June 06, 2007

The Truth About Syria

By Michael J. Totten

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Barry Rubin about his new book The Truth About Syria. The timing of the book’s publication, as well as this interview, could hardly be better.

The Truth About Syria.jpg

MJT: Your new book is called The Truth About Syria. For those who haven't yet read your book, tell us, what's the truth about Syria? Give us the short version.

Rubin: To begin with, to understand Syria—like other regional forces—one must first examine the nature of the regime and its real interests. The way to do this is not to cite the latest interview or op-eds by Syrian leaders or propagandists in the Western media or what one of them told some naïve Western “useful idiot” who traveled to Damascus but rather to look at what the Syrian rulers say among themselves, what they do, how they structure the regime and perceive of their interests.

Syria is not a radical regime because it has been mistreated by the West or Israel but because the regime needs radicalism to survive. It is a minority dictatorship of a small non-Muslim minority and it offers neither freedoms nor material benefit. It needs demagoguery, the scapegoats of America and Israel, massive loot taken from Lebanon, an Iraq which is either destabilized or a satellite, and so on.

Take the simple issue of the Golan Heights. It is commonplace to say that Syria wants back the Golan Heights. But one need merely ask the simple question: what happens if Syria gets it back? If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change. The regime knows that.

Or economic reform. Again, many in the West take it for granted that the regime wants to take steps to improve the economy. But it would prefer to keep a tight hold on the economy rather than open it up and face enriched Sunni Muslim Arabs who hate the regime both due to their class status and their religious community.

The list goes on. Yet few of these points figure into the debate over Syria where statements like “engagement,” “a common interest in Iraq,” “getting Syria away from Iran,” “the benefits of peace with Israel,” and the reasonableness of Bashar al-Asad get repeated like mantras.

While the Syrian regime poses as being desirous of peace and engagement with the West, in fact its institutions, ideology, propaganda, and activities go in the exact opposite direction. To survive, the minority-dominated, dictatorial, and economically incompetent government needs radicalism, control over Lebanon, regional instability, anti-Americanism, and using Israel as a scapegoat.

Syria is sponsoring a terror war against Iraqi civilians and American forces in Iraq; it is subverting Lebanon, not even stopping at killing the most popular political leaders there; playing the leading role in being the patron of radical Palestinian forces against Israel; promoting anti-Americanism; formulating the new “resistance” strategy which combines radical Arab nationalism and Islamism; being Iran’s main Arab ally; and even being the main Arab state sponsor of revolutionary Islamism.

MJT: The Assad regime, first under Hafez Assad and now under his son Bashar, has been using these tactics for literally decades. The Lebanese are the only people who seem to understand this in full. Why do you suppose the American and Israeli governments are having such a hard time? Is Assad smarter and craftier? Or do you suppose the US and Israel are a bit soft on Syria for public relations’ reasons, having no doubt about its hostility?

Rubin: I think it depends on who you are looking at specifically. Those with little experience of Syria—naïve journalists and politicians rather new to the issue, especially in the United States—simply don’t understand what is happening. What is most disturbing are the statements of former secretaries of state James Baker and Colin Powell, who have been stung by Syria but now seem to forget all the bad interactions and talk as if they had great success in managing Damascus. To hear both of them talk, they persuaded the Syrian regime to close terrorist offices during their tenure but those offices have always remained open. The next U.S. president might try to engage Syria and spend a year or so finding out that it doesn’t work.

Others are acting more from a sense of what I call public relations’ considerations. The Bush administration has made a lot of real mistakes, has also been unfairly criticized, and is under tremendous pressure. So now it wants to show how reasonable it is in giving diplomacy a chance. Perhaps they can succeed in getting Syria to ease up the pressure on Iraq stemming from its sponsorship of the insurgency. Of course, if the Syrians do so they will be acting to get unilateral concessions and to push the United States out faster in order to suit their own interests.

At the same time, though, it should be pointed out that the U.S. policy remains mostly tough, especially in terms of advancing the tribunal to investigate the Hariri killing. Generally speaking, the sanctions and the effort to isolate Syria remain in force.

But many academic experts, journalists, government officials, and intellectuals are being fooled by Syria’s propaganda. One can read several such articles or statements every day. And, of course, this has a feedback in Damascus, persuading the regime that the pressure against it will collapse, that it is in effect winning and does not need to change its policy. When I asked a very serious, non-American and non-partisan, student of Syria what he thought that country’s strategy is, he replied, “Waiting for the Democrats.”

Israel’s policy considerations are even more complex. The basic analysis is that Syria wants to negotiate, to take the heat off on other fronts, but not to reach an agreement. So there is a possibility that engaging Syria will achieve some goals even if it does not bring serious progress toward peace. These include a reduced possibility of Syria or Hizballah starting a war. In addition, Israel would be shown to be pursuing peace. And the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is desperate for some sign of success as it is holding on with its fingernails, could claim an achievement.

MJT: Do you think the Syrians are behind the war of the camps raging in Lebanon now, or does this conflict match the timing of the UN tribunal coincidentally?

