First of all, I want to preface this by apologizing for my lack of posts over the past week. As you might assume, writing for this blog is not my primary source of income and work has demanded my attention as of late. Apologies.
Anyway, the indispensable Seymour Hersh has just published his most recent piece in the New Yorker documenting the possibilities for détente with Syria. Hersh describes the erstwhile member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” as a “strategic lynchpin” in the international effort to isolate Iran and forge an Israel-Palestinian peace accord. Sitting down with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hershc offers the controversial leader an opportunity to present an olive branch to the new American administration:
‘Syria is eager to engage with the West,’ he said, ‘an eagerness that was never perceived by the Bush White House. Anything is possible, as long as peace is being pursued.’
Although Assad’s words should be, at best, viewed with caution, there is little doubt his government remains determined to regain the strategically significant Golan Heights. Bringing Israel to the table with Syria could offer real benefits to the US, most notably a more estranged relationship between Damascus and its most infamous friends: Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. In addition, Syria’s government could emerge as a new voice for Arab moderation. Think of Egypt and Jordan: since their governments signed accords with Israel, Hussein and Mubarak have been invaluable to American diplomacy in the region, offering a temperate, albeit imperfect, political alternative to radicalism.
However, it is becoming clear the opportunity for rapprochement with Syria is small as the political landscape in Israel continues to swing right. Since assuming the post of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has not minced words, drawing the Israeli policy towards Iran closer to pre-emption:
‘Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?’
With Netanyahu and Lieberman writing policy in Jerusalem it is clear that Obama has to temper America’s unconditional support for Israel and at least bring Assad to the table. But let’s be clear: Assad maintains power by openly and brutally “suppressing domestic opposition” and “relish[es] the exercise of power”; Netanyahu was elected freely within a vibrant, liberal Democracy. There can be no debate over the merits of civil society in Syria and Israel.
But standing behind Israeli policy without debate has become untenable. As Israel has disproportionate capacity to influence the region’s political dynamic, glorifying Netanyahu and demonizing the assorted “others” destroys the incentive for diplomacy. By maintaining the “with-us-or-against-us” ethos vis-à-vis Israel and Syria, we risk marginalizing the moderates voices of Mubarak and Hussein’s ilk—the “cowards” in dialogue with the West—elevating ideologues like Ahmadinejad for “standing up” to the “western Zionists” and needlessly alienating American diplomats from the international community. For example, Cheney had become so enmeshed within this duality of “good vs evil” he described Britain’s intelligence exchange with Syria as a “stab in the back” by “perfidious Albion.” We’re talking about Britain.
Engaging with Syria provides a real opportunity to isolate Iran, pressure Israel into dismantling its settlements, reinforce moderate regional voices and sever Assad’s connection to extremism. The Bush policy of tossing diverse political and religious ideologies—and occasionally Britain, apparently— into the “them” category (pitted against the pro-Israel, pro-freedom, pro-hot dog “us”) has only consolidated the region’s moderate and radical ideologies against workable peace. A renewed and realist American-Syrian relationship would give Israel an incentive to bargain, isolate an economically slumping Iran and give Obama a real opening to engage a vital region Bush and Cheney regarded as “them.”