May 28, 2007

Syria’s "Resistance" - UPDATED

By Michael J. Totten

Barry Rubin explains Syrian foreign policy in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen. (Thanks to Tony Badran.)
In the Middle East, violence is not the result of poor communication but a tool for political gain. Nothing proves that point better than Syria's successful use of violence and terrorism to promote its interests. No amount of dialogue is going to change that reality.

Now Syria is using a Palestinian front group to start a war inside Lebanon, just as it employed another Lebanese client organization, Hezbollah, to battle Israel last year. The Syrian government's message is simple: Lebanon will know no peace until it again becomes our satellite.

[…]

What is less understood is how the regime's radical strategy is used at home and why this makes it impossible to gain anything from engaging with Syria. Like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Syria's rulers face a paradox. How to stay in power after failing so completely? The economy is a mess, there is little freedom, and the regime is dominated by a small Alawite minority which is historically secular.

Since taking power in 2000 on his father's death, Bashar has met this challenge. He sends terrorists against Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and even the U.S. military, but nobody retaliates in kind against him. At home, the regime sounds increasingly Islamist; abroad it is the biggest sponsor of radical Islamist groups in the region.

Bashar has even declared a new doctrine he calls "Resistance," which combines Arab nationalism and Islamism. The West's goal, he claims, is to enslave the Arabs. The mistake made by other Arabs was to abandon war. "The world will not be concerned with us and our interests, feelings, and rights unless we are powerful," and victory requires "adventure and recklessness."

As Tony reminded us a few days ago (I had forgotten), Syria also sponsored terrorist groups against Turkey. Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel – that’s every single democratic country that shares a border with Syria.

Turkey threatened to invade in 1998. It is the only country on Syria’s border that threatened to respond to violence with violence. And it’s the only country on Syria’s border not terrorized by Assad today.

I saw the Syrian border from the Turkish side while driving to Iraqi Kurdistan from Istanbul. Two parallel fences a mile apart run the length of it. The area between the two fences is a vast minefield. Skull and crossbones signs warn of certain death to anyone reckless enough to cross.

The Turks never fired a shot, but the border is quiet.

UPDATE: Barry Rubin has another article along the same lines in Beirut's Daily Star:
Syria has been brilliant at creating and maintaining such Catch-22 situations, where the only way to "solve" a problem is to buy Syrian "cooperation" with deals that would make things worse. Syria has acted as the arsonist who sets the fire, then has played the role of fireman who would put it out only on condition that the burning property be given to it. This was how Syria fomented terrorism in Lebanon against Western peacekeeping forces in the early 1980s, driving them out and then offering to stabilize Lebanon by controlling it completely. The same approach was applied to the Palestinians, in post-Baath Iraq, and in Lebanon again.

Lebanon was indeed the masterpiece of this political genre. Thus, Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal explained, "How can we be asked to disarm Hizbullah [since] we're out of Lebanon?" But what if Syria was allowed to return to Lebanon in force, would it then clamp down on Hizballah? Well, on another occasion, Bilal was asked: "Will you be using your influence to persuade Hizbullah to disarm, or not?" His response: "Why on earth should we?" In fact, Hizballah is the main element in Syria's plan to recapture Lebanon entirely. If the West wants a stable Lebanon, or to avoid more Lebanon-Israel wars, it has to confront Syria, not make a deal with it.

Look, I realize I'm telling you to "eat your peas" here, that hardly anyone wants to confront Syria. But there aren't any good options. Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq can continue suffering Damascus-sponsored terrorists attacks, they can make a "deal" and surrender to Assad what he wants, or they can push back. That's all there is. Convincing him to be a good boy and an all-around pal over tea isn't an option.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 11:20 AM

Comments

Jordan, too. Hardly democratic, but more of an ally than not. But then there's a similar dynamic there. Israel has made it very clear than maintaining the Hashemite monarchy is a key element of its regional policy, and has threatened to intervene against Syria (or anyone else) who tries to overthrow it.

Ironically, Jordan is harmed less by Syria than Israel. Israel threatens to invade Syria on Jordan's behalf, but not on its own behalf.

Posted by: MattW at May 28, 2007 11:32 AM

Let's change the paradigm. If Lebanon and Israel would make peace.............what a disaster for Syria. Baby Assad would loose his dream of a Greater Syria, which would encompass Lebanon, right?

Posted by: diana at May 28, 2007 01:22 PM

By the way, ever since 1974 the Syrian border was Israel's quietest border as well.

Posted by: zmen at May 28, 2007 02:19 PM

zmen, Syria just uses Lebanon's border to attack Israel instead.

The Turkish method works and the Israeli method does not.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 02:41 PM

Michael,
I don't want to be obnoxious but if "the turkish method works and the Israeli method does not," what should Israel be doing on the "Turkish" model? Building an even bigger fence won't stop the missiles nor the kidnap attempts. If Israel were to threaten to invade Syria, the whole world would be up in arms.
Advice?

Posted by: zellmad at May 28, 2007 02:48 PM

The whole world is up in arms no matter what Israel does. Who cares?

Threaten to invade Syria. If you keep getting attacked and you don't do anything about it you will continue to be attacked. This is War 101.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 02:53 PM

Turkey's population is over 70 million.

That makes its threat of invasion quite credible.

Posted by: alphie at May 28, 2007 03:20 PM

alphie raises a good point. Mobilising reservists to attack Syria would be too costly. Any moves Assad might promise to make would be undone as soon as the reservists were sent home. Anything done would have to be done with standing forces.