Rubin: I definitely think the Syrians are behind it. Let’s look at the facts:

Step 1: Syria wants to sponsor violence and terrorism in Lebanon to bring that country back under its control and intimidate the Lebanese from supporting an international tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible for murdering Lebanon’s most popular politician, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 bystanders on February 14, 2005. Since all the evidence points at Syria’s leaders as the murderers, killing the investigation is their highest priority. The timing of this uprising came at the very moment that the UN Security Council was voting to hold the tribunal

Step 2: Organize and order a shadowy group of terrorists, called Fatah al-Islam, to disrupt Lebanon.

Step 3: And this is the scheme’s most clever part, blame the terrorism on your victim, Lebanon’s own government, and your enemy, the United States. Get some gullible or ideologically inclined journalists to talk to Syrian officials, be fed this line, and then spread it throughout the world.

So how do we know that the uprising in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon, which killed well over 100 people and led the Lebanese army to shell the camp, was a Syrian operation?

Well, first, the group itself Fatah al-Islam, is merely part of an older group, Fatah al-Intifada which has been a Syrian front group for almost 25 years. That is a rather strong hint of whose these people are and from where their pay and arms come. But there is much more.

The leader of this group is a man by the name of Colonel Abu Khaled al-Amleh. And he lives and operates out of Damascus, Syria. The Syrians do not let terrorist groups function in the country unless the regime likes them and finds them useful. That is also a major piece of evidence. But we are just getting started.

The field commander of the group is a man named Shaker al-Absi. He has been working as a Syrian agent since 1983. In 2003, Absi joined the insurgency in Iraq against the Western forces there. Of course, Syria is the insurgency’s main sponsor. Hundreds of fighters cross the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly there is a special government bus that takes them to a good jumping-off point. This record reinforces the idea that Absi is working for Syria.

In Iraq, Absi worked with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida—Usama bin Ladin’s group—there. There is no inconsistency here. After all, when Syria helps the insurgency, most of the forces they assist are led by al-Qaida. While al-Qaida is by no means controlled by Syria, the radical duo has some common interests.

Mr. Absi was involved in the murder of a U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan on October 28, 2003. Naturally, the Jordanians wanted Syria to extradite him so he could be questioned and punished. Syria refused, clearly because its regime would not benefit from having Absi tell what he knew, especially about Syria’s own role in his activities. In 2004, Jordan sentenced Absi to death in absentia.

So instead of turning him over to Jordan, the Syrian authorities announced that they were going to punish Absi themselves. Accordingly, they claimed Absi was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his violent actions in their own country. Three years is a joke. Those terrorists who attack the Syrian regime are given a death sentence or very long sentences, though often they happen to die conveniently in a manner that used to be described as “trying to escape.”

And of course there is no evidence that Absi was ever in prison and certainly not for three years since only two years later he is back in business as a terrorist. For all we know during this period in between he was living very nicely and engaged in training himself and others.

On being “released,” in November 2005, Absi comes back to Syria and goes to Lebanon. Again, if the Syrian government thought he would do anything against their interests there he would not have been allowed to go so easily and conveniently. Immediately, Absi “split” his old group and began Fatah al-Islam. The ideology of the group, merging Arab nationalism and Islamism, is very much in line with Syria’s current political doctrine.

Within Lebanon today, independent and pro-government newspapers have run detailed articles about Absi, his Syrian credentials, and the motives of Damascus for bashing Lebanon. Since Hariri’s murder three years ago, there have been 15 major terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at assassinating critics of Syrian attempts to dominate Lebanon. There is a pattern here.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials have been briefing some Western journalists, who know no Arabic and have no serious background in studying the Middle East. They tell these people that Fatah al-Islam is a front for Lebanon’s government and even the United States. There is no evidence that this is true. What is telling is that the articles published use precisely the same phrases employed by Syrian officials about 48 hours earlier.

The situation in Lebanon is complicated. But the majority of Lebanese want their country to be independent. They suffered under 20 years of Syrian occupation which looted the country and repressed its people systematically. The moderate, democratic leadership needs and deserves Western support against a terrorist offensive directed by the neighboring dictatorship. It would be a pity to be fooled, by such transparent schemes as the Fatah al-Islam affair, into supporting the oppressors.

MJT: It looks like Fatah Al Islam is also connected with Al Qaida in some ways and, if not, that they are similar enough in ideology and method that it may not make any difference if they are formally aligned or not. What long or even medium term effects do you think this will have on Syria's Lebanese allies? Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement can't be happy about this and I doubt Hezbollah is either.

Rubin: An important point is that having links with both al-Qaida and Syria is by no means impossible. We know that there is a clear link between them. In my view, though, Fatah al-Islam is in reality a Syrian client with links to al-Qaida rather than the other way around.

You are right. Hizballah is not happy with this but remember the Syrians need to strengthen their links to Lebanese Sunni, which are very weak at present, and this does not impinge directly on Hizballah’s turf. Moreover, this is a small group and it is likely to prove of relatively temporary importance. I don’t think other Syrian allies will desert because of this.

Mr. Aoun seems to have cast his lot with the Syrians due to his ambition to be president and he has swallowed so much already I don’t think this is going to bother him. If anything will make him break with Syria it would be knowing that most of his past supporters have deserted him in disgust.

