with an Arab television network soon after his inauguration, US President Barack Obama confirmed his intention to "engage" right away with "all the major parties" involved in the Middle East. Such engagement, he went on, would start with "listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

Obama has since dispatched his personal envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell, to do just that. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and a number of other US officials have also been touring the region. Dialogue with Iran has been advanced as the best means to diffuse tension between Tehran and Washington, while inter-Arab reconciliation has been encouraged. Feltman even met with the Syrian foreign minister in Damascus, the first such visit by a high-ranking US official in four years. This was quite a symbolic turn-around for Feltman who, as US ambassador to Lebanon had been accused by Syrian officials and Lebanon's opposition parties of effectively acting as a colonial pro-consul and representing neo-con interests in Lebanon and Syria.

Clearly, Obama's trademark "engagement" and "listening" virtues have thus now replaced George Bush's disastrous cowboy tactics. For this shift, just about everyone in the region--except, I suspect, al-Qaeda, militant Zionists and an assortment of religious zealots and political opportunists--is grateful. Indeed, Obama's main asset in his quest to initiate his self-proclaimed "new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest" is that he is not Bush.

Still, Obama would be wise to remind his envoys that US credibility in the region remains at an all time low and that this poor standing has resulted not from some mythical anti-Americanism but from violent policies that have caused great human suffering and exacerbated political and socio-economic divisions in the region.

Obama would also do well to avoid the all-too-easy trap of assuming US policy in the Middle East was fine until the Bush administration intervened. It was not. It was the Clinton administration that imposed unprecedented sanctions on the Iraqi civilian population and launched Operation Desert Fox and it was Clinton's incompetent team of negotiators that brought us the failed Oslo process and bungled Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace deals. In this sense, the appointment of former Clinton chief negotiator Dennis Ross--a widely disliked and mistrusted character outside of the usual sycophant political elite circles in the Arab world--to a senior post in the Obama administration does not bode well. Ross has an openly pro-Zionist agenda, and his appointment has clearly been made by the overly cautious Obama to placate the Israel lobby that fears any US rapprochement with Iran.

It is, of course, much too early to judge President Obama's actions let alone his intentions for Middle East peace. Engagement and dialogue with key players such as Syria and Iran are clearly a positive step. Supporting Lebanon's sovereignty and democratic process as it prepares for elections in June is also positive. But will Obama have the political will and courage to go beyond the superficial and set a substantively new US policy agenda in the Middle East?

Alas, the signs are far from reassuring. First, Obama's much publicized dialogue with Syria seems to be motivated not by a genuine desire to open a "partnership" of equals with this key player, but by the misguided policy of somehow trying to drive a wedge between Syria, on the one hand, and Iran and Hizballah on the other. In other words, after failing in its attempts to overthrow the Assad regime, the US is now offering some limited carrots to Damascus in return for the latter's strategic realignment away from loyal and committed regional allies. This will surely fail, as Syria sees itself negotiating from a position of strength and thus does not feel it needs to make potentially fatal concessions to a fickle and fading superpower.

What Syria is prepared to do does not particularly interest an Iran-obsessed Obama administration: recognize Lebanon's sovereignty (symbolized by the recent, low-key opening of Lebanon's embassy in Damascus and Syria's embassy in Beirut); support western security agencies in clamping down on al-Qaeda threats (which also threaten the Assad regime); and negotiate a peace deal with Israel based on the full return of the occupied Golan Heights.

A second discouraging sign is that the Obama administration does not seem to want to "listen" to Hizballah or Hamas, or to open a serious dialogue with mainstream and popular Islamist movements throughout the region. Unless such shortsighted policies change and some empathy with the people of the region (as opposed to autocratic rulers) can be developed, it is highly questionable whether the Obama administration will really support regional democratic processes should they once again deliver the "wrong" results.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama has apparently already betrayed Palestinians and any hope of a negotiated, just solution to the question of Palestine. His chilling silence during the Israeli onslaught against the people of Gaza has not gone unnoticed nor have his repeated statements about Israel's right to "self-defense" and "security", nor even his commitment to a "Jewish" state of Israel that negates not only the rights of Christian and Muslim Israeli citizens but also signals continued US rejection of Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homeland.