Standing ground forces are busy guarding borders, or operating in the territories. There isn't much left to threaten with.

Threatening invasion unless terms are met is impractical. Either Israel mobilises and invades within a short period, and without terms, or Israel bombs until Assad begs for Israel to stop.

Too bad Syria is too close for using nuclear weapons.

Posted by: MattW at May 28, 2007 03:31 PM
Let's change the paradigm. If Lebanon and Israel would make peace.............what a disaster for Syria. Baby Assad would loose his dream of a Greater Syria, which would encompass Lebanon, right?

Why? The palestinian camps are still there, as is Hezbollah. Together with Syrian agents, they could start a war with Israel, a Lebanese civil war or both.

Posted by: MattW at May 28, 2007 03:33 PM

Matt,

Are endless wars with Hezbollah practical?

Israel defeated Syria, Egypt, and Jordan in six days in 1967.

Just attack Assad's ground forces from the sky until he cries uncle. It won't take very long, and a lot fewer people on both sides will die. Repeat as necessary until the required attitude adjustment takes place.

That, or fight an endless series of inconclusive assymetric wars with guerillas and terrorists that solve nothing and kill a bunch of civilians as well as Israeli reservists.

Israel's strategy is completely broken. They need to start over.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 03:40 PM
Are endless wars with Hezbollah practical?

Not at all, certainly not the way Israel has fought them.

Just attack Assad's ground forces from the sky until he cries uncle. It won't take very long, and a lot fewer people on both sides will die. Repeat as necessary until the required attitude adjustment takes place.

That'd be fine with almost any country in the region but Syria. Israel's high population density in one small area, together with Syria's arsenal of SCUDs and WMD, are a nasty strategic mix.

Is Assad crazy enough to use WMD against a nuclear state? Put it this way: is Israel crazy enough to use nuclear weapons against a capital city almost on its border, and near its main water supply?

Syria needs Lebanon in order to remain economically viable. That change in behaviour you mentioned means, ultimately, an end of the Assad regime. I can't believe the Syrians don't know that.

A serious attack on Syria the likes of which you described would mean large Israeli civilian casualties. That in and of itself isn't necessarily a reason not to do it, but please don't think of it as an easy - or easier option - than irregular clashes with Hezbollah.

Israel's strategy is completely broken. They need to start over.

110% agreed.

Posted by: MattW at May 28, 2007 03:53 PM

Query. Re the mile-wide fenced and mined area running alongst the Turkey-Syria border. On whose soil? The reason could be significant.

Cheers

Posted by: 49erDweet at May 28, 2007 04:27 PM

The mined area is on the Turkish side. The fence at one point was only a few feet from the highway.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 04:49 PM

Turkey threatened to invade in 1998. It is the only country on Syria’s border that threatened to respond to violence with violence.

Israel has threatened Syria many times - not with invasion, necessarily, but it has threatened violence.

And it's carried some out - notably cool operations like this:

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — In a hit claimed by Israeli security officials, a senior Hamas operative was killed in a car bombing Sunday outside his house in Damascus, the first such killing of a leader of the Islamic militant group in Syria.

Analysts said the killing appeared designed as much to warn the Syrians as to keep Hamas off balance.

Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil, 42, died instantly in the explosion, which wounded three bystanders. Witnesses said he was speaking on his mobile phone as he put his white Mitsubishi SUV in reverse before it exploded about 10 yards from his home.

Hopefully Musa Abu Marzook and Khaled Meshaal will meet a similar fate.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 05:12 PM

Cool indeed, SoCal.

But while attacks like that may gain Israel the support of the realists, it loses them the support of the moralists.

And the moralists are the main backers of American involvement in the Middle East these days.

Posted by: alphie at May 28, 2007 06:02 PM

alphie,

There's no political cost to Israel - in terms of any important sector in American politics - of conducting operations like that against Hamas (or Islamic Jihad) leaders in Damascus.

Realists, in the American political sense, are not really big fans of Israel to begin with (they are much bigger fans of the Arab petrodollar). But the Bakers, Scowcrofts and Brzezinskis have not stopped a close alliance between the U.S. and Israel.

Not sure who the "moralists" are - but in a world where Israel has made noises about negotiating with Syria and the Bush administration has told them not to, there remains no cost - again, from an American political point of view - towards killing Hamas pricks in Damascus.

It plays differently in Europe, though.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 06:09 PM

As a novice to the dynamics at work in the region, can I ask what exactly it is you are you suggesting is done towards Syria?

Are you suggesting 'sharp slap', or something more permanent?

Posted by: Machiavelli's Understudy at May 28, 2007 06:24 PM

Turkey threatened to invade Syria, so Syria left Turkey alone. Did Turkey's threat mean that they would occupy Syria, or that they would kill President Hafez al-Asad?

What was Iran's position on Turkey's threat to Syria?

Is it the case that since Turkey is a Muslim country, and Israel is not a Muslim country, that even though Isreal could easily kill Assad, it is not considered a viable threat to Syria?

Good article on the situation in Lebanon by W. Thomas Smith Jr: http://counterterrorismblog.org/

Posted by: Ron Snyder at May 28, 2007 06:27 PM

Turkey threatened to invade Syria, so Syria left Turkey alone. Did Turkey's threat mean that they would occupy Syria, or that they would kill President Hafez al-Asad?

What was Iran's position on Turkey's threat to Syria?

Is it the case that since Turkey is a Muslim country, and Israel is not a Muslim country, that even though Isreal could easily kill Assad, it is not considered a viable threat to Syria?