MJT: Assad is terrified of the UN tribunal. On the one hand it makes sense: a Chapter 7 resolution that abrogates Syrian sovereignty theoretically threatens his regime. Yet there is no appetite for any military action against Syria in either the US or Israel. If Assad refuses to cooperate with the tribunal and the UN, which he has promised to do, no one is likely to do anything to him. Rogue states defy the UN all the time without suffering consequences. Is he paranoid and over-reacting, or am I missing something here?

Rubin: What you say is partly true but does not seem to be the way they think in Damascus. Moreover, having your regime and some of its highest leaders—not to mention possibly even Bashar’s relatives—indicted for murder is a pretty serious matter, isn’t it? Syria could become a real pariah, and note that the Europeans seem to be on board for this so far. It would be a major humiliation. And they might well think that the United States would use this as a “pretext” for some very tough actions. They also cannot forget about France’s hostility toward them. And in such a hostile posture, they could forget about their ambitions toward Lebanon. He is right to be worried though the regime could find some consolation in the points you raise.

MJT: What do you suggest the US and France do at this point? The tribunal is important, but clearly not enough by itself. Syrian terrorism in Lebanon is only escalating -- and severely at that -- and it will take years before the tribunal renders its verdict. Syria may have Iraqified Lebanon by then and no one will care anymore about a single assassination from years ago. I don't see anything short of at least threatening Assad with force as being effective, but I would love to be wrong. I don't have any appetite for war with Syria either, and a post-Assad Syria really does look like a nightmare.

Rubin: It certainly is a tough situation, isn’t it? I believe that the West must give the strongest possible support to the Lebanese government, including diplomatic, material and if appropriate military aid supplies. I think it is extremely important that both the Lebanese government and Syria understand that the West backs Lebanon’s sovereignty and will put in sanctions and isolation in response to Syria’s subversion there. Obviously, these are very delicate and complex matters. But unless you have the basic confidence on the part of Lebanon’s government and fear or whatever you want to call it on the part of Syria’s nothing can be accomplished.

Obviously, military action by the West or United States against Syria is out of the question but Damascus must know that its behavior will cost it dearly. And that means no unilateral concessions, no negotiations’ process unless there is a change in Syria’s behavior regarding Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism.

If Syria were to again order or inspire an attack on Israel, direct military retaliation would be a definite possibility. One might well argue that this is what should have happened in the summer of 2006 though this is a debate which should be carried out fully.

But I call the approach I favour tough diplomacy and it is the true form of Realism in international affairs. It is also called deterrence. There are lots of options between war and appeasement. This requires patience and steadfastness.

Yet it is surprising—and it would be amusing if it were not so tragic—that many cannot see any option other than engagement—which the regime views as a surrender and thus a reason to be more aggressive—and armed attack. This problem is part of the current intellectual poverty when discussing international affairs.

It would be nice if the Assad regime were to collapse and be replaced by a more moderate regime. We know, however, that first the regime is not about to collapse and second a replacement might well be Islamist or, at best, another Ba’thist regime with a simple change in the names of its leaders.

But this difficult situation must be the starting point of any discussion of policy toward Syria. What is worst is what often happens: the regime gets away with everything it does, teaching it contempt for a West which can be either frightened or fooled so easily.

MJT: Some foreign policy hands hope they can "flip" Syria from its alliance with Iran. Do you think this is possible in the long term if not in the short term?

Rubin: This is absurd and I discuss it at length in my new book, The Truth About Syria. Briefly, Iran supplies Syria with a strategic ally and protector, a lot of money, an Islamist and Islamic cover, and much more. The two countries may not have identical interests but they are close: making Iraq into a member of their alliance; dominating Lebanon; driving out U.S. and Western influence; destroying Israel; backing Hizballah and Hamas; and so on. What can the West possibly offer Syria to replace that? High-tech military weapons? Lebanon and Iraq as satellites? To discuss the issues is to show how ridiculous the idea of splitting the alliance is in practice.

MJT: Anything else to add?

Rubin: Lots! That’s what happens when you write a book on a subject. There are lots of surrealistic elements to this story. In a sense, Syria’s strategy—and those who fall for it—has a lot of humor. The basic line is: Do what we want or we will kill you. Yet at the same time they hold out the bait of great progress if only their demands are met. They play the West at times like a master fisherman reeling in his victim. Yet at other times the regime is incredibly inept and mafia-like. It is such a fascinating story.

How does a basically atheistic regime run by non-Muslims reinvent itself as Islamist? How does a government which has failed so badly for almost forty years maintain support through demagoguery and a structure copied from the USSR? And then there are the amazing parallels to the “Godfather” films. No fictional writer would dare make up the story of the Assads and their regime.

The Truth About Syria, By Barry Rubin, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007

Click here for more information.

Barry Rubin is the director of the Global Research for International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Hertzliya, Israel. He is the author of 16 books, including The Truth About Syria, and is the editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs.

Post-script: Please support independent writing and journalism by donating through Pay Pal. I will be leaving for Baghdad and Anbar Province in a few weeks – as soon as my visa arrives from the embassy – and your donation will go toward travel expenses and body armor.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 6, 2007 12:43 AM

But one need merely ask the simple question: what happens if Syria gets it [Golan] back?

