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Syrian and Lebanese Realities/The Perils of "Peace Processing"

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Update from AIJAC


June 8, 2007

Number 06/07 #04

This Update leads with articles analysing the issue of Syria's relationship with Lebanon, and especially the Fatah-al-Islam group sparking violence, as well as wider Syrian foreign policy.

First up, Lebanese journalist and commentator Michael Young writes that he is amazed at the backflips being made by some commentators and journalists to argue that Syria could not possibly really be associated with Fatah-al-Islam. He says they appear to be so emotionally committed to the idea that talks with Syria are a way forward for the Middle East that they are unwilling to look at the actual facts when they appear to contradict this idea. For Young's analysis of why so many seem unwilling to accept the reality of Syria's role, CLICK HERE.

Next is a long interview with Israeli Middle East scholar Barry Rubin, who has just completed a book on Syria, conducted by Middle East journalistic freelancer and blogger Michael Totten. Rubin details the evidence of Syrian dominance of Fatah-al-Islam, but does much more than this, discussing in detail the overall worldview and internal politics driving Syrian foreign policy, not only in Lebanon, but in Iraq, and also with respect to Israel. For this must-read insight into Syria and its regional role, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former CIA Middle East analyst turned thinktanker Reuel Marc Gerecht offers a highly pertinent and important discussion of the problems created by too much dedication to a "peace process" model, using both the Palestinians and Iran as his examples. In the first case, he says this model causes people both to ignore where Palestinian society is currently going and how this fits into wider Middle East trends, creating a tendency to overestimate the regional effects of the Arab-Israel conflict. In the second, he identifies a tendency to view Iran's interests in Iraq incorrectly, and ignore the extent to which Iran can use negotiations as cover to build nuclear weapons. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.


Syria's Useful Idiots

Why are so many commentators denying the obvious about Lebanon?

BY MICHAEL YOUNG

Wall Street Journal, Sunday, June 3, 2007
BEIRUT, Lebanon--On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council voted to set up a tribunal that will try suspects in the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria is the leading suspect in the case, so the establishment of the tribunal serves as a step toward creating a stable Lebanon. It also poses a clarifying question to the United States: What will engaging Syria mean for building a liberal future for Lebanon?

At the moment, it is clear that Syria hasn't stopped meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs. The Security Council only created its tribunal after efforts to establish a similar tribunal within Lebanon were stymied by Syrian allies. Indeed, to understand what is at stake in the Lebanese crisis today, flip through the report released last April by the U.N. commission investigating the Hariri assassination.

The commission, led by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, now assumes that Hariri's assassination was tied to his political activities, particularly his preparations for the summer 2005 legislative elections. This sets up a key passage in the report: "A working hypothesis is that the initial decision to kill Hariri was taken before the later attempts at rapprochement got underway and most likely before early January 2005. This leads to a possible situation in the last weeks before his murder in which two tracks, not necessarily linked, were running in parallel. On one track, Hariri was engaged in rapprochement initiatives and on the other, preparations for his assassination were underway."

For anyone who followed Lebanese politics at the time, this deceptively anodyne passage says a lot. Hariri was hoping to score a victory against Syria and its Lebanese allies during the elections, after Syria had extended the mandate of his bitter rival, President Emile Lahoud. The Syrians felt that such a victory would jeopardize their position in Lebanon and, although there was mediation to patch up Hariri's differences with the Syrians, the plot to eliminate him continued. It is plain from Mr. Brammertz's phrasing that those who were planning the former prime minister's elimination are the same ones with whom the intermediaries were trying to reconcile him.

Mr. Brammertz is building a case that, from the information provided to date, can only point the finger at Syria and its Lebanese supplicants. The Hariri tribunal, now that it has been formally established, poses an existential threat to the Syrian regime, and it is in Lebanon that the Syrians have and will continue to hit back to save themselves.

