Remaking the Middle East in Syria's Image

Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group, and his subordinate Peter Harling, the Damascus-based head of the Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria Project at ICG, co-authored the lead story in the September/October issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine.

In terms of content, the article often reflects several Syrian talking points. In 2008, Mustafa told Al-Jazeera that sometimes it "amazes" him that his "enemy (the US), is so naïve, superficial and stupid." For their part, Malley and Harling wrote: "US policymakers have historically applied yesterday's solutions to today's problems in the Middle East."

Malley and Harling added: ""[T]he Middle East is not what it was five years ago; it has moved on." So what has changed in the Middle East?

During the 1990s, the article argued, Washington had frozen the region's three most critical and volatile arenas of conflict: "the Arab-Persian fault line, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Lebanon." But this regional order "collapsed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000."

Meanwhile, "Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah benefited from renewed popular sympathy and were driven together," because of shortsighted US policies, "despite their often ambiguous relations and competing interests."

According to Malley and Harling, America's image was popularly tarnished while Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah won popular sympathy. Never mind that one-third of Lebanon's population took to the streets to protest Syria's occupation of Lebanon in March 2005, or that Hezbollah was defeated in Lebanese parliamentary elections in June 2009, or that a massive anti-Iranian regime protest movement took place that same month and was brutally suppressed by Tehran, or that anti-Syrian Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki won one of the two biggest parliamentary blocs in March 2010.

How Malley and Harling arrived at the conclusion that Iran and Syria had become more popular than America across the Middle East, is a piece of information that cannot be substantiated. Building on their false premises, Malley and Harling conclude that, over the past five years "with the collapse of the Iraqi state, Iran was free to spread its influence beyond its borders toward the Arab world; Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon unshackled Hezbollah, helping transform it into a more autonomous and powerful actor; and the bankruptcy of the peace process boosted Hamas' fortunes and deflated Fatah's."

Therefore the solution, one is left to conclude, is to reverse the above. Rebuild an Iraqi autocrat, preferably someone who can win Arab (read Syrian) approval, let Syria reoccupy Lebanon to cork Hezbollah back into its bottle, and bring Syria into the peace process to counter the "legitimacy" of Hamas and make up for the "lack of legitimacy" of Fatah.

The article recommends that Washington discuss with Damascus its "future regional role," after a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. America should expect in return, not Syria cutting ties with Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, but only "relaxing" them, or as Mustafa put it during a lecture at the Middle East Institute in May 2009: "Will making peace with Israel affect Syrian relations with Iran? We don't think so."

The objectivity of Malley and Harling on the Middle East should be also questioned. In the words of Joshua Landis, a confidant of Syria's Ambassador to the US Imad Mustafa: "Malley is one of the few Americans who has taken the time and energy to understand Syria's point of view and make contacts in Damascus when this was not easy to do."

Not only one of the authors, Malley, wins praise from one of the Syrian regime's apologists, coauthor Harling lives in Damascus. In order for Harling to stay in Damascus without risking prison or deportation, whatever he publishes in Western or Arabic press has to conform to the regime's political line.

In a way, the Foreign Affairs piece was indirectly sanctioned by the Syrian regime, or at least later won its approval, since the Damascus-based Harling was not subjected to harassment in retribution.

Syria's vision of a New Middle East made its way to Foreign Policy magazine, months after being printed in the Washington Post by the same authors.

The vision echoes what was put out by a Hezbollah friend, former MI6 agent Alistair Crooke. In a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) publication, Crooke argued that Washington should replace its current alliance with the Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian coalition with another consisting of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iran-dominated Iraq and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.

The Middle East might not be changing as fast as Malley, Harling or Crooke suggest. It is Washington, however -- where "unfriendly" countries have finally learned how to lobby the administration to their own advantages -- that has changed.