Indeed MJT, that's all one needs to know (or what happens if they signed on on peace).

Reminds me of the old Arafat joke:

Q: Mr Arafat, what would you do if you got Palestine back?

A: I'd sell it and get back to the "struggle".

Posted by: JoseyWales at June 6, 2007 04:38 AM

naharnet.com claims that Bush has lifted the ban on air travel to Lebanon. Strange timing but will United offer a New York - Beirut flight soon?

Posted by: NoSleep at June 6, 2007 06:49 AM

nothing really new and mostly obvious.

it validates my argument in other threads about islamism: that it is the ignorant and stupid policies of the west that preserve and strengthen its enemies, which would self-destruct or would be easy to terminate without the support of the west.

i found gerges somewhat more interesting than rubin, btw. but they're saying the same thing.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 08:51 AM

ah, yes, and here it comes, like clockwork:



while the lebanese pay the price, the failures in israel hallucinate. why should syria change its behavior with all these idiots around?

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 09:21 AM

see what i mean?


Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 09:25 AM

and more:



Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 09:27 AM

olmert seeks what assad does not.


Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 09:40 AM

If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change.

I know nothing about Syria except what you can see from Israel but:

1) Given the emphasis Syria has put on the Golan for 40 years (rationally or not), I'd imagine that if Assad could accomplish its almost complete return he'd be a huge hero in the short term, not the target of protests.

2) Egypt got the Sinai back and their government still has plenty of excuses to hang on to its powers.

3) A deal with Israel would be a huge win for the Syrian economy, so Assad will quickly be able to show gains on that front.

Posted by: JSinger at June 6, 2007 10:01 AM


so you accept nothing of rubin's analysis which is supported by history and reason?

seems like a lot of israelis are in wishful thinking mode, ignoring reality.

i guess that's one reason israel is in a mess, and it still does not get it.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 10:07 AM

and pls don't tell me i dk israel. i lived there for 18 years. and i did not see nonsense like this throughout that time. no wonder olmert and peretz are in power.

you better wake up fast, because israel does not have the luxury to be ignorant and stupid.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 10:11 AM

Mr. Singer:

(1) Hamas were heroes for "causing" the disengagement from Gaza. We see how well that worked out, they were emboldened and took power. Hizbullah were heroes for "driving out" the occupying Israeli army. We see how well that worked out, they were emboldened, became heavily armed, made repeated attempts to abduct soldiers, and started a war.

Short of international funding of Syria's economy on the same scale as Egypt, I can't really see the return of the Golan Heights turning out any differently (maybe they continue to use proxies rather than direct rocket fire, but the Heights would be a tempting location to launch from).

(2) Your second point seems to cut against your first point. Noone is suggesting that return of the Golan Heights, alone, would cause Assad to lose his grip on Syria, but it would force him to find other targets or to amp up his belligerence toward Israel and Lebananon. I would imagine it is cheaper to maintain an army over the pretext of the Heights than to actually mobilize an army to occupy the Heights and take the attendant risks necessary to maintain the heightened vigilance in Syria that Assad relies on.

(3) The point of the article was that Syria isn't really all that interested in a free and open economy with Israel because it would undermine the ruling elite's control of the populace. I tend to agree. Syria would prefer to plunder Lebanon and concentrate that wealth in Assad's hands so he can continue to fund his military and suppress the majority.


Posted by: IMFink'sPa at June 6, 2007 10:16 AM

50,000 Turkish troops invade Kurdistan to spread democracy in Kurdistan. via Debka

Posted by: redaktor at June 6, 2007 10:21 AM

Mr. Singer,

The point of the article was not how you, as a rational person with a Western view point, might view the circumstances if you were in Assad's shoes, but how, based on history, Assad, himself, views the current circumstances.

After all, if your points were true, and reflected Assad's assessment of the circumstances, he wouldn't have instigated and funded a war last summer and there would have been peace between Israel and Syria a number of years ago. After all, by your logic, why delay becoming a hero to your people?

Posted by: IMFink'sPa at June 6, 2007 10:23 AM

here's what debka (not always reliable) says:

The official Turkish news agency Cihan reports the force, backed by armored vehicles and combat aircraft, is targeting rebel strongholds in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan Wednesday, June 6.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that this is only the first wave of Turkish invaders, with more to come. A Turkish force of 90,000 troops has been massed at the sourthern town of Sirank opposite the meeting point of the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian borders, drawing a warning to Ankara from US defense secretary Robert Gates to stay out of Iraq.

June 2, DEBKAfile reported that the US had removed troops from northern Iraq and passed responsibility for the region’s security to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

Two days ago, Kurdish PKK rebels killed at least 8 soldiers, wounding 6, in a suicide attack on an E. Turkish checkpoint at Tunceli.

After the attack, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gulf defended his country’s right to drive into neighboring Iraq to destroy rebel bases.

Up to 3,500 separatists are believed based in northern Iraq poised for hit-and-run terrorist attacks in Turkey. The Turkish news agency reports three F-16 Falcon fighter bombers have carried out bombing raids on positions of the PKK Kurdistan Workers Party in northern Iraq. Artillery deployed at the border with Iraq has fired at pinpointed targets.”

