Engaging with Syria

Beirut Daily Star opinion editor Michael Young argues that this week’s assassination of Lebanese industry minister Pierre Gemayel, most likely at the behest of the government of Syria, would seem to obviate talk about “engaging” that government as part of the solution to problems in the region.

If political “realism” is about interests, then realists must prove that a country that has ignored successive UN resolutions demanding Syrian non-interference in Lebanon could somehow be a force for stability in Iraq, to which it has funnelled hundreds of foreign fighters. Engaging Mr Assad over Iraq will mean the gradual return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, since neither the US nor the UK will be in a position to deny Syria in Lebanon while asking favours in Iraq.

He’s right that expecting Syria to be helpful in the current crises is foolish. I disagree, however, that it is “realists” who are proposing this.

Most realists, myself included, are incredibly skeptical of multilateral diplomacy outside the economic realm. The regime in Syria is going to do what it believes most maximizes its advantage. Given that the US and UK are currently in a position of weakness in the Middle East, it’s incredibly unlikely that Syria is going to be cooperative.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Most realists, myself included, are incredibly skeptical of multilateral diplomacy outside the economic realm. The regime in Syria is going to do what it believes most maximizes its advantage. Given that the US and UK are currently in a position of weakness in the Middle East, it’s incredibly unlikely that Syria is going to be cooperative.

    Exactly why electing Democrats here in the US was such a disaster for middle east peace. The position of weakness as you mention, James, was imposed on us by two factors, the larger of which was the Democrats themselves, by insisting on a course of toothless diplomacy.

    I do take slight umbrage with your comment about Syria’s advantage. Your quite right, as far as you go, but ask the question: Advantage toward what? Better economic numbers are all well and good, but let’s not forget the religious and social aspect of all of this. I judge economic issues to be the lesser of their concerns, and pursuit of an Islamic-based, region-wide government, with Syria in the leading role, to be the larger.

    And thanks to the Democrats, they have a better chance at success.

  2. Former Republican says:

    “Most realists, myself included, are incredibly skeptical of multilateral diplomacy outside the economic realm.”

    Be skeptical if you like, but don’t say it can’t work. Look at the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. They’ve lasted 27 years now and counting.

    “The regime in Syria is going to do what it believes most maximizes its advantage.”

    Well of course. The trick is to find a way that serves both Syria’s and the US’s interest. Don’t say it’s impossible. Remember that they signed onto the Gulf War. Remember also that they gave us considerable cooperation right after 9-11.

    Will Syria cooperate, given that the US is in a weak position right now? Who knows? Not me! But Syria knows that the US is not likely to remain forever in a weak position, which could (repeat, could) mean that they want to take advantage of this opportunity to get a better agreement than will be available later.

  3. PunditGuy says:

    Wow. I’m sorry, Bithead — what were the shining triumphs of the GOP peace plan? Hamas in charge of the Palestinian Terrotories? A nuclear Iran?

    If we had just stayed the course (er, “gone long”) in Iraq, we’d be celebrating democracy in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure. Damn those Democrats!

  4. Bithead says:

    The plan wasn’t been seen through, yet, has it, PG?

    I’m sure there were those Americans who after three of four years of occupying Japan and Genrmany, assumed the whole thing wouldn’t work, and we’d have been better off with some kind of diplomatic solution.

    The difference was, the majority of Americans had the guts to stick it out, back then. BinLaden correctly predicted that the Americans of today would not.

  5. The Western world had an opportunity to put a strong government in place in Lebanon after Hariri’s death, but they refused. This is one of the results, along with Hezbollah having far more influence.

  6. carter says:

    I can’t believe more action is not being taken against Iran, Syria, and North Korea. We can try all we want in Iraq but there will still be major problems in the Middle East if these countries aren’t dealt with.

  7. Ian says:

    The logical response to this would be to take out a high-level Syrian offical, up to and including Assad. After all, we can safely assume these tyrants care nothing about the welfare of the people they rule or the Islamic world they claim to represent, so this would bring their game home to them in a way that sanctions or even a limited war couldn’t. Trust me, these bastards would leave Lebanon in a jiffy if they knew their own necks were on the line.