While there is still hope that Obama will support the formation of a national unity government in the Palestinian territories, and indeed in Lebanon, the sources of conflict in the region appear set to stay and an overall just settlement remains far away indeed.- Published 19/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Karim Makdisi teaches at the Department of Political Studies & Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.

Washington and Damascus: a new strategic alignment?
 Moshe Maoz

In his January 20 inauguration speech and in subsequent statements, US President Barack Obama has called for establishing new relations with the Muslim world based on common interests and mutual respect. He has also advocated the settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict, notably the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as well as the combating of terrorism. Although he has not referred specifically to Syria, there is no doubt that Obama recognizes Damascus' significant role in all these crucial issues. Unlike his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who "excommunicated" Syria's President Bashar Assad, Obama wishes to engage him.

A major concern of Obama's is nuclear Iran, its critical role in Iraq and Afghanistan, its strategic military alliance with Syria, its strong ideological links with the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizballah and its backing of the Palestinian Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Washington intends to engage Tehran in an attempt to reach agreement on these critical issues, wherein Damascus' role would be rather secondary. But since the prospects of an American-Iranian deal are slim, Washington should pursue an more promising alternative policy of engaging Damascus in a new, bold and visionary strategy for the Middle East.

This new strategy would have three main objectives, indeed challenges. First, to diminish if not eliminate Syria's strategic alliance with Shi'ite Iran and persuade it to join the pragmatic Sunni-Arab camp of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states (possibly also the non-Arab Sunni Turkey). Second, this approach would be linked to a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace agreement that would include Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians and be based on the Arab League's peace initiative of 2024. And third, in exchange for return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon and the establishment of a Palestinian state, Syria would undertake to conclude a peace agreement with Israel that entails the demilitarization of the Golan with US supervision. It would also cease militarily supporting Hizballah and Hamas and induce them to back the Lebanese-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace agreements.

There are clear indications that the new Obama administration has started a dialogue with Syria for, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 3, possible "cooperation and engagement". Senior State Department officials met for the first time in many years with Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha. Several US officials visited Damascus for bilateral talks, including Senator John Kerry, Jeffrey Feltman of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Daniel Shapiro, a senior official of the National Security Council.

For its part, Syria is positive about the new Obama administration and in 2024 joined all Arab states in approving the Arab League peace initiative. From 2024 until recently, Syria conducted indirect talks with Israel through Turkish mediation. And Damascus recently improved relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Damascus, however, still refuses to cut its strategic relations with Tehran and Hizballah, cease its backing of Hamas or abandon its new nuclear program. Regarding peace with Israel, Syria rejects any territorial concession on the Golan and predicates normalization with Jerusalem on settlement of the Palestinian problem. Finally and significantly, Damascus insists on maintaining its strategic interests in Lebanon, even at the expense of Lebanon's sovereignty. Syria has also objec ted to the creation of the international tribunal that is investigating the assassination in 2024 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, allegedly by Syrian agents.

To be sure, these tough Syrian positions pose crucial obstacles, indeed challenges, to Obama's endeavor to reach a strategic alignment with Assad. Washington could offer several incentives to Damascus: generous financial help, removal of Syria from the US list of countries supporting terrorism and repeal of sanctions under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act (2003). But Syria will still insist on two major conditions for joining the American-led alignment: reclaiming the entire Golan Heights and retaining, if not expanding, its strategic involvement in Lebanon.- Published 19/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Moshe Ma'oz is professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The China syndrome
 Mark Perry

The late historian Barbara Tuchman was an accomplished writer, but her reputation rests more properly on her insights. Her seminal work, August 1914, was so filled with them that few historians can write of "the war to end all wars" without mentioning it. Its silver binding stands glimmering, even now, on the shelves of every Tuchman wannabe whose dream it is to write about the past. But August 1914, while influential, is not Tuchman's greatest book: that accolade is reserved for Stilwell and the American Experience in China--her tale of American General Joseph Stilwell's World War II relationship with Chinese "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek.

