“Syria is a country that can be a spoiler….Therefore, my advice is to keep trying to convince it that a destructive role isn’t necessarily in its own interest,” said German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last month. If only all those Western leaders could make Syrian president Bashar Assad understand that they comprehend his own interests better than he does himself.
When they fail to do so, some get upset. “I have reached the end of the road with Assad. Words alone won’t suffice, I want actions,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as telling reporters in December after going out on a limb to persuade Syria to permit the Lebanese parliament to appoint a new president who is not Damascus’s puppet, only to be humiliated. But is Assad likely to be worried?
After all, only last September, Sarkozy’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, also lost patience with Assad and canceUnled a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. The reason? A pro-independence Lebanese parliamentarian, Antoine Ghanem, had just been assassinated, almost certainly by Syrian agents. So too have several other such figures since Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution pressured Syria into withdrawing its occupation troops. Yet, by November, France was offering Syria normalized relations in exchange for facilitating the election of a Lebanese president.
Apparently, all those pesky assassinations had been forgiven. Indeed, the assassination of former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri, which triggered the Cedar Revolution in the first place, has led to UN probes, Syrian obstruction and — no consequences. To the contrary, delegations of U.S. legislators have bowed and scraped in Damascus while Syria dispatches jihadists to murder and maim in Iraq, sponsors the Kurdish PKK, al-Saiqa, Asbat-al-Ansar, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and of course Hizballah in Lebanon.
But it would be wrong to say that Syria pays no price when its role in terrorism is exposed. When in 1986, Nasser Hindawi sought to blow up an El Al airliner at London’s Heathrow airport using a bomb later discovered to have been supplied by the Syrian embassy, London responded by withdrawing its ambassador in Damascus — and offering to return him after a few weeks.
It would also be wrong to say that Syria does nothing when pressured to cut off support to terror groups. In September 1990, then-Secretary of State James Baker met the late Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad, giving him a detailed account of Syrian terror sponsorship. Syria responded — by tracing and killing the three Jordanian agents who had supplied the information.
At that time, the U.S. was wooing Syria to send troops to help eject Saddam from Kuwait. Here, too, Syria responded — sending tens of thousands of troops for a prolonged sojourn in their tents in the Saudi desert, while in Lebanon other Syrian troops quietly eliminated the last Christian militias opposing it and slaughtered hundreds who surrendered with bullets to the head. The only consequence Damascus had to think through was on which military hardware to spend the billions with which Saudi Arabia munificently rewarded it.
Syria perennially disappoints, yet continues to be courted. How else can it be that Colin Powell boasted in 2002 of compelling Syria to close down terrorist offices in Damascus which remain open for business years later?
SYRIA’S IS A TEFLON regime. Why is not fully clear, but the best explanation yet offered can be found in Barry Rubin’s The Truth About Syria (Palgrave, 2007), which seeks the clue to the regime’s ambitions and successes in its peculiar origins (dominated by Alawis, a heterodox Muslim sect) and appeal (seeking legitimacy simultaneously in Arab nationalist and Islamist championship).
Rubin demonstrates that where Westerners see a golden opportunity to decouple Syria from Iran by forcing Israel to return territory Syria lost in attacking it in 1967, the regime sees only isolation from its firm Shia ally. Where Westerners perceive Syrian self-interest to reinvigorate the country through integration with the global economy, the regime sees only the loss of its never assured grip on power. Where Westerners talk up the benefits to Syria of co-operation that only regional peace can bring, the regime sees only the disappearance of the causes that animate it and which remain its warrant to rule.
The regime has always known how to exploit these Western delusions — of which Steinmeier’s is but the most recent expression — that result in its intransigence being rationalized, extremism ignored, and sponsorship of terror extenuated. For 14 years, Syria has intermittently engaged in peace talks with Israel, insisting on deal-breaking preconditions while conceding nothing, serving admirably the dual purpose of appeasing Western imperatives while placating Middle Eastern pieties.
Why would Damascus change policy when things have worked so well?