UNDER A THATCHED ROOF, WITH WARREN CHRISTOPHER
May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Syria not only covets Lebanon; it uses south Lebanon to obtain territorial concessions elsewhere, namely the Golan Heights held by Israel. Syria cannot attack Israel directly because that would provoke a general war Syria would lose. Instead, it uses Hezbollah as its proxy.
After occupying Lebanon in the late 1980s, Syria disarmed every militia in the Lebanese civil war, save Hezbollah. Hezbollah's constant attacks on Israeli soldiers and sporadic Katyusha fire into Israel's northern towns causing civilian death, damage, and general disruption are Syria's equivalent of Egypt's 1969-70 war of attrition against Israel. This ability to bleed Israel gives Syria a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations in which it would otherwise be in a position of great relative weakness.
The astonishing thing about Syria's perfectly transparent strategy is that it is so totally glossed over by the United States. We know that Hezbollah is kept well armed with supplies coming directly from Tehran through Damascus and then by truck to Hezbollah camps in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon. Indeed, 400 Katyushas were shipped from Iran through Damascus into the hands of Hezbollah while the latest fighting was raging.
The U.S. government (indeed, the Israeli government too) knew that Assad was actually feeding Hezbollah the rockets that were raining down on Israel. It did not protest. It did not even publicly announce the fact. That might embarrass or, worse, anger Assad, and that would surely get in the way of appeasing him.
The beginning of appeasement is treating the warmaker as peacemaker. America does, and the world follows. For his warmaking in Lebanon, Assad enjoyed on April 21 a diplomatic prize other dictators only dream of: On this one day, the foreign ministers of Italy, Spain, Ireland, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States found themselves all in Damascus vying for an audience with Assad. Indeed, the diplomatic gridlock got so bad that the prime minister of Pakistan had to briefly postpone her state visit for fear, I suppose, that her limo would find no place to park at the presidential palace.
Syria plays this war/peace game and America plays along. Assad unleashes Hezbollah, watches serenely as Israel bleeds and Lebanese die, then waits to see what the grandees of the world, led by the American secretary of state, will offer him to call it off. At week's end, he found out. For the Israel- Hezbollah cease-fire, brokered Friday by Christopher, Syria got (1) resumption of Israel-Syria negotiations over Golan (suspended after four suicide bombings in Israel last month), (2) formal recognition of a Syrian role in south Lebanon, (3) general appreciation for Syrian cooperation, and (4) not a word of criticism from anyone for starting this whole affair. Not bad for 16 days of arms-length mayhem.
Assad is a man of sticks and carrots. For three years, Christopher has come bearing nothing but carrots. What possible incentive can Assad have not to periodically turn south Lebanon into a killing ground?
The Clinton administration hopes against all evidence that treating Assad with honor will induce him to moderation. It has lavished more attention on and offered more inducements to him than any other administration ever. "I've spent 15 years in therapy," Woody Allen once said. "One more year and I'm going to Lourdes." Warren Christopher has been 22 times to Damascus. Once more and perhaps he'll try Woody's therapist.
The administration's propitiation of Assad is a moral disgrace that might conceivably be justified if it yielded results. The result has been the encouragement of a tyrant who sees his every cynical manipulation earn him not just immunity but the favorable attention of the United States.
What is most odd about the administration's attention is that Syria needs the U.S. far more than the U.S. needs Syria. If there must be a supplicant in this relationship, it should be Syria. Syria is a country deeply in need, and the U.S. is the only country that can help.
It is important to understand the depths of Syria's isolation. It is well known that Syria has been strategically orphaned by the loss of the Soviet Union. Less well known is Syria's isolation in two other respects: geographic and ideological.