Good article on the situation in Lebanon by W. Thomas Smith Jr: http://counterterrorismblog.org/

Posted by: Ron Snyder at May 28, 2007 06:28 PM

Turkey threatened to invade Syria, so Syria left Turkey alone. Did Turkey's threat mean that they would occupy Syria, or that they would kill President Hafez al-Asad?

What was Iran's position on Turkey's threat to Syria?

Is it the case that since Turkey is a Muslim country, and Israel is not a Muslim country, that even though Isreal could easily kill Assad, it is not considered a viable threat to Syria?

Good article on the situation in Lebanon by W. Thomas Smith Jr: http://counterterrorismblog.org/

Posted by: Ron Snyder at May 28, 2007 06:28 PM

Apologies for the multiple post.

Posted by: Ron Snyder at May 28, 2007 06:30 PM

So, Israel is to threaten to (and then, presumably, act on a threat to) invade Syria for the benefit of Lebanon? Or to smash the Assad regime and then use some means (magic, perhaps) to prevent the new Syrian regime from being actively hostile to Israel?

Bombing anybody into submission only works if the bombed is willing to submit. It's not clear to me where Israel is supposed to bomb in Syria that will prevent Iran from using Syrian territory as a conduit for armament and money to the Hezbollards in Lebanon, but maybe I'm missing something.

Posted by: Joel Rosenberg at May 28, 2007 07:02 PM

And, just for the heck of it, could you be clearer on what you're proposing Israel do? First it's "threaten to invade" (presumably to be followed by an invasion, if the Syrians don't geek) and an hour later it's an air war only.

Posted by: Joel Rosenberg at May 28, 2007 07:15 PM

It's not clear to me where Israel is supposed to bomb in Syria

First, threaten. Then begin destroying the Syrian military from the sky.

Assad will change his attitude fast.

And Iran can only use Syria as a conduit if Assad allows it.

If Israel wants to get into another inconclusive, destabilizing, and ultimately pointless war with Hezbollah instead, well, good luck with that.

One of these days Western governments will learn to fight conventional wars instead of assymetrical wars whenever possible. It should be obvious to everyone by now that we're much better at conventional war, but since for some reason it isn't I don't know what else to say.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 07:18 PM

I guess I should also say that the likes of Assad shouldn't be allowed to choose what kind of battle to fight because they will obviously choose what works best for them.

He also shouldn't be allowed to let other countries absorb all the punishment for him. He's the one who wants to keep the war with Israel going. So let him have it.

I honestly don't see why this is hard to understand, nor do I see how anyone could think yet another Israeli war in Lebanon will make this problem go away.

So far in Israel's military history they have always succeeded in Syria and always failed in Lebanon. That's why Assad uses Lebanon for his wars. Also so he can take over and steal Lebanese money. This has gone on for decades. Enough already.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 07:25 PM

Michael, it seems like you've grown more and more accepting -- now even supporting -- violence against Syria. As I remember, you started off a bit less martial. Perhaps you can recount your conversion process -- and your notions of what the proper use of military force is.

Posted by: Gary at May 28, 2007 07:26 PM

Gary: Perhaps you can recount your conversion process

It's real simple. There will be more war, and it will either be in Lebanon or Syria.

I would rather have no war. But since that isn't an option, I pick Syria.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 07:28 PM

MJT,

The question is, what comes after the conventional victory?

Iraq is answering that question for us right now.

What will Asaad do to Israel if Israel attacks and destroys its military?

1) Unleash Hezbollah.
2) Unleash all the other terrorist groups.

Assymetrical warfare is Syria's only card to play, anyway - against Israel. The Syrian military is not a threat to Israel.

Why wxactly should Israel destroy something that's not a threat to it?

If it's for Lebanon - then I understand why you would want it. But the Lebanese government has not yet proven to be a realiable (let alone "natural) ally for Israel. It can't control Hezbollah.

Turkey won't attack Syria. Iraq and Lebanon can't attack Syria. That leaves Israel - which, again, is supposed to do what exactly for Israel? It will bring another Hezbollah missile barrage - and unless Israel is ready to fight them again, it won't happen.

Attacking Syria won't get Hezbollah off Israel's neck - and Hezbollah still has Iran. Besides, a hurt Assad still supports Hezbollah. Even if you kill him, whatever comes next in Syria supports Hezbollah.

Syria's bad news - and it has to be handled regionally - and I can't see the other "democracies" bordering Syria - even Turkey - helping Israel that much.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 07:32 PM

Assad needs an army to stay in power at home. If he loses his army and power, he's dead.

He probably won't unleash Hezbollah if the choice is to reign in Hezbollah or die.

If he does, kill him.

If the endgame turns out to be chaos in Syria, at least there won't be any more Assad-sponsored terrorism exported to Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq.

If Assad's replacement in Damascus exports terrorism to Israel, kill him too.

I'm sorry. I don't like this either.

War in Lebanon doesn't work. Negotiating with Assad doesn't work. Got any other options? I'd love to hear 'em.

I suppose tolerating the status quo of endless war is an option, but it wouldn't be an option for me if I had to live there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 07:41 PM

MJT, defeating Assad in war means another defeat and humiliation of the Arabs at the hands of the Israelis. Do you really think all this humiliation is a good idea?

Posted by: Solomon2 at May 28, 2007 07:47 PM

He probably won't unleash Hezbollah if the choice is to reign in Hezbollah or die.

The Israelis couldn't kill Nasrallah - and you know they wanted to.

Killing Assad will somehow be easier?

I really don't think it will help Israel or Lebanon to see a massive "We Are All Baathists (Syrians) Now" marches in London and Los Angeles.