The outbreak of violence in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is the latest stage in such an endeavor. In a BBC interview last week, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora openly linked Fatah al-Islam to Syrian intelligence. The group has claimed to be an al Qaeda affiliate, but observers in Lebanon, including Palestinian sources usually critical of the Siniora government, qualify this, saying that Fatah al-Islam is acting on Syria's behalf. The daily Al-Hayat has reported that the group's weapons come from caches belonging to Palestinian organizations under Syrian control, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah al-Intifada, from which Fatah al-Islam allegedly broke off.

Meanwhile, a more subtle battle is taking place over interpretation of what is happening in Lebanon. This is especially important because there are those in Washington who still insist that something can be gained from dealing with Syria. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought so in April when she visited Damascus, did the Gertrude Bell tour of the Hamadiyyeh souq, and capped it all with a visit to President Bashar Assad, all for precisely nothing in return.

The Iraq Study Group also thought Syria could be a useful partner in Iraq, even as all the signs suggest that Damascus has little real influence there and is sowing dissension to compensate. That's why understanding what is going on in Lebanon is vital for a sense of what can be gained from Syria elsewhere. Yet something is amiss when the most obvious truths are those the pundits won't consider.

For example, what did the former CIA agent Robert Baer mean in Time magazine, when he wrote that the Lebanese government should "know better" than to believe that Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian creation, because "at the end of the day Fatah Islam is the Syrian regime's mortal enemy"? Mr. Baer's point was that a Lebanese civil war might undermine Syrian stability, but also that Sunni Islamists oppose the minority Alawite Syrian regime. He reminded us that "the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood used northern Lebanon as a rear base to seize the Syrian city of Hama in 1982."

It is Mr. Baer who should know better. Syria has fueled a sectarian war in neighboring Iraq by funneling Sunni al Qaeda fighters into the country, without worrying about what this might mean for its own stability. Syria's vulnerabilities have not prevented it from hosting Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Syria's anxieties notwithstanding, throughout its years in Lebanon it developed ties with many Sunni Islamist groups and recently welcomed to Damascus a prominent Lebanese Islamist it has co-opted, Fathi Yakan.

The point is that Syria will have no qualms about provoking sectarian discord in Lebanon to ward away the menace of the Hariri tribunal.

And what are we to make of the journalist Seymour Hersh, now considered an authority on Lebanese Sunni Islamist groups on the basis of a flawed article he wrote for the New Yorker last March? In that article, and in a recent CNN interview, he indirectly suggested that Fatah al-Islam had received weapons not from Syria but from the Siniora government.

The only source Mr. Hersh cited in his article for the Fatah al-Islam story was Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent who co-directs Conflicts Forum, an institution advocating dialogue with Islamist movements. Mr. Crooke did not have direct knowledge of what he was claiming, as he "was told" that weapons and money were offered to the group, "presumably to take on Hezbollah."

Mr. Hersh is wading into very muddy waters with very simple ideas. The relationship of the Lebanese government and the Hariri camp with Sunni Islamists is byzantine, but there is no evidence to date that the government or the Hariris had any strategy to use al Qaeda against Hezbollah. In fact most Lebanese Sunni Islamists are not linked to al Qaeda. And Mr. Hersh has provided no proof that Fatah al-Islam received government assistance. Still, the Syrian regime's media has repeatedly used Mr. Hersh's charges to discredit the Lebanese government.

Then there are those with little patience for Lebanese independence. Arguing that Syria is worth more to the U.S. than Lebanon, they advocate Washington's ceding Lebanon to Syria as a price for constructive dialogue. For example, Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staffer now at the New America Foundation, recently told National Public Radio, where he appears regularly, that the Bush administration had "romanticized" the 2005 "Cedar Revolution." This was his way of implying that the latter was worth discarding. For Mr. Leverett and others, a Lebanon free of Syria is inherently unstable, even as they disregard Syrian responsibility for that instability.

