If Syria switched teams, from its current alignment with Iran to the U.S. aligned Arab states led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states, it would be a diplomatic masterstroke. It would isolate Iran and cut loose its key terrorist proxies: Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the lesser Damascus-based groups. If it could be done, it might even be worth paying Syria’s price – return of the Golan Heights and wiping the slate clean on past Syrian support for terrorism, including the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
For decades American foreign policy realists, most recently in the Iraq Study Group, have called for engagement with Syria in order to achieve this aim. The news that Syria will send an emissary to the upcoming conference in Annapolis has raised hopes that this maneuver is possible.
But it won’t happen and anyone who believes that it will doesn’t know the truth about Syria – literally. They must not have read The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin.
Rubin, director of the GLORIA Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal is the author of 20 books, primarily on Middle East politics. In The Truth About Syria argues that both the regime’s past behavior and its very nature make it impossible for this much desired switch to occur.
By any practical measure, switching sides should be in Syria’s interest. Western investment and aid could quickly dwarf the Iranian assistance that keeps the Syrian economy from complete collapse. Plus the deal would almost certainly bring the Golan Heights back to Syria, and allow Syria to reduce its military spending. These are huge gains, merely for taking off the tarnished crown of pan-Arabism (here is an article by Rubin on Syria’s role in that failed ideology’s current renaissance) and kicking out some loathsome terrorists. But the Middle East is a region of Agamemnons for whom honor trumps prudence time and again.
First, there is the history – Rubin shows how the Syrians have, time and again, rejected Western offers and played Western diplomats for fools (except in situations where Western interests fit their own interests.) There is ample documentation for this phenomenon. Daniel Pipes wrote an article nearly a decade ago debunking the myth that long-time Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was a respectable adversary who could be relied on to keep his word. His son, Syria’s current President Bashar al-Assad is not substantially different. Fellow CT-Blogger David Schenker writes that the Bush Administration made exactly this effort from 2001 through 2005 (when Schenker was an advisor to the Secretary of Defense.) Syria said no. It is difficult to imagine that now, with U.S. leverage substantially reduced and Bashar allied with the most popular figures on the Arab street (Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, Hamas Secretary-General Khaled Mashal, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah), what incentives the Syrians could possibly have to ally with the U.S.
The more interesting question is why the Syrian regime takes this uncompromising stance. Rubin, in explaining Syria’s history reminds the reader that the Syria is ruled by a despised minority, the Alawites, a sect that is not considered Muslim by mainstream Sunnis. The key to their continued survival and rule (in addition to harsh political repression) has been to place Syria at the forefront of the pan-Arab, pan-Islamic, anti-Western, and anti-American cause. A prosperous, peaceful Syria would almost certainly discard the Assads and their courtiers – which in the Middle East is usually a brutal process.
This leaves many follow-up questions, including:
Why are supposedly clear-eyed realists so enthralled with this regime? Is it because Damascus is so deeply associated with dramatic conversions?
If this regime is intransigent, what are the best policies to adopt in dealing with Syria?
Both questions require extensive answers. But to the second question, one thing should be clear. If the regime is set on its course, then begging it to attend the Annapolis peace conference is, as Rubin wrote in his most recent column, akin to “inviting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to an anti-terrorism conference.”