Let's see the Hariri tribunal first before full scale war.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 07:48 PM

Let's see the Hariri tribunal first before full scale war.

I totally agree.

I don't think Israel should attack Syria today. Only if Israel is attacked by Syria again later. And come on, let's be straight here. An attack by Hezbollah is an attack by Syria and Iran. There's no point pretending otherwise.

For now the Israelis should just say they will hold Assad personally responsible for attacks committed by his proxies in Lebanon.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 08:16 PM

I really don't think it will help Israel or Lebanon to see a massive "We Are All Baathists (Syrians) Now" marches in London and Los Angeles.

How is that any worse than "We Are All Hezbollah Now?"

Those people are idiots and have exactly zero power. They will hate Israel no matter what, so who cares?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 08:18 PM

For now the Israelis should just say they will hold Assad personally responsible for attacks committed by his proxies in Lebanon.

Fair enough, but Hezbollah is not only based in Lebanon - it does have a huge constituency there.

I wish both Israel and the U.S. could figure a way out of the proxy game, but it's not that easy.

If so, the Israelis (or the U.S.) could just as easily bomb Riyadh and Mecca and the U.N./E.U. "international community" could say, "well, it's not like the Saudis didn't have it coming."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

How is that any worse than "We Are All Hezbollah Now?"

It's not worse - it's just as bad.

Those people are idiots and have exactly zero power. They will hate Israel no matter what, so who cares?

It's not a matter of winning them over - it's a matter of not giving them the international spotlight unless Israel has an opportunity for a clear, decisive win with a very practical and beneficial outcome.

And again, even if the Israelis hold Assad personally responsible for the next Hezbollah attack, it doesn't mean they can kill him.

I'm sure he's on the list of people the Israelis want dead. Should he be as high as Nasrallah and Meshaal? Two people the Israelis have tried - and failed - to kill? Assad has much more protection then the two of them.

The only good thing that may come out of this Gaza mayhem is another attempt - hopefully successful - on Meshaal's life. Nasrallah is off the radar screen for now. Assad isn't even on the map.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 08:28 PM

Besides, the Israelis have killed a lot of Arabs in the last few years - including some very high value targets like Yassin, Rantissi and Abu Shanab.

It would be better for everyone if it was an Arab or Arab faction that stood up to the thugs and bad actors in their own midst.

Certainly Assad has had enough Arabs under his thumb. The Lebanese are still letting him wreak havoc in their country. Surely there's a patriot or two out there who can figure out a way to put a bullet in his skull.

That's certainly easier for an Arab (non-Israeli Arab/Druze) to pull off.

Why don't the Lebanese (the Sunnis have ridiculous Saudi $$$ connections) give the bastard a taste of his own medicine?

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 08:35 PM

Yes, the Arabs need another humiliation -- the only military or power lesson they understand seems to be a crushing defeat, and not always then -- some take it merely as a sign of the islamic impurity of the losing regime. But if it gets a good shot and succeeds, which is no certainty, this time Israel better not get so damn smug and overconfident about what a military success means.

I gather the Winograd Report indicates that Meir Dagan, head of Mossad, strongly urged Olmert and Peretz to attack Syria immediately last summer, and was blown off -- maybe that it would cost them too much of the good international PR when they defeat Hizbullah? Say, that's counting your chickens...

The notion that Syria will peel off from Iran and cut off terrorism support (and that will somehow prevent a nuclear Iran) if Israel gives back the Golan is so stupid it makes me nauseous.

Posted by: Pam at May 28, 2007 08:36 PM

SoCalJustice: I'm sure he's on the list of people the Israelis want dead.

No, they want to preserve his regime because they fear what comes "next." This is why Lebanese refer to Israel as Assad's partner in crime.

I understand the arguments of stability junkies, but Syria exports its instability to its neighbors. Pro-stability realpolitik kind of falls apart in this particular case.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 08:43 PM

Actually, Michael, these marching American leftist idiots primarily despise their own country; they only despise Israel because it is a non-Muslim US ally in the region (they don't march against any Muslim country because they perceive Muslims in general to be anti-US, and thus their allies). Whether it's against liberating Afghanistan or Iraq, or against globalization, or for Kyoto, or against US nuclear power (never mentioning all of that British and French nuclear-power-provided electricity), or against Reagan's defensive basing of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, etc., they will march, and bring their paper mache puppets with them, so long as they can 'rationalize' their stand as in opposition to the US or some position that it holds, or against some policy that might threaten to strengthen or benefit the US.

I do not recall one US march denouncing either Al Qaeda following 9/11 or North Korea following their fizzly nuke test, or even to express revulsion at the Tienanmen Square massacre, or celebrating the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, or the Orange revolution in the Ukraine, or the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland, or even, come to think of it, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent democratization of eastern Europe (actually, I think that last positively horrified and dismayed US leftists).

If Israel and the US suddenly became hostile to each other, then, and only then, you might see them march in support of Israel, for then, Israel could be perceived as the enemy of their US enemy; that is, as their friend.

Posted by: Salamantis at May 28, 2007 08:45 PM

Why don't the Lebanese (the Sunnis have ridiculous Saudi $$$ connections) give the bastard a taste of his own medicine?

I asked some March 14 people that very question. Some say "yes, kill the motherfucker right now." Others say they don't want to become what they hate.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 08:46 PM

This is why Lebanese refer to Israel as Assad's partner in crime.