  8. Anderson says:

    The logical response to this would be to take out a high-level Syrian offical, up to and including Assad. After all, we can safely assume these tyrants care nothing about the welfare of the people they rule or the Islamic world they claim to represent

    Hm. I’m not really sure that I want anyone’s decisions about whether to assassinate Bush or Cheney being made on a similar set of criteria. Just sayin’.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Right Bithead, the current position of US weakness is the fault of the democrats, who are not yet in power, not the GOP, who have been in power for six years and who’s bright idea it was to start a war in Iraq.

    Of course the fact that the democrats, even after taking control of the hill next year will have limited ability to affect American foreign policy or war decisions, seems to be lost on you.

    As for Germany and Japan, well now, the folks back then actually had a plan for how to deal with those countries after they were defeated militarily. Guess Bush was just too busy playing with his flight suit to consider those kinds of problems. At any rate, the opportunity to affect life in Iraq in a positive manner after Saddam was deposed has been blown, and it was blown by Bush and the GOP.

  10. Tano says:

    Gee, how long did it take after the election for the bit-of-air-heads of the world to start despising the American people? I think we have a new “blame America” grouping emerging. America is such a great country, except for its stupid, cowardly people. binLaden was right all along!

    (I sense its going to be a long exile from power for the conservatives…)

  11. Bithead says:

    Right Bithead, the current position of US weakness is the fault of the democrats, who are not yet in power, not the GOP, who have been in power for six years and who’s bright idea it was to start a war in Iraq.

    Don’t think for a minute, that the Democrats winning, here in the ’states doesn’t signify to our enemy that the United States has lost its stomach for this fight. Don’t think for a minute that our enemy hasn’t been emboldened by this happening. Don’t think for a minute that what we are seeing today is not a direct result of that Democrat victory.

    Enjoy your laurels, Anji.
    Somehow, given what it’s cost all of us, I don’t think I could.

  12. Bithead says:

    Blame, Tano?

    No… I blame the ones who for political points, sold the American people a bill of goods… the Democrats. Ask anyone who has come back from Iraq and that part of the world, and they will tell you a completely different story than the one that has been emblazoned across the headline of every newspaper and newsmagazine in this country.

    But even the Democrats and their sales force in the news media are starting to realize that Bush had no choice in the matter… and now they’re stuck with the result.

    As an example: Did you happen to notice Dowd’s column the other day?

    Iraq now evokes that old Jimmy Durante song that goes, “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?”

    It’s hard to remember when America has been so stuck. We can’t win and we can’t leave.

    The good news is that the election finished what Katrina started. It dismantled the president’s fake reality about Iraq, causing opinions to come gushing forth from all quarters about where to go from here.

    The bad news is that no one, and I mean no one, really knows where to go from here.

    So, in reality, the only thing the Democrats had going for them going into the election was they didn’t much like the plan that George W. Bush had laid out for Iraq… Which, in truth, was not all that different from the plan as regards Germany, and Japan following WWII. It’s nice, however, to hear them at least admit that they really didn’t have a better option. It’s nice to hear them admit, what I’ve been saying all along; there really isn’t a better option… we have to see it through.

    Problem is, we now have an emboldened enemy.
    Like I told Anji… enjoy your laurels.

    It would’ve been handy, however, to have this admission from the leftists’ cheering section, somewhere prior to the election. we might have actually saved some lives that way.

    As it is…

  13. CtGeek says:

    Comparisons between Iraq and the aftermath of WWII are disingenuous at best. In Japan and Germany, we weren’t wading into a bitter sectarian conflict whose roots went back for centuries. In post-war Japan and Germany, we weren’t losing thousands of troops in a guerrilla war that had no apparent end. We were not dealing with religious extremism or the interference of third nations. We were facing populations that were broken, desolate and demoralized, but the mission was extremely simple after everything that had passed before.

