Those who favor unconditional engagement with Syria, believing the ruling regime will in exchange distance itself from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, should consider the parallel drawn by the Syrian Vice-President, Farouk al-Shara, in Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article this week. When “asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, ‘Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?’…‘That’s my answer to your question about Iran.’”
So, according to the Syrian second-in-command, even if the Golan Heights are returned and ties with Washington reestablished, Syria will still remain in bed with everybody, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Israel, America and anyone else the regime finds it advantageous to sleep with.
As Hersh sees it, “Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade [President Barak] Obama to abandon the [former President George] Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called “moderate” Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coordinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.”
Washington is already engaging Syria. In addition to congressional delegations, two high-level American diplomats, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, were recently sent to visit Damascus, where they met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.
Even so, there is reason to believe that the visit has not resulted in the easy seduction the regime is hoping for. Both Feltman and Shapiro are experienced foreign policy hands, well-versed in the ways of the Assad regime and adept at playing diplomatic hardball. While both are longtime advocates of engaging Damascus, they understand that any warming in relations with the US should serve American interests, and not be dictated by Syria’s terms.
In Hersh’s article, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad called for a one-on-one meeting with President Barak Obama, perhaps in hopes of circumventing the tough diplomacy that he has been receiving from Washington thus far. In an email sent to the famed investigative reporter in the wake of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, “Assad emphasized that it was more than ever essential that the United States play a prominent and active role in the peace process. What he needed, Assad said, was direct contact with Obama...‘A conference would not be enough: It is most natural to want a meeting with President Obama.’”
What should be clear from Hersh’s article is that Damascus will not stop suppressing domestic opponents, or begin improving its human rights record any time soon. Indeed, given that dictators tend to employ at least some pretense of democracy no matter how flimsy, Assad was tellingly blunt in his conversation with Hersh: “Assad... acknowledged, ‘We do not say that we are a democratic country.”
According to Hersh, Assad “focused on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.”
And what of Assad’s own support for Islamic extremists like Hamas, Hezbollah and the rulers of
The Syrian president does not promise much: “‘If Israel wants a settlement that goes beyond the Golan Heights… it will have to deal with the core issue—the situation in the West Bank and Gaza—and not waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas.’”
Even Alastair Crooke—the former British intelligence officer, who in an earlier Hersh article, published in the New Yorker in March 2007, said that he “was told” the Lebanese government had armed Islamist radicals in the north of the country to “presumably take on Hezbollah,” —now suggests that Assad cannot “be separated easily from Iran, or persuaded to give up support for Hamas and Hezbollah.”
In the latest article, Crooke told Hersh: “[Assad] cannot trade the Golan Heights for peace with Israel, and cut off his allies. What Syria can do is offer its good standing and credentials to lead a comprehensive regional settlement.”
One should remember in appraising the viability of Syria leading such a “comprehensive regional settlement,” that even Hezbollah publically told Assad recently that it was not Syria’s follower, and that the fight against Al Qaeda has shifted from the streets of Baghdad, where Syria could reasonably claim to wield some influence, to the lawless border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Syria is irrelevant.
History has shown that Syrian promises are not worth the paper they are written on, a reality that no amount of wishful thinking from those in Syria, Israel and America who advocate unconditional engagement can dispel.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of NOW Lebanon