Tony Badran

America’s “big game”

During last week’s stormy hearing on Syria in the US House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, the Obama administration for the first time laid out its Syria policy. Unfortunately, the policy is based on a flawed, old premise that brings Washington awfully close to accepting a line the Syrians perpetually seek to sell – the politics of grievance. Distressingly, the Americans are signaling that they're interested shoppers.

Although the basic components of US policy had been hinted at earlier, this was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem.

If this sounds like a familiar tune from the 1990s, that’s because in the end it's nothing but a reprise of the view that holds the conflict with Israel as the engine driving all regional dynamics and regime behavior. It’s the politics of grievance.

This line of thinking plays right into the Syrians’ hands, affording them a pass for their actions and duplicity pending the conclusion of a peace deal that may not materialize for years, if ever.

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria's relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based. But the Obama administration’s “big game” is nothing if not a cocktail of this grievance logic and the infamous concept of “linkage”.

This toxic viewpoint was echoed by National Security Advisor Jim Jones at a recent event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict… Advancing this peace would... help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.”
Such an outlook, distilled in Feltman’s testimony, poses as a grand strategic concept that purports to help mitigate the challenge posed by Iran and the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process all at once. It proposes that by draining the swamps of grievance, Syria will be neutralized, and consequently so will Hamas and Hezbollah, leaving Iran “isolated”. This in turn sets the stage for uniting the Arabs and Israelis under the American umbrella facing Iran. While this does nothing to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it could be the blueprint for a future “containment” option, supposedly denying Iran the ability to project power by using the region’s open conflicts.

It’s the new domino theory. Only there’s nothing new about it. As some of us reasoned, Bashar al-Assad made his gamble with the Scuds calculating that this peace processing impulse would be the administration’s default position. If the US endgame is a comprehensive peace deal, one that by definition involves Syria, then Assad can buy immunity and even leverage, simply by declaring he wants peace.

Thus, Obama becomes trapped by his own “big game”. If Syria is deemed necessary for his regional peace/containment edifice, then the US will not be able to declare engagement a failure and suspend it, or else the entire edifice collapses. The result is the confused paralysis evident in the administration’s reaction to the Scud crisis: doubling down on engagement and the need to convince Assad that his “real” interests lay not with Iran but with the US.

The sought-after model for Syria is Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. But that model is totally inapplicable. Egypt made the leap into the pro-American camp before signing the peace treaty. Whereas with Syria, the administration is de facto justifying Assad’s continuing support for militant groups, affording him an inexplicable exceptionalism.
The administration is trying to camouflage this muddle by arguing that this situation necessitates sending an ambassador to Damascus to better communicate with the Syrian leadership. This fig leaf is not convincing many, including critics in Congress, who point out that the problem is not US communication, but Syrian contempt.
The Obama administration might lean on the Israelis to resume peace talks with Syria (assuming an acceptable formula is found to break the current impasse since the breakdown of the Turkish-sponsored talks). But even if the Netanyahu government agrees, it’s highly unlikely that the talks will lead anywhere, especially since Assad has repeatedly rejected  putting his ties to Hezbollah and Iran on the table – a sine qua non for Israel. And so, the “grand idea” will come crashing down, as it already has in its Palestinian version. Meanwhile, Iran keeps spinning its centrifuges while we entertain ourselves with sending an ambassador to Syria.

The “big game” is nothing but a sideshow.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

  • alex

    In general, I find myself in agreement with Mr. Badran’s views and arguments. This is one of those rare instances where our views diverge. While it is true that the Palestinian issue does not constitute all that is awry with the ME, it does constitute the lion’s share of ME problems. Like a malignant cyst it has plagued the Arab world since the inception of the Jewish state. Reaching a resolution equitable to the Palestinians will go a long way towards defusing ME tension and robbing Iran of a vital card it has been wielding with considerable success in the last decade. It is foolhardy to believe that that alone will cause Syria to reconsider its Iranian ties – i.e. Syria’s need for Iranian financial largesse - but it will rob it of a major political card. The main impediment in my view is that Israel has not yet reached the conclusion that such a resolution is in its own existential best interest. The US should prod the Israeli’s towards that realization.

    May 2, 2010

  • rof

    as always , badran sees things more clearly than many including the US administration under supremo. the view that the whole middle east problem is based simply on the palestinian israeli conflict is short sightedness at its worst. it is time those block headed foreign policy jump out of the box and start calling a spade a spade and understanding the real dynamics for all the current global conflicts of a certain nature. otherwise more errors with dire consequences will be committed in lebanon iraq and elsewhere at the expense of normal prowestern majorities that the US will callously sacrifice to please some ruthless hated dictator or terrorists. it is catastrophic how the US keep backing the wrong group running counter to its own interests...

    April 28, 2010

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    There is an emerging consensus in conservative economic and military circles around the broad outlines of U.S. national strategic interests - basically these are that the USA is in an economic, financial and military competition with China and, Russia (India and Brazil also) over natural resources and and financial asset reserves, on the one hand, and in competition with the EU, Japan & east Asia, over the relative competitiveness of the U.S. as a place to do business, on the other. Clearly it isn't in the U.S. national interest to continue borrowing billions every month from China, Germany, Japan and Saudia to fund a never-ending, boring role in "Arab-Israeli" tribal battles! The U.S. wants the tribal leaders of the region to come to a deal - including over Jersualem - so that the U.S. can concentrate on its real strategic battles which are to the east, north and west of the "Middle East

    April 28, 2010

  • J Zaricki

    It is evident that these negotiations are designed to concede Israel to the collective Middle EAst opposition. The Obama team is shrewd and skilled, however they have corrupted the meaning of "victory". Paralleling the health care debacle, Obama's team will steamroll their corrupted compromises to some conclusion then declare a victory in the issue, even if it is a catastrophe. If this were a divorce case, it would be very evident that heaping demands on one party was designed to break them. Hatreds fueled by those who demand to be in the ledger of history can be a powerful force. Obama is sadly fueling hatreds both in the Middle East and here at home as a reckless means to achieve a false victory which will ratchet this world's moral calibrations down more than a few notches.

    April 27, 2010

  • داريوس حرب

    if Toni Badran doesnt like the policy of containment and the politics of grievance . what does he suggest ? war against Syria and Iran?...

    April 27, 2010