In a March 2005 op-ed in the New York Times, as Lebanese took to the streets demanding a Syrian pullout, Mr. Leverett urged the U.S. to abandon efforts to establish a "pro-Western government" in Beirut. Instead, he proposed that "the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower [President] Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him."

This makes for restorative reading today, as Mr. Assad's regime pursues its destabilization of Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian areas, ignores domestic reform and continues to detain thousands of political opponents in its prisons.

There is nothing wrong with keeping an open mind on Syria. However, an "open mind" can be shorthand for blindness or bad faith. Given the evidence, it makes no sense to dismiss Syrian involvement in the Lebanese crisis, or to blame the crisis on an al Qaeda affiliate allegedly financed by the Lebanese government. Nor does it make sense to assume that Lebanon is a burden that the U.S. should jettison in favor of a stabilizing Syria, considering the fact that al Qaeda materialized from across the Syrian border. We're asked to believe that a group, said to be financed by the Siniora government, picked a fight with that very government, and somehow innocently did so just as the U.N. prepared to establish a tribunal the Syrians fear.

When Syria is systematically exporting instability throughout the region, you have to wonder whether its regime can be a credible partner to the U.S.

Mr. Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.


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The Truth About Syria

By Michael J. Totten

June 06, 2007

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.

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

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.

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Dangerous Illusions

Peace-processing our way to disaster.

by Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Weekly Standard, 06/11/2007, Volume 012, Issue 37

American foreign policy in the Middle East can produce severe cognitive dissonance. Take Palestine and Iran. The White House's evolving policies toward the Palestinians and the clerical regime in Tehran show how easy it is for history to take a back seat to process, for reality to give way to illusions, and for hope in diplomacy to obscure the need to make serious decisions. The difficulties in Iraq can be blamed for much of this: The administration has been reeling since 2005, first crippled by the hapless strategy and tactics of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, and now plagued by self-doubt about the war itself and the possibility of maintaining political support at home. Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission, made the case for the Iraq war simply and eloquently in the Wall Street Journal. Yet the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group, increasingly reveals that he cannot argue for wars--the one in Iraq and the broader one against jihadism--that he does not appear to understand or believe in.

The administration is tired. Arguments for the war on terror and Iraq that once came easily (if seldom eloquently) are rarely heard now. So we are left to parse the administration's actions for thematic content. It's not a happy task. We'll take the depressing first, leaving Iran, which is with the possible exception of Sunni jihadism the greatest menace confronting the United States, for last.

The West Bank and Gaza are increasingly convulsed by civil strife--in Iraq such violence is sometimes called "civil war"--yet many people, in government and out, think that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is still possible, provided Washington has the will to force Jerusalem to make concessions. Yet the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas has grown powerful electorally and militarily by advancing an uncompromising hostility to the existence of Israel. Fatah, the backbone of the now-defunct Palestine Liberation Organization and the political base on which the Bush administration and the Europeans want to build a Palestinian state living in peace with its Jewish neighbor, has grown noticeably more anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. Competition with Hamas, more popular and more religious, now defines Fatah's themes. Not just on the West Bank and in Gaza, but throughout the Sunni Muslim world, fundamentalism has eclipsed virtually every other rallying cry. Born in anger at the unstoppable bulldozer of the West's seductive and deracinating modernity, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of receding in Sunni lands, let alone in Palestine, where the faithful live right next to rich, technically accomplished, and militarily powerful Westerners.

Peace-processing has become an institution in Washington. Among many Democrats and Republicans, it's a reflex. Normally historically sensitive people will quickly affirm the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio to the spread of religious radicalism in the Islamic world and its now nervous offshoot, Europe. Yet the dynamic unfolding in Palestine--Islamic fundamentalism gobbling up the decaying corpse of secular dictatorship--is what we've seen almost everywhere in the Arab world. In Algeria, Syria, and Iraq, the process has been even more violent than in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel is basically irrelevant to this ongoing collision of modernity and Islam. Still, it is entirely likely that a majority of Palestinians, perhaps a decisive majority, do not want to live peacefully next to a "Western, Jewish-colonial settler state." There is a reason Fatah has moved closer to Hamas ideologically. Religious Muslims, let alone fundamentalists, loathe the idea of a Western, Jewish state in what they see as the Muslim Middle East. As fundamentalism has gained strength in the region, the U.S.-backed dictators and their clientele--the Middle East's peace-processing establishment--have become an ever smaller minority among a more politically faithful majority who are deeply offended by the idea of Israel. What the Bush administration is now halfheartedly and wearily trying to do is restore the ancien régime after 1789.

