Syriantoxication: An Infantile Malady
Astrange malady has apparently descended on part of Israel's, much of America's, and most of Europe's elite. Let's call it Syriantoxication, the belief that there is a real chance to make peace with Syria and--in its extreme version--that Lebanon should be sacrificed for that goal.
To call this wishful thinking is understatement. Why is this happening in Israel?
Few Israelis believe that negotiations with Palestinians will lead anywhere. Those on the right don't want to do it, those in the center believe it can be done without harm and for limited benefit, those on the left pursue wishful thinking or at least see talks as a matter of duty.
There is, however, a group on the moderate left which thinks it must offer an alternative peace process. If the Palestinians will not do anything, they suggest, it's better to put the priority on Syria.
Much of this comes from Labor Party circles and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In part, Barak seems concerned that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's concessions to the Palestinians could undermine security interests; in part, he wants to undermine Olmert in order to replace him.
Talk-with-Syria enthusiasts argue that country is a greater potential security threat to Israel than Palestinian terrorist attacks. Also, Syria sponsors Hizballah and can influence whether or not Israel is attacked from Lebanon. And if Syria could be won away from its alliance with Iran that step would be a strategic victory in weakening the region's radical forces.
There are, however, terrible dangers with this approach by those who should be supporting Lebanon's independence. First, there's no real evidence to believe in it. People blather on about Syria wanting peace or being ready to distance itself from Tehran without the slightest evidence or impressive logical argument.
About the only point made is that it is "objectively" in Syria's interest to work with the United States, reform its economy, abandon the Arab-Israeli conflict, and such things. The problem is that Syria's regime doesn't see things that way, as is shown by its defining self-interest, the requirements of regime survival, and what Syrian leaders and their flunkies actually say in Arabic.
Claims made often verge on the pitiful. For example, dozens of observers insisted that Syria's presence at the Annapolis summit showed that it was splitting away from Iran, which opposed the meeting. They forget that Syria participated in a nine-year-long peace process that Iran opposed--including direct negotiations with Israel--without damaging in the slightest the Iran-Syria axis.
Second, this kind of talk destroys years of effort to isolate and pressure Syria. The tough strategy is not some silly stubborn refusal to chat with Damascus but designed to deter the regime from adventurism, shore up Arab states' opposition to it, and encourage Lebanese forces battling against again becoming a puppet of the dictator next door.
It's also appropriate to remember that Syria is the main sponsor of Iraqi terrorists killing civilians and U.S. troops there; the principal backer of Hamas and Islamic Jihad which kill Israelis and try to destroy any possibility of Palestinian moderation; and murdering Lebanese politicians in a concerted campaign to seize control of that country.
These actions are not against the interests of the Syrian regime--they are in full accord with them. An emboldened Damascus is going to be even more aggressive. Falling into the trap of stopping pressure, flattering the regime, and offering it concessions has precisely that effect.
While these aspects of Syriantoxication are wrong and dangerous, there's a further symptom that is shameful. Some now talk of sacrificing. It is immoral to turn over the Lebanese majority, which is bravely resisting Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah domination to a corrupt, oppressive regime. It's also stupid. Talk about selling out Lebanon demoralizes the current government's supporters who are right now trying to resist a Syrian-imposed puppet president who will quickly bring a Damascus-dominated new government.
Here's how a Lebanese supporter of the current government put it: "The message the Americans are sending to the region is that what succeeds is terror, bombings and a total disregard for democracy,"
Can any sane person really believe that a Hizballah-dominated Lebanon is going to be more peaceful toward Israel? Will Syria be satisfied with swallowing just one neighbor, so that being bought off with Beirut becomes its "last territorial claim" in the Middle East (a quote appropriately borrowed from the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in 1938)?
Obviously, turning Lebanon into a full-scale Syrian satellite would only be the prelude to strengthening Hamas and, once that gain is consolidated, heading south again. The border's relative quiet at some points in the past is not a precedent. Hizballah was much weaker then and did not control Lebanon; Syria's ally, Iran, was relatively weaker than it is today; and cautious Hafiz al-Asad was president of Syria then, not the risk-loving Bashar al-Asad.
Consider the accurate assessment of a Lebanese moderate: "Only a moderate Lebanese government, reinforced with Western help, that frustrates Syrian and Hizballah ambitions can keep the area from becoming even more unstable or violent. If Syria, Iran, and Hizballah take over Lebanon, watch out!"
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://gloria.idc.ac.il and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).