That's not why. The reason why is because they are as conspiratorial as everyone else in the region - this time finding an exrta special, creative way (in addition to all the usual ones) to blame Israel for their own problems.

Hezbollah? Israel's fault.
Baathist thug? Israel's fault.

I guess the Israelis are partners with Ahmadinejad too because they haven't toppled the Iranian regime yet.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 08:51 PM

Others say they don't want to become what they hate.

So I guess those people are Assad's "partner in crime." He's got a lot, apparently.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is psychotic. The Israelis don't want an al Qaeda state next to them. That doesn't make them "partners" with Assad.

Do the March 14 Lebanese consider Turkey and the U.S. his partner in crime too?

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 08:54 PM

MJT,

If I seem snippy - it's not with you.

I'm frustrated with the politics of the region - there's too much pressure on Israel (already one of the most hated countries around - and you've been there - you know how amazing/awesome it is to spend time there) to do the dirty work for people that hate them.

There's no guarantee for the Israelis that people will be grateful to them.

Look at Iran - they express happiness at Saddam's demise. Do they thank us for it? No. I'm sure they were one of the few countries psyched about the Osirak mission. Did that make them friends with Israel? No. There was a much bigger chance that whatever came out of that reactor was going to be aimed at Tehran rather than Tel Aviv, too.

Israelis can't win - they need to be offered something reasonable from someone other than the U.S. every once in a while.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 08:59 PM

MJT, et.al., that does bring up another question, in the event of any kind of war with Syria, or its proxies, which is that Iran has threatened to attack Israel too.

I think that the rest of the West has to stand up at some point.

A country the size of New Jersey, already under such pressure, can't be left out there, and she can't be expect to act alone as the mailed fist of the West, then condemned for it, and hated by the Arabs, the Leftists, Europe, the "realists" and increasingly the entire Muslim world no matter what she does.

Sometimes I think it's a Plot.

Posted by: Sophia at May 28, 2007 09:25 PM

"Put it this way: is Israel crazy enough to use nuclear weapons against a capital city almost on its border, and near its main water supply?"

No, Israel won't use nuclear weapons for anything other than end-state payback (same with the U.S. btw), but you can destroy everything with regular weapons. The situation does not merit this behavior, but if you start a bunch of fires it will become one big fire and your enemies will lose their will to fight.

Posted by: mikek at May 28, 2007 09:28 PM

If I seem snippy - it's not with you.

Yeah, I know. The Middle East is impossible. The more time I spend out there the more gloomy I get.

The entire region needs a major kick in the ass.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 09:40 PM

Honstly, I won't be surprised if a World War I type of catastrophe engulfs the whole place at some point.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 09:42 PM

The Middle East is impossible. The more time I spend out there the more gloomy I get.

De ja vu again in Gaza.

It's going to be a long summer.

Honstly, I won't be surprised if a World War I type of catastrophe engulfs the whole place at some point.

I hope Arab armies, despite idiot leaders' rhetoric, aren't emboldened by last summer's war.

If they honestly think it will be anything other than another Arab bloodbath, they've got another thing coming. It will be a huge waste of life.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at May 28, 2007 09:56 PM

I've never seen Michael more gloomy than today.

Re: Syria/Israel, it seems like America/USSR -- mutual deterrence but battles thru proxies. However, even the USSR did not allow its proxies to send missiles into the USA, which would have clearly been seen as an act of war. However, what big countries can do small countries can't. Israel may simply not feel it can attack Syria and withstand multiple rocket attacks on Tel Aviv.

Posted by: Gary at May 28, 2007 09:57 PM

I've never seen Michael more gloomy than today.

I hit bottom during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

I feel fine now, actually. Just not too optimistic these days.

That could change, though, theoretically at any moment. A revolution in Iran would make my year.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 28, 2007 10:02 PM

Gloomy is apt.

The Middle East has been in a lot worse shape than it is in today.

If there is a sense of urgency, it comes from attempts to benefit (or hide) from America's latest, waning intervention there.

Posted by: alphie at May 28, 2007 10:02 PM

If they're lucky it will be WWI -like, because if not, it'll be nuclear.

When I left Israel this Spring I told a friend it was probably like being in love with someone with HIV -- maybe they'll be one of the few who survives a long time with good health, but when you face harsh reality, it seems insane to be optimistic. Despite the amazing resilience of Israelis, the tangle of internal and external problems seems damn near insurmountable, as I am sure they do in Lebanon to you, MJT.

If all the international meddling and proxying and trash-talking stopped tomorrow, it would still be incredibly hard to really right the ship in either place.

I might feel better if the new Labor head in Israel really pulls out of Olmert's coalition so it collapses, but that smug sucker seems quite certain they won't. The only thing worse than changing horses in midstream is trying to cross with one that's dead in the water.

A friend recently commented that looking around the world, it seems like the caliber of leadership everywhere is just hopelessly lousy, even more than usual. Madmen, psychos, weenies, and crooks.

Posted by: Pam at May 28, 2007 11:05 PM

Here's another WORRY FOR ASSAD. Seems he's not insane enough for the real nutbars.

Posted by: Brian H at May 28, 2007 11:07 PM

"Honstly, I won't be surprised if a World War I type of catastrophe engulfs the whole place at some point."

It won't happen. They couldn't fight the pointless war if they had to. If you had a massive amount of people willing to fight they would be gone within a month via poor war skills.

There is no way a serious war (iraq-iran does not count as a serious war due to garbage strategy) will break out or last in the region. You can bet on beheadings, torture and the random murder of civilians, but not a major war. Hate doesn't count in the real world.