Fortunately, with the Palestinians, the administration's search for a new policy can't be too detrimental to the United States. The Palestinians have enthusiastically rejoined the mad rush of modern Islamic history. They are no longer a separate, special people. The Palestinians are in the early stages of their "civil war," and it's impossible to know where it will finish--though one could make a decent guess that in these early rounds, Hamas will win and the illusion of a Palestinian partner for peace will end, even for the most committed Americans and Europeans.

What America can actually do in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is now irrelevant. What is sad, however, and worrisome, is the extent to which the administration's actions reveal its philosophical crack-up. Where once the administration tried to understand the spread of Islamic radicalism (the president's vivid allusions to American support of autocracy in the Middle East were path-breaking), the administration is now defaulting to language and priorities typical of the decades that the president once criticized. The State Department, a profoundly conservative and cautious institution that, like all foreign ministries, exists to fortify government-to-government relations, has always been waiting to bring back the familiar, comparatively manageable world of Israeli-Fatah negotiations.

The White House, under fewer illusions, may simply want to maintain the appearance of peace-processing for the benefit of transatlantic ties. There is an argument for this, given the essential European role in imposing serious sanctions against an Iran that is pursuing nuclear weaponry. Just a little sop to keep the Palestinian-focused BBC and Bundestag happy. And the Europeans don't require much since the undeniable popular power of Hamas, its hard-to-conceal ugly ethics, and its blatant revulsion for Israel have severely tarnished the once romantic Palestinian cause.

But no more than a sop is justified. The sooner Washington gets beyond the peace process, the sooner both Democrats and Republicans can think more seriously about how to deal with rising Islamic radicalism in the Middle East and the threat it poses to the West. Returning to the pre-9/11 preference for stable Muslim autocracies and the peace process is a dangerous cul-de-sac.

The mess in Iraq has also allowed the idea of possibly productive negotiations with Iran's mullahs to take hold in Washington. However, only staunch doves and "realists" who are blind to the reality of power politics in the region can look optimistically upon the negotiations between the United States and Iran. We have a clerical regime that has aided and abetted virulently anti-American, radical Iraqi groups, exported to Iraq sophisticated automatic explosive devices designed to kill American and British soldiers, pushed forward defiantly its construction of uranium-enriching centrifuges, and kidnapped at least five American citizens in Iran, four of them Iranian-American dual-nationals. Utterly bogus espionage charges have been hurled at three, including Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. Like her boss, former congressman Lee Hamilton, a chairman of the Iraq Study Group, Ms. Esfandiari has been an advocate of reconciliation between the United States and her homeland.

Note: The espionage charges were thrown at these Americans, who had absolutely nothing to do with U.S. intelligence and would have recoiled from any advocacy of "regime change," a day after the May 28 meeting between the Americans and Iranians in Baghdad. This isn't rocket science. We have a meeting, and the regime in Tehran wants to make crystal clear its contempt for any suggestion that the mullahs might want to build a bridge or two. The clerical regime hasn't been killing American and British soldiers in Iraq because they think it's counterproductive. They haven't been aiding radical Shiite groups because it's counterproductive. It looks increasingly likely that Iran has also aided Sunni insurgents--which the mullahs apparently don't think is counterproductive. The truth about Iran's revolutionary elite is that they have little regard for the Iraqi Shia, whom they blame for failing to rise against Saddam Hussein during the 1980-'88 Iran-Iraq war. Compromising the Iraqi Shia for the greater goal of hurting the United States and radicalizing the Iraqi Shiite community is undoubtedly seen in Tehran as a price worth paying.