DEBKAfile’s Iraq sources reported last week that Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Massoud Barzani, had sent a personal emissary, Safin Dizai, to Ankara with an urgent warning. Turkish tanks would not be allowed to cross into northern Iraq, he said. The Kurdish peshmerga would repel them. “The people of Kurdistan,“ said the messenger, “would not stand by as spectators if Turkish tanks and panzers entered Kirkuk.”

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 10:31 AM

now that the us has opened pandora's box by fucking up iraq, let's see how they can stuff the crap coming out of the woodwork, given the us' military, economic, and political circumstances.

this is what happens to a superpower which disregards knowledge and reason that overreaches out of sheer arrogance.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 10:35 AM

i meant "stuff the crap back into the box".

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 10:36 AM

Here is the AP report of Yahoo re the Turkish issue. It is far more constrained and quotes anonymous Turkish officials as admitting a "hot pursuit" for limited purposes into Iraq. Others are denying, but the anonymous official sounds credible. The US government is also denying reports of any noticeable incursion and especially any broadscale incursion.


Posted by: IMFink'sPa at June 6, 2007 10:39 AM

What is significant to note, is that US and western personnel have been leaving the area, handing over security responsibility to the Kurds.

Posted by: redaktor at June 6, 2007 10:48 AM

Brilliant ironclad scholarship in cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, and the bloody political history of one of the Middle East's most enduring thugocracies. Thanks Michael for putting this together..

Posted by: Louis-Noel Harfouche at June 6, 2007 11:08 AM

"If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change."

Remember, theres no such thing as a conservative revolution. Conservatives don't demand change. These people will be brainwashed and told "look, we did this and we did that, if it hadn't been to this type of governing and leadership, Israel would've taken Syria like it took Palestine"

Other than military action, the only way to remove Assad without terrorism and so on is as follow; rebuild Iraq, finance it militarily, sign treaties and buisiness contracts and so on, just make sure it prospers, its only 24million people, sitting on one of the largest oil resevoirs in the world. Then do the same with Lebanon (who is on the verge of discovering an oil resevoir worth 900billion dollars in the meditarrean, spread between Cypriot and Lebanese ocean). When the Syrians look and see Turkey is prospering, so is Jordan, then looking at Lebanon and Iraq, the new comers, are also becoming more modernised and wealthy - the Syrians and its regime will have no other choice. This, together with the media, is more effective than any other war.

From there, just wait. The Syrians will want to join the prosperity hub sooner or later - and when they do, a revolution will take place like that in Lebanon - then you have revolution.

This all relates back to the Cold War theory of the 'Domino Effect' - the West seems to not have learnt from this effective strategy used by the Soviet Union. They speak of using it for Democracy in the ME, but haven't done anything to encourage it yet.

Posted by: Rico at June 6, 2007 11:53 AM

yeah, right.

and if you believe that can and will be done, i have a bridge in brooklyn to sell you.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 12:12 PM

some fun among dark events:


actually, if you think of it, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 12:17 PM

a putin analysis -- makes sense to me. taheri usually does.


Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 12:35 PM

hey, rico,

i think this is the response to your suggestions:


Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 12:52 PM

corruption may affect security in kurdistan?

Might be a timely link considering the comments above related to the latest moves by the Turk Army into Kurdistan.

Posted by: allan at June 6, 2007 12:57 PM

fp -

You aren't by any chance related to a Carol Herman, are you?

Posted by: Edgar at June 6, 2007 02:40 PM

Very interesting interview!

Posted by: Yohay at June 6, 2007 03:00 PM

Great interview, Michael. But Rubin says: put in sanctions and isolation in response to Syria’s subversion there
without asking, where or when in the world have sanctions worked?

I understand Rubin's desire for something strong but less than invasion, I just don't believe sanctions serve that purpose.

Didn't sanctions not only fail in Iraq, but so totally that all of Iraq's problems were blamed on sanctions? Similarly with Cuba, for 45 years?

Personally, I don't believe in sanctions UNLESS there is a timetable for invasion.

Rico's note on rebuilding Iraq is relevant, but I don't hear about how successful Jordan is.

Michael -- why don't you travel to Jordan to see how they view the problems around them? There really is little news...

fallof, you need more context and fewer links -- I might be interested but so far I haven't clicked on any.

Giving Golan back is stupid, historically certain to fail (post WW II experience).
Here's something strong but not invasion: Israel should start bombing Sryia's gov't buildings, with a barrage or missile strike for every one they receive from Hamas. Just claim Syria is responsible, that they want only "proportionate" response, and they'd be happy to stop as soon as Syria offers a peace agreement.
I also don't like this, but like everything else worse.

On invasion of Syria, there should be strong tribalized cantons and very local gov't, with the US/ Israeli/ Iraqi (?!!) occupation doing limited national peacekeeping. And the democracy imposed should be with geographic districts (like US), not proportional representation / party lists (like EU, Israel, & Iraq).