Posted by: mikek at May 28, 2007 11:26 PM

"I suppose tolerating the status quo of endless war is an option, but it wouldn't be an option for me if I had to live there."

YES, IT IS AN OPTION. IT'S THE ONLY OPTION!

It's interesting how quickly people in the west become discouraged if there isn't an immediate solution to a problem. It's one of the key advantages the other side has. They've been living in the shit for centuries, and can go on like that for centuries. They don't need to see a solution. On the other hand, if we see a problem without an immediate solution we freak out. And then we make mistakes.

The most important thing we can learn is that there is no short term solution to the problems of the middle east. All we can do is manage the problems on a short term basis. It's like AIDS. Today, there is medicine so we can manage it so it doesn't kill us, but there is no cure.

Let's take the example of the cold war. That was a problem that couldn't be solved in the short term. It took seventy years, and then we won. Imagine if people had insisted upon a faster solution to the problem. I think we can all agree that it was a good thing we waited.

We need to fight a gradualist, defensive war against the other side. This is hard for us to get our brains (and egos) around, because the other side looks weak and primitive. However, Iraq has shown us that a "shock and awe" offensive ends in chaos and attrition, and a strengthening of the enemy. The exact same will happen if we attack Syria. You'll defeat Assad (maybe), so what? Does anyone take comfort in the fact that we defeated Saddam Hussein? The likelihood that an attack against Syria will end the way MJT assumes it will is about the liklihood of winning the state lottery.

Take a gradualist approach and let the enemies' internal divisions work against them. Give time for our anti-guerilla technology and methodology to develop. Let our strenghths slowly win the day, as it did in the cold war. In the end, we'll win because our society is better than their's. With quick fixes, we'll only defeat ourselves.

Posted by: MarkC at May 29, 2007 12:02 AM

By the way, let the Lebanese attack Syria instead of calling us partners in crime with Assad. Pricks. Like we owe them something? I'm still waiting for the thank you note for kicking the PLO out of Lebanon.

Posted by: MarkC at May 29, 2007 12:14 AM

Well, Marc, that's the best case there is for the crappy status quo.

I agree there are no fixes to the Middle East. It is a problem to be managed right now, not resolved.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 29, 2007 12:44 AM

Sorry for the excessive posts. Upon further reflection, an attack on Syria COULD work, but only if it were an international coalition, such as faced down Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Assad would cave to such a coalition. I honestly think that Assad would die before caving to Israel. What's more, after Assad "cried uncle", you would need a massive compliance regime, including flyovers, inspections, etc., to make sure he didn't immediately revert to his old tricks. The problem with covert actions like arms smuggling, assassinations, etc. is that they are, well, covert. This is obviously beyond Israel's capacity.

If the UN passes the tribunal, passes resolutions against Syrian destabilizing Lebanon, and then backs it up with an invasion fleet, now this could be the way to go. Not to send Israel in as the world's cat's paw. I leave it to everyone else to decide whether it has any chance of happening.

Posted by: MarkC at May 29, 2007 01:09 AM

Mark,

Syria is currently playing host to somewhere north of 1,200,000 refugees from Iraq.

Unless another country steps up and offers to take these refugees off Syria's hands, I doubt the U.N. is going to do anything at all to Syria.

Posted by: alphie at May 29, 2007 02:06 AM

Marc Sorry for the excessive posts.

Don't apologize. I enjoy your comments. Yours are a lot more thought-out and interesting than some (ahem) around here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 29, 2007 02:23 AM

With French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, determined to set up an international tribunal to try suspects in murder of former Rafik Hariri, it looks like Syria's worst nightmare could be realised.

Does anyone know why Asad has been so vehemently against this happening and what the implications of a tribunal might be (assuming that the Syrian government is found culpable for the assassination)?

Could this reshuffle the deck?

Posted by: Steve M at May 29, 2007 03:10 AM

Hmmm, I wonder who Michael is cryptically referring to?

I'll offer up this almost 60 year old UN Security Council Resolution without comment (except for a slight, pained chuckle at number 3, maybe) to those counting on the UN to attack Syria:

United Nations Security Council Resolution 43

April 1, 1948

The Security Council,

In the exercise of its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,

1. Notes the increasing violence and disorder in Palestine and believes that it is of the utmost urgency that an immediate truce be effected in Palestine:

2. Calls upon the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the Arab Higher Committee to make representative available to the Security Council for the purpose of arranging a truce between the Arab and Jewish communities of Palestine, and emphasizes the heavy responsibility which would fall upon any party failing to observe such a truce;

3. Calls upon Arab and Jewish armed groups in Palestine to cease acts of violence immediately.

Posted by: alphie at May 29, 2007 03:18 AM

Alphie, as you stated, it hasn't even been 60 years yet. For goodness sake give the parties a little time to mull it over.

Meanwhile, did anyone notice that Assad has just been 'elected' for another 7 year term with 97% of the vote?

"This great consensus shows the political maturity of Syria and the brilliance of our democracy," Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majid.