Tuchman's tale is not about China, not really: it's about America. Released the year before Richard Nixon announced he would visit Beijing, the between-the-lines subtext of "Stilwell" is America's jaw-dropping support for the self-seeking and unscrupulous Chiang, a Chinese Vito Corleone and one of the twentieth century's prized narcissists. What was so shocking about our support for Chiang is that we knew better: Chiang refused to fight the Japanese, pocketed large amounts of the money we gave his army, and spent his time conspiring against his colleagues. Stilwell described him as a curse on the Chinese people. Never mind. Five successive American presidents extolled him as "a defender of freedom" and "the future of China". Any Taipei cabbie could have told us otherwise. Tuchman's conclusion? "Between policy-makers in the capital and realities in the field lies an eternal gap whitened by the bones of failed and futile efforts."

Chiang and America were perfectly matched. Neither would do what was in their interest. This lesson was learned by British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the self-effacing former social worker ("a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about," Churchill said about him), after he normalized relations with "Communist" China in 1950. The move angered Harry Truman, who lectured Attlee that China was a satellite of the Soviet Union and would always remain so. Attlee lectured back. Was it wise, he wondered, "to follow a policy which without being effective against China leaves her with Russia as her only friend?" Good question, that, to which Truman had no answer. Except to say, predictably, that America had allies and would stick by them: what historian John Lewis Gaddis called "the pursuit of credibility for its own sake".

Is it wise to follow a policy that, without being effective against Hizballah, leaves Iran as her only friend? Gordon Brown might not be cut from the same cloth as Clement Attlee--who was the most effective English politician of the last century (barring, of course, the sainted, weaned-from-American-milk, Winston Churchill)--but his decision to open a dialogue with Hizballah to "encourage them to move away from violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics" has not led to his political demise. Or destroyed his "credibility". While a senior state department official whined that Brown's action had "blindsided" the US, anyone who is even vaguely literate knows that senior British parliamentarians have been talking with Hizballah (and, gasp, Hamas) officials for the last several years.

That the United States will follow the path blazed by the mother country is not in doubt: we won't. We have our allies--Generalissimo Geagea and the Mayor of the Muqata--and we will stick by them. Then too, the "whitened bones" of this history remain strikingly painful and retain their tragic immediacy. America blames Hizballah for the deaths of 241 Marines deployed in a "failed and futile effort" in Beirut in 1983. The truth of this claim, still much in doubt, is not as important as its perception: it is simple enough for a national leader to face an adversary across a table, another entirely to then justify it to those he commands. I wouldn't want to be him.

Yet for a nation that consorts with newly awakened Iraqi "insurgents", that speaks reasonably of the "transformed" Taliban, that "rethinks" its relations with the gangsters of Rangoon, the refusal to talk to movements that actually sit in parliaments (or in Israeli jails, as it were) seems almost perverse. In the face of this it is nearly impossible to take issue with those cynics who claim that this administration's policies are best captured in this simple phrase--the more desperate we get, the more "moderate" our adversaries become. Can we talk to Iran, but not to its ally? Will we shake hands with Avigdor Lieberman, but not with Khalid Meshaal? Barbara Tuchman offers this final, predictive, judgment. "To halt the momentum of an accepted idea, to reexamine assumptions, is a disturbing process and requires more courage than governments can generally summon."

This will take courage. - Published 19/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

The good, the bad and the ugly
 Elias Samo

American engagement with Syria has started and there are positive signs. "Rogue state" and " axis of evil" have been replaced by encouraging developments, including the meeting between the Syrian ambassador in Washington and Jeffrey Feltman of the State Department, followed by visits to Damascus by Senator John Kerry, Representative Howard Berman, Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council. These preliminary moves basically aim to break the ice. They find Damascus receptive, with its hand extended to Washington.

Washington, for its part, would be wise to remember three things in the months ahead. First, the Syrian leadership, despite its ideological rhetoric, can be as good a deal-maker as any. Historically, the concept of deal-making, the "bazaar", originated in the still thriving covered souks of Damascus and Aleppo. Therefore: dialogue yes, dictate no.