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at June 6, 2007 05:34 PM


i don't have as many smart comments as you do.
i like succinctness when i do have something to say.

it's up to anybody whether to click on them or not, but whoever does may find better comments and arguments than those of all the high level advisors here.

sanctions would work if they were serious and tightly imposed collectively. those by the west are pathetic. they are usually a declaration to the targets: take your time, we have no intention to do anything serious.

i don't think your recommendations warrant much comment.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 06:00 PM

Fabian, I do agree that you do not have as many smart comments as Tom -your angry invective adds no value. Of the 28 total posts made so far, 17 were made by you; how are your efforts at promoting your blog working out?

Posted by: Ron Snyder at June 6, 2007 07:12 PM


since my blog is a hobby unrelated to my livelihood, its promotion does not mean much to me. it is essentially a series of links to what i believe important items that people should be aware of. it's up to them whether they read it or not; nobody's doing me a favor reading them. the notion that i post here just for that purpose is just the kind of invective you are accusing me of. and in fact, i have never initiated any invective; mine are always in response to others directed at me.

if i come across items that are apropos the subject at hand, i post the links for people's consideration and in support of my arguments or to rebutt others'.

you don't like it? tough. ignore.

Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 6, 2007 07:31 PM

Remember, theres no such thing as a conservative revolution. Conservatives don't demand change.

The revolution that deposed the Shah in Iran was a revolt against a leader who changed too much too quickly.

Can anyone come up with others? They've got to be out there...

Posted by: rosignol at June 6, 2007 07:38 PM

Tom Grey is on the right track. We cannot change the media, we cannot change public opinion much. Therefore we have to use some judo to make things work.

Posted by: Aaron at June 6, 2007 08:17 PM

fp: You write, "you don't like it? tough. ignore."

Well, I'm sorry, but you seem too empty of content to warrant your arrogance. Personally, I, too, object to your excessively numerous posts.

Back on topic...

It does seem to me that keeping Lebanon and Iraq in business is key to anything remotely resembling Peace in the Middle East, at least a Peace that includes Israel's existence and American participation in the world economy. How the Stately Ones in Foggy Bottom--much less Israeli citizens--manage to delude themselves that Syria can be played upon and bargained with is beyond me, but what do I know?

Why Mr. Rubin says "Obviously, military action by the West or United States against Syria is out of the question" is also beyond me. I gather that other commenters are speaking to this in discussing sanctions with or without a ready war plan.

I rather think the truth lies with those who advocate a "twilight" war in which public propaganda is made against Syrian depredations in Lebanon and Iraq while semi-concealed and officially unconnected military punishments are enacted against them.

Any argument that this would be dangerously destabilizing and increase our chances of handing Syria & Company a victory seems to be somewhat past its prime.

Posted by: jeiffer at June 6, 2007 08:21 PM


Great post, as always!


Stop calling others "ignorant and stupid." "Pot & Kettle," and all that....

I'm not exactly blown away by your "insights."

Posted by: Rob at June 6, 2007 08:54 PM

Yes, excelent reading indeed Totten. Yet I am now worried about those very decent Kurd military folk you visited a while back.

About the turkish skirmishes across the border to hit Kurd guerilas?

Worried too about the truck bomb up from the south that killed 50 in Kurdish government office?


Are Acmahdinejad, Muqtada al Sadr and Hizballah striving to raise mayhem levels ever higher?

I have read speculation that there could be a hit to Iran*s nested Nuke bunker before November.

Seems the tipping point under Acmahdinejad and mad mullah direction, is approaching more quickly. = TG

Posted by: TG at June 7, 2007 12:03 AM

Scary thing with the Turks on this issue--they think if the (rest of) Iraq--Iraqi Kurdistan-border goes, then "no border means anything" in the region--I'm not a big "worship sovereignty" at the expense of all else guy, but the Turks are strong and I can see their point--we need to hash out a serious concordat here ASAP.

Posted by: Rob at June 7, 2007 01:17 AM

oh, yeah. the posts here are chockful of impressive insights, based on thorough knowledge,
well reasoned, and quite practical.


Posted by: fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ at June 7, 2007 06:50 PM

Great article, Michael.

One question: You wrote " It is a minority dictatorship of a small non-Muslim minority"

Isn't the Assad clan Alawi? Aren't the Alawi a branch of Shia islam?

Posted by: Og Oggilby at June 7, 2007 08:50 PM

After reading this interview, today I see headlines in Israeli English-language papers that an anonymous US diplomat tells Israel it can pry Syria away from Iran, Bibi says Hafez Assad promised him Mt. Hermon, Olmert supports direct talks with Syria, what can we get for the Golan, blah de blah blah. Damn, the world is discouraging lately. Is it even possible to come up with more incompetent and dangerous political leaders, world-wide?

Posted by: Pam at June 7, 2007 10:28 PM

Concur with addressing the Turk's concerns. I've read that they may only be attacking the very mountainous region adjacent to Turky/Iraq where (presumably) the PKK is hiding. In a recent artilce (may have been one of MJT's), the Kurds said that this was the region they hid from SH in.

I would not think the Kurds (not PKK of course) would object to Turkey, under previously agreed and controlled conditions, clearing out the radical PKK group.

Posted by: Ron Snyder at June 8, 2007 02:44 AM

Mike, what happened to your trip to Baghdad? Are you going to make an announcement about it, or something?