Posted by: Steve M at May 29, 2007 03:27 AM

1) Baby Assad has to be taught a lesson. Turkey did it and Israel can do it. This bussiness that Israel prefers Baby Assad over the M. Brotherhood is a broken strategy. The paradigm has to change. We have allowed him to become the middlemen of Iran.2) The Israelis can use targeted killings and getting rid of K. Mashall, etc is a good tactic. That leaves the Olmert-I-have-diarrhea crowd with their "ally" B.Assad intact.
3) The "refugee camps" have to be dismantled and the Palestinians have to be absorved by the hosting countries. S.Arabia has enough money to stop this misery that the Arab world has been inflicting on the Palestinians.......gosh they suffer. They are the ones that suffer........they are being punished and punished by their power hungry leaders.I am also sick and tired of my tax-payers money being used by the State Dept.and the UN failed burocracies.
4)Thug-Nasrallah, who is one of several world's theo-raketeering brute, should also be dealt with.
5)Lebanon should make peace with Israel. Both countries together could become the power houses of change in the Middle East.
You cut the body (Syria) and the feet (Nasrallah) and Iran would start behaving............
BUT, WHAT DO I KNOW, COMON SENSE DOES NOT DICTATE POLICY IN THIS VERY CROOKED WORLD.
And as usual, do you know where the money really comes from?

Posted by: diana at May 29, 2007 04:46 AM

Hi --
Great post, good comments.

There really is a lot of pre-WW1 sentiment out there in the middle east: the sense that there is so much behind-the-scene manipulation, by people who think they are vastly cleverer than they really are, which are actually making things worse than better: like an earthquake zone, the longer the time goes by without an earthquake, the worse it gets.

Syria is indeed the one who has declared war against moderate Arab civilization by proxy. He hasn't done so against Jordan because he knows that the King and Royal Family there have no reservations about dispatching any mortal threat with their loyal bedouin troops, as they did in Black September. He will continue to do so against Lebanon as long as nothing happens: for him, it's an admirably low-cost solution.

The Tribunal needs to meet ASAP and act on that report. Nothing worse could happen to Syria's rulers, and it needs to happen really, really as soon as possible. Bashar is running along a precipice, along a very thin and narrow path. Indicating him for murder would narrow that path significantly.

Of course, if you are a radical pacifist, as most Europeans seem to be today, then nothing of the sort may happen: it would raise tensions, rather than lowering them.

That'd be the best thing for Syria's leadership: to have the whole Tribunal thing quashed on the demands of third parties not to make things worse. That, of course, simply delays the quake, rather than alleviating it.

As hard as it is on those involved, wars do change things, sometimes for the better. Is this not a case? I know that this will generate ridicule from the left - gee, it worked so well in Iraq! - but that's ignoring why it didn't work: sanctuaries and protected financing.

Iran and Syria are the problem, not the solution.

Posted by: John F. Opie at May 29, 2007 05:32 AM

Sorry for the excessive posts. Upon further reflection, an attack on Syria COULD work, but only if it were an international coalition, such as faced down Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Assad would cave to such a coalition.

Do you suppose that is why Assad is so determined to stop the Hariri tribunal? Does he think it would be used to grant UN-sanction to a force authorized to depose and arrest the responsible parties?

Hm.

As implausible as it might seem to us, it would explain a lot.

Posted by: rosignol at May 29, 2007 06:05 AM

Could not agree more with you Michael; one and only solution is to hit syria. You all should now that Turkey is a muslim 70 million country in the syrian point of view, but israel is the jews that occupied muslim lands, even if turkey have military and economical accords with israel. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: said at May 29, 2007 08:53 AM

Meanwhile, did anyone notice that Assad has just been 'elected' for another 7 year term with 97% of the vote?

Say, has it occurred to anyone that if you add up Olmert's approval rating and Assad's, it adds up to 100%?

Whoa, cosmic.

Posted by: MarkC at May 29, 2007 09:27 AM

syria has only been "brilliant and successful" only because the west is ignorant, stupid and knows only how to appease, but not how to fight, or be cunning.

the arabs have finally learned that the west is weak and susceptible to takiyya, and they're taking advantage of it.

Posted by: fp at May 29, 2007 09:33 AM

"Meanwhile, did anyone notice that Assad has just been 'elected' for another 7 year term with 97% of the vote?"

Those are some brave 3%...

Posted by: Bruno at May 29, 2007 10:45 AM

no, they're not.

they are left out to make the result more realistic than 100%.

Posted by: fp at May 29, 2007 11:06 AM
Bombing anybody into submission only works if the bombed is willing to submit.

Or until you run out of bombs. If they aren't willing to submit, you keep bombing them.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that we're much better at conventional war, but since for some reason it isn't I don't know what else to say.

Two reasons. The guerilla/terrorist is typically culturally similar or identical to the population it surrounds itself in. Since we're usually the outsider, they all look fairly similar to us. The civilian and terrorists understand each other better than we understand either.

Assymetric warfare also typically requires brutality towards civilians. That may come from the guerilla/terrorist movement (Vietcong, al-Qaeda, Fatah, etc), or the enemy force (ie, us). But in part because we haven't been forced to do it for a few decades, we consider brutality towards enemy civilians immoral. In fact, 'terrorism' is historically speaking how wars have been fought.

The question is, what comes after the conventional victory? Iraq is answering that question for us right now.

No-one is talking about staying in Syria to foster democracy. An Israeli campaign against Syria would have to be purely punitive. Destroy the military, civilian infrastructure and the political echelon.

That way, whoever takes over whatever is left of 'Syria' will be busy trying to hold power internally, rather than attacking Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.

The Kurds, incidentally, would be able to make their move and hook up with their brethren north and east of them.

I asked some March 14 people that very question. Some say "yes, kill the motherfucker right now." Others say they don't want to become what they hate.

'What they hate' has been handing Lebanon its ass for 25 years. You'd think more Lebanese would realise that terrorism works.

Posted by: MattW at May 29, 2007 11:49 AM

unfortunately, often people realize when it's too late. and in my book, those who cannot or will not realize get what they deserve.

it's a shitty world out there and you either figure out how to survive, or get subjugated or perish.