An assumption of the Iraq Study Group was that the clerical regime wants stability next door in Iraq. Hence it might be willing to work with Americans. Yet Iran has benefited enormously from Iraqi instability. Traditional, moderate clerics like Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have been willing to work with Americans, have been battered and bruised by the violence. The radical Moktada al-Sadr, a little-known and little-admired scion of a famous clerical family, skyrocketed to prominence because of the strife and thanks to critical Iranian aid to him. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its more radical military wing, the Badr Organization, has also benefited enormously from the violence. SCIRI is a key Iraqi player that has received substantial assistance from Tehran. What is particularly regrettable about SCIRI is that the bloodletting has made life more difficult for moderates within the organization. And the violence has made it harder for SCIRI to pull away from Iranian patronage.

Does Iran want to stop this process? Iraq's Arab Sunni community--detested by the Iranians--has been routed from much of Baghdad, badly bloodied, and put to flight by the hundreds of thousands. This is a bad thing in the eyes of Tehran? Where does Iran have the most influence in Iraq? In Basra, where Shiite-versus-Shiite violence is at its worst. This is not a coincidence. Tehran has benefited massively from Iraqi Shiite division and internecine strife. What the United States should expect from Iran is that it will continue to ship its deadly explosives to Iraq and, through violence, feed the radicalization of the Shiite community. Success through Hezbollah in civil-war-torn Lebanon is the model to remember. Until now, it's been Iran's only successful foray abroad. "Stability" in Iraq means only one thing to Tehran: an American success.

It should be clear that the clerical regime now believes it can move rapidly forward with its nuclear program without much fear of American preventive military strikes. The once palpable fear of George W. Bush seems to have dissipated as America has floundered in Mesopotamia. Everyone can see that Washington, not Tehran, was more desirous of the recent meeting (NSC spokesmen clearly signaled that we wanted this meeting because U.S. troops were dying in Iraq). Even the most inept power politician in Tehran saw that America was weak and on the run. What once provoked anxiety (American troops in Iraq) now whets the appetite. The failure of the United States to respond more forcefully to Iranian arms shipments to Iraq has reinforced the message. Ditto the low-volume response to the kidnapping of American citizens in Iran.

The only good news here is that it will be difficult for the clerical regime to continue talks with the United States even though doing so is manifestly in its interest. When Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently said, "Those who imagine that the Islamic Republic of Iran will change its established, logical and defendable policy of forswearing negotiations and relations with the United States are seriously in error," he was being understated. It wouldn't be the first time that clerical Iran had refrained from doing what was in its best interests. But it probably wouldn't take much to tie America up in negotiations--or the hope of negotiations--with Iran over Iraq. And the more America is wedded to talks, the smaller the possibility that it will effectively counter Iran's nuclear-weapons program--the ultimate objective guiding the mullahs' foreign policy. What Tehran would surely like to do is convert its discussions with the European Union over its nuclear program from negotiations about stopping the enrichment of uranium to negotiations about managing an actual nuclear-weapons capacity. Iranians know the North Korean model well. It's a good one. Keep America talking on Iraq, and press ahead for the nuclear prize.

Does President Bush understand all this? Probably. Does his administration? The wish to disbelieve the obvious remains great, particularly as Iraq becomes more violent, which will happen this summer even if the surge is working. And although some might still want to put faith in the CIA's estimate that Iran will make a nuclear bomb in 10 years, it's a better bet that Iranians are significantly increasing centrifuge production because they have figured out how to make it work. Most likely, the time for diplomacy and sanctions is shrinking fast. Since the alternatives aren't easy--blockading Iranian oil exports through the Gulf or preventive military strikes--the Bush administration will be tempted to believe in the illusion of negotiations. We can raise the white flag, and call it victory.

--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors

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