    You guys on the right never tire of lecturing the rest of us about how the so-called “war on terror” is different from anything we’ve faced before, but then you never waste an opportunity to compare it to everything that has gone before.

    A more accurate analogy for what we now face would be the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, which had very similar characteristics and parameters.

    As for the rants about Democrats, that is truly childish. Sure, Democrats didn’t go into the election claiming to have a plan, but then neither did the Republicans. Yee-haw is not a foreign policy. But if the GOP would have won, Bush would have taken that as a mandate for their failed “stay the course” strategy. The Democratic victory has at least forced the kind of debate and scrutiny of our Iraq policy that we should have had three years ago, but which the Bush administration was too pig-headed to entertain. They were too busy sliming anybody who questioned their infinite wisdom as tree-hugging, latte-sipping, anti-American cut-and-runners.

    Congress has very little direct ability to affect strategy. Bush is still commander-in-chief. This is still his war, no matter how much he might now wish it were somebody elses. The end of one-party rule does mean, however, that we finally have some oversight of why we have spent nearly half a trillion dollars and have nothing to show for it except a brooding civil war.

    I find it interesting that many Republicans couldn’t even spot Iraq on a world map six years’ ago. I remember how they sneered at Clinton when he made speeches warning of the dangers we faced from Islamic terrorists. Yet now they somehow have a monopoly on understanding the motivations of our enemy. Yes, Republicans KNOW that the terrorists are “emboldened” by the Democratic Party’s victory—just like they KNEW that we would be greeted as liberators, and just like they KNEW that the war would hardly cost a cent, and just like they KNEW that the mission was accomplished three years ago. Frankly, I don’t think the Republicans have any credibility on this issue any more, and that was why the American people thumped them in the midterms.

    The bottom line is, this war affects us all, Republicans and Democrats alike. There are no wise old men who know how to get us out of the mess that the neocons got us into. There are no easy solutions, apart from the one that nobody really wants to admit. As evil as he was, Saddam Hussein understood something we don’t. The only way to keep together a fractious nation like Iraq is with tyranny and brute force. In other words, we either allow the nation to break up (which isn’t a viable option) or we give our backing to a charismatic dictator in the same mold as Saddam. Our options are limited, as we no longer have as much influence over the al-Maliki government as we once did, so the dictator option may be the least of all the evils we have to face. Then we can call it a victory and get the hell out. Anybody who claims that we can “win” this war any other way is either self-delusional or has virtually zero knowledge of that region’s cultural and religious history. But when some of us tried to warn you three years’ ago, we were called anti-American.

  14. ken says:

    bithead, I’ve told you before that the military guys hate Bush and Cheney. We’ve only seen the brass so far telling us how FUBAR this entire administration has been. Just wait till you meet some of the grunts. What they have to say about your conservative leadership you would call treasonous. But they are Americans, just like me, so I think they have every right to tell us the truth about the politicians who screwed up their lives.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Bithead,

    Clearly “Don’t think for a minute” is your motto. You should really try this thinking thing sometime.

    The reality is that Bush has already lost the war in Iraq, and that deposing Saddam is merely a Pyrrhic victory.

    It is rather sad to see Bit’s rather naked hatred of the American democratic process at work.

    As for an “emboldened” enemy… well these guys attacked the pentagon and New York City, pretty bold actions. It is a bit sad that there are American’s who are spinning things like this just to take the sting out of losing an election, but not, I suppose, all that surprising…

  16. Bithead says:

    bithead, I’ve told you before that the military guys hate Bush and Cheney.

    It isn’t any more truie now than it was then… and it never was at all.

    Clearly “Don’t think for a minute” is your motto.

    I was being polite in attributing you the ability.

  17. Bithead says:

    Hate of the democratic process?

    No.
    Just Democrats.

  18. Ian says:

    So you want a one-party state there, bithead? I know the only difference between your ilk and the commies was the rhetoric. I’m sure you’d LOVE a ‘democratic process’ like they had in the USSR.