Posted by: glasnost at June 8, 2007 07:03 AM


I'm waiting for my visa. New requirement.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 8, 2007 08:37 AM

I think it behooves the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan to do whatever they can to make sure that the PKK not operate from their territory. As much as I may sympathize with the Kurdish plight, even in Turkey, I also believe the Turks have a right to insist that the PKK not use bases from IK from which to launch attacks into Turkey.

As I see it, the Arabs of Iraq — both Sunni and Shiite — are probably not going to be able to pull off what the Kurds have in IK. That means IK is now, and hopefully will be in the future, the main success we can point to in Iraq. But all of that will go to shit if the Kurds in IK harbor PKK terrorists and forces Turkey to become embroiled in military operations into IK.

Posted by: Zak at June 8, 2007 10:22 AM

Isn't the Assad clan Alawi? Aren't the Alawi a branch of Shia islam

From what I understand, the Alawites are primarily considered heretics, although I remember reading that the late Hafez al-Assad had some Shiite cleric declare that they were a form of Shiites. This was done in order to give them Islamic credentials.

Some have argued that the Syrian regimes radicalism is a result of their insecurity about their dubious Islamic credentials. By being (one of) the most anti-Israel and anti-Western, they are saying to the Arab world: See, we are at the vanguard of Arab nationalism.

Posted by: Zak at June 8, 2007 10:26 AM

I would not think the Kurds (not PKK of course) would object to Turkey, under previously agreed and controlled conditions, clearing out the radical PKK group

For Turkey, any and all armed Kurds, anywhere, are PKK.

Posted by: JJ at June 8, 2007 10:28 AM

Regarding Israel turning over the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace, I think it would foolhardy.

1. I don't think Syria is actually interested in getting the Golan back for reasons discussed before (i.e. the regime would lose its legitimacy as being the vanguard of Arab rejectionism). Negotiations for the Syrians are merely a means to relieve international pressure. They have no intention of actually completing a treaty.

2. I don't think the current regime can be trusted to control such an important piece of strategic real estate in any event.

3. The Syrian regime is inherently unstable and can't maintain its grip on power indefinitely. It is currently in tight control in the a similar manner that Saddam tightly controlled Iraq. However, should that control become undone, the result is anarchy and radicalism. Who is to say, then, that if Assad's regime falls the next people in power will honor a peace agreement with Israel?

4. Israel conquered the territory fair in square in a war of defense. The Golan was used from 1948 to 1967 as a platform to bombard the Galilee and threaten Israel's access to its main water sources. In fact, Syria tried to divert rivers that feed lake Kinneret, which would have starved Israel. I don't see any moral reason why the Golan should be given to Syria. If somebody threatens you with a gun and takes potshots at you, it is your right to wrest that weapon from said person to ensure they won't do it again.

5. I think Israel's control of the Golan helps prevent a direct war with Syria because from Mt. Hermon the outskirts of Damascus are in range of Israeli artillery. In other words, whoever holds the Golan has the other side by the balls. True, Syria uses Hizbullah in Lebanon to fight Israel by proxy, but a fight with Hizbollah is less of a threat then a fight with Syria. Hizbollah has katyusha's and some other longer ranged rockets. The Syrians have SCUD's that can land anywhere in Israel.

6. The Golan has a great winery, some excellent hiking trails and swimming spots!

Posted by: Zak at June 8, 2007 10:43 AM

Hello Michael. Apologies for the minor thread diversion, but I wanted to point out a couple of posts at other blogs relating to Kurds. Everyone else: This will be an off topic post, so ignore me if you want to stay on track about Syria.

Anyway, Wretchard at Belmont Club:


...and your friend Nouri:


... published a couple of posts regarding the Kurds, US involvement with them in Iraq, and an overarching theme of "... stirring up ethnic grievances to advance foreign policy ends". I thought you might be interested, especially as Nouri respectfully disagrees with your stance on the Kurds.

No, I'm not trying to stir up a fight between you two, honest; like I said, I view his disagreement as respectful. I just figured that you might find it of interest, even though it's not the topic of any of your recent posts.

Thank you. That's all. We return you to our normally scheduled programming.

Posted by: ElMondoHummus at June 8, 2007 12:09 PM

An interesting interview. Why does Rubin always sound smarter when he's not writing in the Jerusalem Post? Not without it's weak points, of course.

(3) The point of the article was that Syria isn't really all that interested in a free and open economy with Israel because it would undermine the ruling elite's control of the populace. I tend to agree. Syria would prefer to plunder Lebanon and concentrate that wealth in Assad's hands so he can continue to fund his military and suppress the majority.

This sort of makes my point for me - to agree with this and then argue against engagement doesn't make much sense. Sanctions and further international isolation helps the regime control its economy in the manner quoted above.
That's doesn't mean I'm airtightly against all sticks at all times, but it's something to remember.

Similarly, Barry makes the point that giving the Golan back would essentially rob Syria of its pretext and end its ability to distract its own population - so how is this an argument against giving back the Golan?

Using Gaza as a counter-example for this makes no sense, either. Before Gaza - i.e. 2000-2005 the Palestinians were united against Israel, Hamas was popular, and they all showed no signs of getting tired of radical opposition. Now that Israel is gone from Gaza, they're fighting amongst themselves, the Palestinian public is increasingly sick of Hamas, and Hamas has, although some people here like to pretend otherwise, been less aggressive than at any point since its creation, with the exception of 1999.

