With the Democrats pushing so hard for withdrawal from Iraq, the party seems unaware that they may be making the job much harder for themselves should they get the chance to govern again someday. After all, the United States has many vital strategic interests in the region, and it is not obvious how a plan no more elaborate than bringing our troops home from Iraq will protect, for instance, the free flow of affordable Persian Gulf oil. The Democrats are playing a dirty game in the Middle East, where, just like Arab regimes, they are using proxies to wage war—except their war is against the Bush administration. Iraq is one venue, and Syria another.
A few weeks ago, the Syrian-born American businessman, Ibrahim Suleiman returned from the Knesset, announcing that an Israeli-Syrian deal is possible within six months, even though many observers are not sure the self-appointed peace delegate actually represents anyone. Still, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyassah has reported that Suleiman is the brother of Bajhat Suleiman, a security officer whose name has popped up repeatedly in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
And yet even if there is no genuine relationship between Suleiman and and Bashar al-Asad’s government, the fact is that Syria would like nothing more right now than to be tied up in a peace process. With an international tribunal being formed to hand down indictments in the Hariri murder, as well as the assassinations of other Lebanese figures, the 41-year-old Syrian president is afraid of, at best, having to serve out the rest of his life-long term scarred with a Milosevic-like notoriety.
“The whole Syrian peace initiative is a smokescreen,” says Eli Khoury, a Beirut advertising executive running a civil-society campaign called NOW Lebanon. “The regime wants to be insulated from the tribunal.”
With the prospect of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal, no matter how illusory, even the French and the Saudis, solid U.S. allies in the Lebanese arena, would be hard pressed to see Damascus punished for all the blood it has shed throughout the region.
The Israelis themselves may come to welcome talks with a state that floats trial peace balloons while simultaneously threatening war on the Golan Heights. A bogus Syria track may seem more appealing than getting locked into a room with the Hamas-controlled PA, especially as Jerusalem is no doubt looking past the present administration and wondering if the next White House will demand concessions the Bush team did not.
Indeed, the Democrats are already throwing their weight around and criticizing Olmert for interfering in U.S. politics. And yet Nancy Pelosi’s party has clearly played a very negative role in regional affairs.
One Damascus-based researcher explained that in March a group of Democratic operatives asked for a briefing in preparation for Pelosi’s Syria trip. “I explained that they were walking into a minefield,” he told me. “The regime is causing trouble throughout the region, and then there are plenty of human rights issues with their own imprisoned dissidents. And all they said was, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” In other words, don’t bug us with the details, we’re all about Bush.
Another source explains that Syrian activists believe Pelosi’s trip gave the Asad regime much needed breathing room. “Whether there is a real connection or not, political dissidents note that Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison in the wake of Pelosi’s visit.”
Another opposition figure, Muhammad Ma’moun Homsi, a former Syrian MP who was imprisoned for five years beginning in 2001, and who has now fled Syria, revealed that he had sent a letter to Pelosi asking her not to come to Damascus. In an interview on an Arabic-language website, Homsi added that the idea of engaging such regimes is “a very dangerous proposition cause next will be a call to engage terrorist organizations.”
And now some regional observers believe that Ibrahim Suleiman is a signal to the Democrats that they have an eager partner in Damascus. Walid Choucair, a columnist for the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, writes that Suleiman is part of a Syrian “wager on the changed position of a future administration (and) the Democrats coming to power in 2008.”
It’s hardly surprising that the Asad regime is trying to wait out a highly unfriendly White House and see what fate throws them next. But what has the Democrats so excited about a government that is helping to kill U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, targeting American allies and interests in Israel, the PA, and Jordan, all while trying to reassert its presence in Lebanon?
“The Democrats were the loudest critics of Bush’s unilateralism,” says Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “But with Syria, they seem eager to cross the consensus of allies like France, Saudi Arabia, and the U.N. Security Council who are all working to make Damascus pay the consequences for its meddling in Lebanon.”
Is there any real hope of a comprehensive deal with Syria? Of course not. If a stable Iraq and Lebanon were in Damascus’s “best interests,” then the regime wouldn’t have been working so hard to destabilize its two neighbors for the last several years. What control does Asad have over Hamas? None, except that the group’s leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in the Syrian capital. Has the regime’s mentality changed since 2000, when Bashar’s father Hafez balked at a deal to regain the Golan? No. Quite the contrary, as Asad’s obsession with Hezbollah suggests that the ruling Alawi family has become yet more ideological.
The one thing Damascus has going for it is that it is the ideal entry point to attack the Bush administration’s policies in the region. The cynical and/or obtuse rationale for engaging the regime—that Syria holds the keys to Iraq, Lebanon, the peace process, and bringing Iran to heel—has now been enshrined in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report.
It is now not only legitimate, it is part of the Democrats’ foreign policy, for no sooner had Pelosi returned from Damascus than the Clintons started prepping their 2008 credentials with a shout-out to Syria.
In a recent interview with the London-based Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, former President Bill Clinton explained how the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin ruined the chances for Middle East peace. Never mind Arafat and the second intifada, or Hamas’s genocidal campaign, it was one Jewish bullet, Clinton explained, that “killed the whole process”—including the Syrian track. “It will take 35 minutes to resolve the problem between Israel and Syria,” Clinton told the pan-Arab daily. A half hour and change? Apparently Clinton is still angling for a Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps as a Middle East envoy, and there’s at least one 2008 candidate who’d tap him for the job. One website with close ties to the Syrian regime, Cham Press, has reported that Hillary Clinton intends to visit Damascus in the coming weeks. That may be only be part of a campaign of Syrian self-aggrandizement, and yet one former Clinton staffer would likely be more than willing to schedule her itinerary.
Robert Malley, who has been hawking the International Crisis Group’s “Restarting Syrian-Israeli Negotiations,” all over Washington, has a curious past history with the Clintons. His reputation as a mediator rests mostly on a series of articles in the New York Review of Books where he claimed that he knew things about Camp David and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that the then-president of the United States was either ignorant of or had misrepresented. If the Clintons bring Malley in, they should keep in mind he won’t be the first to turn their failure to his own advantage. In Damascus they will find a negotiating partner who has been waiting several years now to sit at the table with the Americans, to look them in the face and talk nice, while they are helping to kill U.S. servicemen in Iraq.