The Syrian Litmus Test

Syria tends not to be a particularly headline-grabbing kinda place. But Syria policy is rapidly becoming the yardstick for measuring the Bush administration's (in-)capacity to re-think the Middle East as well as strains in the US-Israel relationship. In the last fortnight, Syria has been everywhere.

First, the Baker-Hamilton commission recommended that the US talk "unconditionally" with all Iraq's neighbors, Syria included. They presented a detailed set of incentives and disincentives to be deployed in this diplomatic reengagement (see recommendations 15 and 16). Syria responded with a peace offensive of its own largely directed at Israel. Foreign Minister Muallem told the Washington Post's David Ignatius that Syria would set no preconditions for talks with Israel. Then President Assad suggested to the Italian La Repubblica newspaper that if anyone did not trust Syria's intentions, why not test them and call their bluff. The US administration characteristically dug in its heels. The presidential candidate Senator McCain visiting Jerusalem even warned his Israeli hosts "not to be tempted by Syria's peace overtures." McCain's "stay the course" agenda is apparently region-wide in nature. It was at this stage that things got a little more interesting. Democratic Senators Nelson, Dodd and Kerry have all visited Damascus in the past week, thereby voting with their feet on the usefulness of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations and providing a visible demonstration of what engagement with (and not endorsement of) one's adversaries might look like.

In Israel, this all set off a heated and almost unprecedented debate on the current state of Israeli-American relations, five years into the neo-con nightmare. In the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Olmert explained that his rejectionist response to Syrian overtures was out of respect for US policy. True, this may have been an excuse on Olmert's part for not wanting the Golan Heights issue to be discussed, but (a) it was a very telling excuse and (b) all hell broke loose. Not that there is an Israeli Hugo Chavez busy fomenting anti-Yankee sentiment in the barrios of Tel Aviv, but the disturbing nature of the impact of this administration's policy on Israel was thrown into sharp relief. A flood of op-editry and political commentary followed. Leading Ministers called for a full Cabinet debate to reconsider Syria policy and begin negotiations. The former chief-of-staff to Prime Minister Rabin, Eitan Haber, reflected in Israel's leading circulation Yedioth Aharonot newspaper that "from his high throne, on Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush rules every aspect of our lives... peace between Israel and Syria would not be convenient for the United States at the moment... historians will look back at December 2006 and decide that a golden opportunity for peace was missed." An Haaretz editorial argued that "the government must attempt to persuade the administration in Washington to see the possibility of beginning a wise strategic process through dialogue with Damascus," while the paper's leading commentator Yoel Marcus put it more bluntly, "Bush will go home but we will still be here." And this is but a small sample.

Jim Lobe, writing for the Inter-Press Service, has just exposed that the neo-cons, through very senior administration officials, wanted Israel to attack Syria during this summer's Lebanon conflict. The Israelis politely declined this request. Neo-con prescriptions truly represent the most dangerous medicine, not only for America, but also for Israel. It has been a maxim of US policy that America cannot want peace more than the parties in the region, but it has never wanted peace so much less than them.

The latest twist in this seasonal Syrian drama is the expose in Time Magazine of classified documents suggesting the administration is actively working for regime change in Damascus. In a script worthy of Jon Stewart's Daily Show, the document proposes "a secret election monitoring scheme" with "internet accessible materials" and "surreptitiously giving money to at least one Syrian politician." Feel like being Chalabi'd this Christmas?

The Iraq Study Group held a torch to the insanity of current US policy towards Syria. The reality in the region is that US interests regarding Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and Iran, not to mention Israeli security, could all benefit significantly from concerted engagement with Syria. Of course, Syria would have to be held stringently to its side of any bargain - but to reach that place we need to start talking. Anyone interested in re-stabilizing the Middle East, for the benefit and security of all its peoples, should make the administration's Syria policy the litmus test of whether the neo-con ideological blinkers have been removed and whether reality has come into view.