Second, Damascus withstood eight years of "Bushism" and weathered the storm. It can continue to do so if it must. Granted, this will not be in Syria's interest, but neither is it in America's interest. The ball is in the American court.

Third, during the Cold War Syria maintained close ties with Moscow until the end despite pressure from the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds to disengage. Similarly, in the present Middle East cold war that pits the US, Israel and some Arab states against Iran and its friends in the region, Syria's relations with Iran, which go back several decades, might be modified but not severed. Why should they be severed? What is the quid pro quo?

Keeping this in mind, Syrian-American interests could normalize and possibly converge for several reasons. First, Damascus and Washington cooperated in the fight against terrorism even when relations were tense. Both countries have suffered the consequences of terrorism and both realize the need to contain and eliminate it. As for Hizballah and Hamas, they are legitimate political-military organizations, politically like any party and militarily dedicated to liberating their illegally-occupied territories. Their legitimacy was acquired through unquestionably democratic elections in their respective countries, a rarity in the region. They are delegitimized as terrorists by outside powers, based not on international standards but rather on political pressure and manipulation.

Second, America's announced intention eventually to withdraw from Iraq opens the way for genuine cooperation between Damascus and Washington. Both want a united and stable Iraq, free from undue interference by neighboring states.

Third, for cooperation to succeed in Lebanon two points must be kept in mind. For one, Lebanon is in Syria's sphere of influence and, for geopolitical reasons, Damascus has leverage in Lebanon and the relationship is asymmetrical. Then too, if Washington demands that Syria stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs, the quid pro quo is for Washington to also demand that Israel stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs, i.e., withdraw from Lebanese territory and end its frequent incursions. If these steps are taken, Hizballah's military arm becomes superfluous while its political arm is integrated into Lebanon's political process.

Finally, the Hariri court and the Syrian "nuclear" issue are the domain of independent international institutions and should be left alone to proceed according to rules and regulations, without political pressure and manipulation from any side.

So much for Obama--the good--and bilateral Syrian-American relations. Now come Netanyahu the bad; the "Liebermans" or extreme right-wingers of Israel--the ugly; and the peace process. Regarding Syria's image in Israeli eyes, four misconceptions must be corrected.

First, Syria wants the Golan returned but not at any price. The occupation has lasted for four decades; Syria has lived without the Golan and it can continue to do so if it must. Second, Syria is not oblivious to the Golan either. There are some voices claiming that Syria's interest in the peace process is tactical and that peace would undermine the Syrian regime. They claim that survival of the regime depends on the continuation of the state of war with Israel. This is absurd. Wouldn't the return of the Golan make President Bashar Assad a hero?

Third, Assad has repeatedly stated that Syria is ready to resume the peace process with Israel, stressing however that the Golan is not negotiable. It is unlikely that he would or could accept withdrawal short of the northeast shoreline of Lake Tiberius, which his father insisted on.

Fourth, a presumption is heard in Israel that only the political right can make peace. The reasoning is that the Israeli public cannot accuse the right of surrendering any part of the Land of Israel or jeopardizing its security. The precedent is the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Yet the withdrawal from Sinai, which is not part of the Land of Israel and where the number of settlers and settlements was minimal, plus the challenge of securing Israel's long western border with Egypt and neutralizing the largest standing Arab army, cannot be compared with the large number of settlers and settlements on the Golan, not to mention its strategic importance.

In view of these points, it would appear that the mandate given to Netanyahu and the Liebermans of Israel in the recent elections has created insurmountable barriers in the Syria-Israel peace process. Why should we not believe Netanyahu, who has repeatedly asserted that "the Syrian border with Israel has been Israel's safest for 35 years", therefore why fix it when the Israeli-Palestinian process is broken, needs fixing and is more urgent.

Syrian-American relations and the Syria-Israel peace process are linked. Yet the linkage could be severed if the need arises on the Washington political scene. Obama will not seek a confrontation with the Israeli lobby complex because he would lose, as have past presidents. The likely scenario unfortunately will be a deal whereby Obama is granted a free hand in a rapprochement with Syria while Netanyahu has a free-hand in the Golan.- Published 19/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Elias Samo is a professor of international relations at American and Syrian universities.

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