Syria is surrounded on all sides (except for its Lebanese colony) by adversaries or enemies. There is Israel, with which it is still in a state of war; Jordan, which broke with Syria by virtue of its own full-fledged entry into the Israel-U.S. orbit; Iraq, whose hostility toward Syria is such that Assad held his nose to join the U.S.4ed Gulf War coalition against it; and, least noted, Turkey, which just three weeks ago acknowledged the establishment of a military cooperation agreement with Israel involving Israeli use of Turkish air space and bases. (Turkey is driven in its hostility to Syria in part by Syria's housing, arming, and protecting the PKK- -Kurdish guerrillas who operate against Turkey from Syrian bases, just as Hezbollah operates against Israel from Syrian-protected bases in Lebanon.)
Assad is, moreover, isolated ideologically. He is a dinosaur, the last of the Arab nationalists. In the early decades of Arab independence from Western colonialism, Arab nationalism--a mixture of watered-down socialism, native authoritarianism, anti-Westernism, and pan-Arabism--was the rage. Its exemplar was Egypt's Nasser. Its star began to dim with Nasser's ignominious defeat in the 1967 war. Its near-extinction occurred when Saddam Hussein, another prototype of the radical Arab nationalist, was routed in the Gulf War of 1991.
The ideological successors to Arab nationalism are two: Islamic fundamentalism (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Algerian rebels, Egypt's Moslem Brotherhood) and the more westward-looking, moderate authoritarianism exemplified by Mubarak of Egypt and Hussein of Jordan. Assad rejects both Westernization and Islamicization. He is the last of the pan-Arab nationalists. So much so that his only allies are non-Arab Iran (generally loathed throughout the Arab Middle East) and other partners of convenience, like Hezbollah and Hamas and the various terrorist groups that he houses in Damascus.
And beyond geographic and ideological isolation, Syria is economically bankrupt. It needs Western investment. It needs Western military modernization of its rusting Soviet inventory. It needs good diplomatic relations with the West. For all that, it needs the American connection. That is the great leverage we have over him--leverage that this administration has systematically squandered.
(1) Disillusion. The beginning of wisdom is disengagement from the fantasy of Assad's peaceful intentions. Assad is the most successful Machiavelli the Middle East has seen in 30 years. He is Saddam Hussein with brains, King Hussein with Scuds. Before he came to power, Syria had suffered 15 coups in its 25 years since independence. And he came to power 26 years ago.
He says he has made "a strategic choice" for peace, and President Clinton during his visit to Damascus (1994) declared that he buys it. On what evidence? In return for the entire Golan Heights, Assad has offered Israel essentially nothing: a cold peace, which is precisely what Israel already has--by virtue of its massive deterrent power--while retaining the Golan.
Assad's vague "peace" gestures should be treated for what they are: vague gestures. American policy toward him should be dictated by his actions. These include (a) rebuff of the most conciliatory Israeli regime ever, (b) rejection of Israeli offers for full return of the Golan, (c) fomenting of war in Lebanon, and (d) extraordinary displays of contempt for American interests, to say nothing of American authority, in the region.
(2) "Peace process" agnosticism. While recognizing that there will not be total peace in the Middle East without Syria, we must not be led to the illusory pursuit of a peace that is not there. If Israel wants to trade the Golan for some kind of paper peace with Syria, the U.S. should not stand in the way. Allies should be free to seek whatever path they believe might lead to peace. But the United States should neither urge nor pressure Israel into giving Assad the Golan. The U.S. can live with an Israel-Syria peace treaty, and it can--as it has for 50 years--live without one. We should let Assad know that his conduct has led us to this new policy of "peace process" neutrality and only a change in his conduct will induce us to change ours.
(3) Rogue-state hardball. Accordingly, we should begin treating Syria like the rogue state that it is. Warren Christopher's State Department declares Syria a terrorist state. He conveniently suspends that determination on the assumption that Syria has made a strategic choice for peace. It has not. Syrian warmaking in south Lebanon, support of terrorism, and intransigence in peace negotiations have given the lie to the illusion. The suspension of disbelief and the consequent indulgence of Syrian behavior must therefore cease. Syria should be subject to the same economic and diplomatic quarantine that its fellow terrorist4ist brethren--North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan--have earned from the United States.
Changes in Syrian behavior will bring changes in American policy. Nothing less. No more carrots.
By Charles Krauthammer