Rubin understands that the Syrian regime feeds and depends on being punished by the Big Bad West, and selling that message to its population, but fails to conclude that the solution is to stop playing the game.

Of course, they have other ways to propagate themselves, such as playing fire and fireman in Lebanon, which is why I'm not opposed to spanking them. But there has to be a goal that you're trying to drive the regime towards - cooperation, whatever the field, which is exactly what the engagers and the 'flip' proponents are trying to do. Without that goal, you're just bi*ch-slapping the regime, solely because it deserves it, which would be great except for the fact that it's counter-productive and helps them hang on at low and medium levels of bi*ch-slapping.

Posted by: glasnost at June 8, 2007 01:06 PM

On the plus side, Rubin has convinced me that Syria is at least passively cooperating with or amiably thumbs-upping Fateh-Al-Islam.

People who thought the Lebanese government might have been involved, though, weren't neccesarily crazy people and fools. The Saudis are heavily involved with the Lebanese government, and it's a Saudi type of plan. It's also, of course, Syria's type of plan.

There was material, published on this site I believe, quoting PM Siniora, during the crisis with Hizballah, threatening Hizballah along the lines of "if you don't back down, we're going to release hardcore Sunni militants on you". At the time, that quote was cited approvingly. Except for the fact that they're not going after hizballah, the situation here is exactly what that would have looked like.

So there was a lot of bait to lead honest analysts down this road, even if it turns out not to have been true - and it does look like it's not true.

I'm glad.

Posted by: glasnost at June 8, 2007 01:15 PM


I fail to see how my prior comments, taken in their entirety, support the principle of engagement with Syria. Please feel free to explain that point in more detail, as I appreciate your perspective, but I will respond first.

As you noted, you selected only one comment and it was not really directed at the concept of engagment, but at what I assessed as Syria's openness to true engagement. If you agree with my point that Syria is not seriously interested in the Golan, then Israel has nothing to offer Syria, even if Syria were prepared to talk in good faith (in fact, that is the premise of the argument against engagement, ie. Syria is not prepared to negotiate in good faith). Syria wants to be paid to take back the Golan and, specifically, they want to be paid with the spoils of Lebanon. That is unacceptable (leaving aside the wisdom of handing over the Heights from a security point of view).

I fail to see how Syria's desire to remain repressive is a starting point for engagement. Engagement with Syria is only sensible when Syria is prepared to accept the legitimate benefits of engagement (an open economy) and denounce the illegitimate benefits of its current course of conduct (a spot at the head of the table of anti-Zionists and the spoils of Lebanon).

Assad does not appear willing to do so without assurances that his repressive regime will be able to remain in power which requires either control of Lebanon or a justification for military belligerence (the Golan in Israeli hands). You and I might argue that their is a third alternative, namely peaceful and economically beneficial coexistence with Israel, coupled with slow democratization supported by foreign aid to mitigate militancy amongst his religious opposition, but that appears to be a risk that Assad is unwilling to take.

Thank you for your input. I will certainly give it more thought, but I am still far from convinced that engagement with Syria has any potential benefits and comes with an unacceptably high risk of emboldening Assad.

Even if giving back the Golan would have the benefits proposed, such an act cannot be done unilaterally and without security guarantees and Assad has little motivation to take it back and provide such guarantees.

Additionally, it does take my position out of context to reply to my response without putting into the context of Mr. Springers prior statements to which it was referring, which statements, I think you would agree, were somewhat naive. My point really was twofold: first, ceding of the Golan was unlikely to have the impact in Syria that Mr. Springer posited and, second, that it is irrelevent whether ceding the Golan would result in any economic benefit to Syria, because Assad does not want that benefit at the potential cost of his domestic control. In other words, Assad is not really interested in good faith dealings, but only to continue to juggle the international community while he continues his machinations in Lebanon and Iraq in the hope that he can keep his enemy and maintain the financial resources to keep him in power (and, quite possibly, alive).

Posted by: IMFink'sPa at June 8, 2007 01:50 PM

IMI, I wasn't really making a case for engagement with Syria. I don't really know how I feel about that. At best, I'd say there are good arguments in favor of a variety of different possible actions.

All I was saying was as follows - to use another quote from you:

I fail to see how Syria's desire to remain repressive is a starting point for engagement.

The answer would be, at least hypothetically, that engagement hinders Syria's ability to remain repressive. Whether you agree with that is another story, but it's along the same idea as:

The point of the article was that Syria isn't really all that interested in a free and open economy with Israel

- which is all the more reason to try and make it happen. You're used to seeing engagement as appeasement, but in this hypothetical paradigm, it's more of a weapon. And it's not even that the other guy is too stupid to know it's a weapon. It's just that they have no choice but to want it anyway because the pressures of stagnation are too intense to bear.

Of course, the problem with this logic is that it's possible to make the argument, starting with, for example, China, that engagement isn't having the subversive and crippling effect on repression that it was designed to have. That's also not something I'm stating as fact, just as possibility.

Posted by: glasnost at June 8, 2007 10:05 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn