March 31, 2010

An Unusual Alignment of Interests

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 31, 2010 10:56 AM
Surprise!! Look who was in Damascus recently, backtracking on past statements as fast as he could, and kissing the chief mafioso's ring for forgiveness... None other than Walid Jumblat, the same Walid Jumblat whose father was killed by Assad's father (ok ok "allegedly" killed if you work for the UN), the same Jumblat who poured scorn on Assad when George Bush had his back covered.

It would all be comical if it wasn't such blatant evidence of Obama's ineptitude in the Middle East. If Jumblat is moving to Assad, it means he doesn't see peace coming any time soon. Needless to say, this move also strengthens Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Posted by: Joe Hayek at March 31, 2010 11:22 am
Jumblat on Assad in 2007: "the dictator of Damascus... a savage... an Israeli product, a liar... and a criminal."

Jumblat on Assad in 2010: Jumblat lauded the Syrian leader's stances towards Lebanon and his keenness on its stability. Jumblat praised the stances of President Assad towards Lebanon and his keenness on its security and stability".


What changed between 2007 and 2010??? No points for guessing... The resident in the White House!
Posted by: Joe Hayek at March 31, 2010 11:28 am
Now that the US, France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are "engaging" Damascus, the Lebanese can't possibly resist any longer.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 31, 2010 11:30 am
There's a lot of claims made there that I take issue with.

First, it's not surprising that US client states in the mid east (Egypt and SA) have US aligned interests in preventing an anti-US state in Iran from gaining more power. Unfortunately for these governments, their people are still very sympathetic to the palestinian cause and any overt moves to build a coalition between arab states and israel is simply untenable for them.

Continued land grabs by Israel simply plays into Iran's hands.

Second, you write "the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last"

That's somewhat inaccurate as the National Alliance came in third, finishing well ahead of the kurdish list.

In any case, leaders from all the major parties (except Allawi's) have traveled to Iran to negotiate a government coalition.

Finally, what exactly are you suggesting the US do with this alignment of interests besides letting Israel off the hook in settlement construction?
Posted by: tg at March 31, 2010 12:45 pm
I do not believe that the west and in particular the US understands what Syria wants in exchange for dropping its alliance with Iran.
For Assad to even entertain this idea, the US must provide a huge incentive and something that would provide Assad with some major long term benefits in economic and political terms that would guarantee his stay in power for a long time since he would have to give up a prductive relationship with the mullahs in Teheran at an enormous cost to his regime.
I think that the more the West tries to raise the issue with Assad. the more he gets closer to Iran in the hope that at some point the west in exasperation, will just "give in" to his wish list and serve him on a silver platter. He does not mind the waiting game, knowing all too well that time is on his side.
Posted by: Mason at March 31, 2010 1:14 pm
Well Jumblatt is no Inigo Montoya, that's for sure.
Posted by: Thrasymachus at March 31, 2010 2:03 pm
Seems that Assad might be taking his cue from Putin.

Michael, good summary, but I think you might be a bit too kind on Obama. You identified many points of real significance on the recent scorecard most Americans don't understand, but US policy has been all over the place, amateur at times, BS at others.

On one hand, I do think you have Hillary pressing for an Arab Task force and understanding the real dynamic which I have said for two years is rather novel -Saudi-Israel convergence. On the other hand, Obama seems to be more like Sarkozy described him today:


Later, during his afternoon Press conference, Sarkozy softened his earkier words perhaps due to the immediate response to his honesty. Still despite the back-tracking, I never would have thought I would agree with the French. Sarkozy had the balls to nail it. The rest is damage control. Perhaps the shock was enough to swing China.

The morning comments reveals a side to Obama's foreign policy mainstream media intentionally misses. The recent spat with Israel was embarrassing. Obama is not a zoning regulator and his track from the start seemed at odds with Hillary's pitch. Smack your friends and kiss up to adversaries. Any gain so far? Saudis don't want to have anything to do with this idiotic dance between Washington and Israel. It knows Iran is pulling the strings in Gaza anyway while Assad helps arm the next war and AQ tries to dig in. Iran is the greater problem and few believe even China agreeing to new half-baked sanctions will work. Today, the US admitted it has the missing Iranian nuclear scientist Iran "lost" last June and for the moment, Netanyahu is having a good day.

It is as many Israelis said a year ago. Without genuine attitude of negotiation from Palestinian leadership, there is not much to negotiate. Assad is slightly less believable than Qaddafi. No deal? Saudis feel that way about Iran, so they have little hope right now Hamas or even Fatah will stop listening to Iran. Abbas just lost a significant number of his military who defected to Hizb'Allah. How Obama has not already used this wedge after the clear signs of health emerging in Iraq which rejects Iranian hegemony is beyond me. Now is the moment.

If he let's go of this rare opportunity, he will go down as blowing it in history books because the implications of broad US failure now will be the tipping point to a darker and more dangerous start of this century.

Talk about the consequences of non-linear butterflies.......the one Obama released in his recent bitch slapping is already having negative effects thousands of miles away. Perhaps he can turn it around while he has a chance.
Posted by: Maxtrue at March 31, 2010 3:30 pm
This is a comment I tried to post on an earlier thread about US alliances:

""Arab Jews" have lived in the Arab world for centuries and millenia. They speak Arabic. A plurality of them are Iraqi Jews, although many also come from other Lebanon, North Africa, Syria, Jordan, historic Palestine, and from the Gulf.

Many Arab Jews moved to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s.

"Palestinian Israelis" are Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent.

Most American interests relate to global public goods that benefit most people around the world regardless of whether others contribute towards the establishment of global public goods or not. It is wise to facilitate other great powers working collaboratively to solve global problems and advance global interests.

This doesn't mean abandoning historic American allies. It means embracing historic American allies and trying to facilitate alliances between historic American allies and other great global powers. [i.e. working to improve British relations and collaboration with China, India and Brazil for example.]

It also means working on establishing an alliance between Israel and the Palestinians so that both of them can collaborate to advance their own shared interests and global interests. This is why the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is so important."
Posted by: anan at March 31, 2010 3:37 pm
tg, if the answer is not obvious, then why answer it?

The problem is not Israel and Hillary Clinton has her husband's map regarding what Israel intended to keep after 42 years of understanding and 62 years of Palestinian belligerence. The American Indians have bigger grievances than Palestinians. Under Arab rule, Israelis were driven off and even the Western Wall was beyond reach.

Iran is the problem followed by AQ and the Taliban. Palestinians should reconsider their leadership's charters.
Posted by: Maxtrue at March 31, 2010 3:40 pm
MJT, I know you feel for Lebanese and all, having lived there.

It is the responsibility of Lebanese to unite their own country, and stand up for their own country; including to Syria if they wish to. If Lebanese don't stand up for their own country, why should America, Europe, Russia, Turkey or anyone else stand up for Lebanon?

Lebanon has gotten a lot of international help; economic grants and training for the Lebanese security forces. Russia gave Lebanon 10 used Mig29s, and substantial training. Other countries have helped Lebanon as well.

From your Lebanese writings, I have noticed a willingness by Lebanese to use us Americans and others as proxies in their own conflict with Lebanon and Iran; while they themselves lay back and free-ride.
Posted by: anan at March 31, 2010 3:44 pm
Anan, you have a greater chance of getting Arab leadership to see the advantage of changing the street mentality. Once great Arab nations regard Israel differently, they can pressure Palestinians to change their leadership and get real. Thugs hold way in Gaza and Fatah's leadership is far more corrupt and duplicitous than Israel's.

Once Sunnis do that, an Arab, US alliance is conceivable. Until then, focus goes to the biggest beast, which is hardly Israel.....

As for Raptors, check out a recent thread over at Defense Tech......quite interesting.
Posted by: Maxtrue at March 31, 2010 3:45 pm
From your Lebanese writings, I have noticed a willingness by Lebanese to use us Americans and others as proxies in their own conflict with "SYRIA" and Iran; while they themselves lay back and free-ride.
Posted by: anan at March 31, 2010 3:45 pm

Another signal to Israel and Arab leadership.....
Posted by: Maxtrue at March 31, 2010 3:58 pm
"Many Arab Jews moved to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s."

They were ethnically cleansed from countries where they had lived thousands of years, far longer than the "Palestinians" lived in Israel, you Jew-baiting hypocrite.
Posted by: Gary Rosen at March 31, 2010 10:49 pm
If reports are true, the US test fired a ballistic missile from a sub in Saudi waters. Hillary at work? Rumor has it the US head of MDA was there too which makes for mixed signals given the link I posted above. Not sure the Saudis had nuclear response in mind. They want Iranian program interdicted almost as much as the Israelis.

"two-track" is sometimes another term used when not being able to make a tough decision in the face of escalating danger.
Posted by: Maxtrue at April 1, 2010 5:57 am
Micheal, now this is
Posted by: Maxtrue at April 3, 2010 12:27 am
Jumblatt's car breaks failed on his way home after meeting Assad. You can't make this stuff up.
Posted by: Joe at April 3, 2010 1:18 pm
oops car BRAKES in previous post
Posted by: Joe at April 3, 2010 1:25 pm
Joe, I think that's what is known in Syria as a "friendly reminder".
Posted by: Gary Rosen at April 3, 2010 11:55 pm
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