Posted by: fp at May 29, 2007 02:23 PM

Remember when Hafez died? |It was a moment of sheer angst in Syria. The had not known another leader for many years, and his designated successor son had recently killed himself in an auto crash. No one expected the meek opthamologist Bashar to be up to the job. But he was the next Assad in line, so he got it. The west exulted: surely here was someone who could be dealt with - who would institute critical foreign policy and human rights reforms and usher Syrai into a new era within the fold of the community of nations.

Progressively, however, as those with such hopes looked on with utter dismay, he has become the vicious, self-determination-denying-and-suborning tyrant that practically no one believe he could become. I happen to believe that this is because he, and his policies and actions, have been shaped by the rest of the Assad family, and by the junta of generals that both guide and serve them, and that this shaping process would also happen with any Assad family successor, should Bashar slough off his mortal coil.

If one wants to irretrievably end the brutally totalitarian and cross-border-thralling-through-terrorist-proxies Assad era, one must completely eliminate not only Bashar Assad himself, but also both his guiding generals and any member of the Assad family that might be conceivably be called upon to replace him, however unlikely, given a particular Assad family member, such an accession might at first appear.

Posted by: Salamantis at May 29, 2007 06:06 PM

I think removing Assad directly is not necessary. He is not extremely popular in Syria if I understand correctly. Chip away from his power by hitting military and Syrians will do him in themselves.

Although, I'd rather scare him in to submission instead by chipping off just enough so he would still remain strong at home.

When it comes to think of it Assad does not have much choice really. If he will do what Israel wants Iranians will get him and vise versa.

Do you think power vacuum in Syria might help us in Iraq? Could be so.

Posted by: leo at May 29, 2007 09:14 PM

I think removing Assad directly is not necessary. He is not extremely popular in Syria if I understand correctly. Chip away from his power by hitting military and Syrians will do him in themselves.

Unlikely- Assad may not be popular, but he doesn't have to be. What his position depends on is the loyalty and effectiveness of the security forces. Unfortunately, a bunch of thugs with AK-47s are quite sufficient to keep a great many civilians intimidated into submission.

Although, I'd rather scare him in to submission instead by chipping off just enough so he would still remain strong at home.

While that would minimize the potential for chaos in Syria, it would also mean that Assad would still be able to export trouble to Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey, and sooner or later we'd be right back at the point we're at now.

We've done that before.

We know what the result is.

We know it is not the result we want.

The logical conclusion is that it is time to try something else.

When it comes to think of it Assad does not have much choice really. If he will do what Israel wants Iranians will get him and vise versa.

What can the Iranians do to him?

Hm.... militarily, nothing. Domestically... nothing. Diplomatically... nothing significant...

About all I can think of that Tehran could do to Assad in retaliation for pretty much anything Assad did would be finding some other means of funding Hizbullah, which would deprive Assad of the opportunity to skim a percentage.... except that there really aren't any alternative channels. You need a convenient border for that kind of thing, and Syria has the only one.

Hm. Seems like a seller's market... IIRC, Iran is reputed to be funding Hizbullah with roughly $100M a year (or so). Can anyone make an educated guess as to what Assad's percentage might be?

It might be cheaper to just buy the SOB off and offer an exile/amnesty deal. Hell, we give the Egyptians several billion a year to not start a war they'll lose...

Do you think power vacuum in Syria might help us in Iraq? Could be so.

No. It is very, very dangerous to create a power vaccum, even more so in the middle east. There are a great many violently militant crazies in that part of the world. This is the main reason Assad is still breathing- everyone who wants him dead thinks whatever replaces him is likely to be worse. This is also the reason I think that removing Assad, not the entire upper level of the Syrian government, is the way to go- it is a very bad idea to create a power vaccum and walk away. That's what we did in Afghanistan, and everyone knows how that turned out. So we want to have some influence over who will fill the vaccum.

Right now, a thug who leaves the neighbors alone would be a significant improvement. We'll work on introducing the 'derives legitimacy from the consent of the governed' thing to Syria once it's taken root in Iraq and Lebanon. Right now, we need to finish Iraq so we'll have the resources on hand to deal with Iran, which is a much higher priority.

Posted by: rosignol at May 30, 2007 12:30 AM

If the US ever does decide to take on Iran, expect us to conquer its little brother Syria first, so our military won't have to watch their backs when they enter from Iraq, and so we can use Syria's Mediterranean ports to offload masses of heavy military equipment and drive it East. We've already got the use of Afghanistan for the Westward push from their other side.

Posted by: Salamantis at May 30, 2007 02:47 AM

I think that with the Turkish government becoming disillusioned about EU membership (as well as the departure of Chirac, Sarkozy shifting France to a pro-American foreign policy, and Merkel and Brown already being at least mildly pro-American), they will be far more willing to consider allowing US forces passage through Turkey to stage out of Iraq. There's the mediterranean ports- or, alternately, the ability to move forces from European bases via rail through NATO allies.

As far as watching our backs is concerned, I think the Israelis would be willing to take care of that.... they want the Iranian nuclear program stopped even more than the US does, but the Israelis don't have the ability to do more than delay it. A we-take-out-the-mullahs-while-you-keep-assad-worried arrangement would suit the needs of both the US and Israel.

My main concern about that approach is if Olmert can make Assad sweat... which is questionable. I'd be happier if someone else was in that job... preferrably a former tank commander with a reputation for being aggressive and unpredictable.

Posted by: rosignol at May 30, 2007 03:35 AM
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