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Syria: Cold War Cornerstone?

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Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task.  Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling.  The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador.  These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp.  The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp.  Great.  But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?

I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury.  His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc.  I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary.  Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo).  This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides.  Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman).  See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that.  The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West.  Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story.  Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis.  So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.

What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region.  Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions.  Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah.  The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus.  A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US).  A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis.  Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player.  As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.

In case you weren’t sick of hearing me talk about Yemen

Well, Yemen seems to be slowly fading from the forefront of public consciousness in the past ten days or so, but nevertheless, I feel it pertinent to continue talking about some of issues related to American foreign policy and response in that particular corner of the world.

Last week, the US Senate foreign relations committee held a hearing on Yemen and heard testimony from a number of Yemen “experts.”  Among them were former US Ambassador Hull and Princeton PhD candidate Gregory Johnsen (and thank goodness for that because these two were able to squash some of the fear-mongering and inflammatory rhetoric being bounced about).   Get Johnsen’s (and anyone else’s) testimony from that hearing here.

As policymakers decide the best way to handle Yemen, bombing attacks have been suggested numerous times.  This has been a standard US response for almost half a century.  This is a tactic which gives us the sensation that we have responded appropriately to our enemies, but almost always requires follow up.  Read more on this over at the New Atlanticist.  With so many of our security forces and resources committed elsewhere, putting troops on the ground in Yemen is both infeasible but more importantly the  wrong choice.  The Yemeni government has repeatedly asked the US not to send troops and insists it can handle AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) on its own.  To be sure, American presence in any way, shape, or form will not win us friends among the Yemeni people.  Mohammed Vall at Al Jazeera reported last week on the Yemeni government’s bombing activities in the north and how these attacks have been in fact turning civilians caught in the crossfire towards AQAP rather than against it.

Its important in this country of all places, I believe, not to throw our unconditional support behind the government.  More than anything, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is focused on self-preservation.  The government in Sana’a is attempting to lure Western military aid and funding by portraying itself as attacked on all sides.  Its important to remember though that of the three enemies to the Yemeni government (AQAP, the Houthis, and the secessionists of the south), only one is AQAP.  The government is not distinguishing between the three and truly only seeks to exert its power over the entire territory.  At the upper echelons of government, a succession crisis is underway behind closed curtains as Saleh tries to position his son as heir to the “throne,” while other members of the ruling al-ahmar clan are vying for power as well.

So, what is the best way to respond? As I mentioned in a previous post, massive development aid is essential, but not a cure to Yemen’s problems.  We should aid Saleh in tackling AQAP by providing intelligence, but I believe providing arms or drones to Saleh’s government will only come back to haunt us.  The government could easily use those newly acquired toys against its Houthi rebels or the secessionists, and both of these are conflicts that the United States has no place in getting involved.

**UPDATE**

A Few hours after I wrote this post yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about the US intelligence agencies and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) planning anti-AQAP raids in Yemen.  It seems the administration has taken a similar approach to the one prescribed here yesterday.  It seems that the bit to take away is this:

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.