Syria: Part of the Solution; not Part of the Problem
Brooks Newmark argues the case for diplomatic engagement with Syria in the light of President Bush's recent statement on Iraq.
The Prime Minister spent the latter part of 2006 on a whistle-stop tour of the Middle East to spread the message that "we must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside of it to defeat the extremists. Nothing matters more. Nothing should stand in the way of it. Nothing should be more galvanising of our collective will."1
But, just a month earlier, he had been busy countering media speculation that America's mid-term election results would spur both Britain and the United States into a reappraisal of their relations with Iran and Syria.
In order to drive the point home, and perhaps to register his disapproval of fundamentalism in any guise, he told guests at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in November that "there is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran."2
We might be forgiven for thinking, then that the Prime Minister's subsequent 'alliance of moderation' is to be mobilised without any actual forward movement.
Of course, for the Prime Minister to have had a Damascene conversion on dialogue with Syria would just be too good to be true. Instead he used the language of evolution to counter the preachers of revolution by claiming that "just as the situation is evolving, so our strategy should evolve to meet it."3
This is all well and good. But as one of Britain's more famous Arabists, T E Lawrence, wrote in the 1930s, "All the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft."4
Gertrude Bell, another amateur enthusiast of Syriana, was even more to the point when she wrote that "Sooner or later Syria is bound to go up like a volcano."5 Over eighty years later, that observation is still perilously close to fruition.
The assassination of Pierre Gemayel, barely a week after the Prime Minister denied the need for a reappraisal of policy towards Syria, underscores the need for renewed engagement before the volcano eventually erupts. There have certainly been rumblings, the most ominous being in the Lebanon last summer.
Syria has certainly failed to benefit from the goodwill that the then Foreign Secretary was willing to extend in 2003 when he said that, "As for Syria, we hope that it will now take the opportunity to make a decisive break with the policies of the past and so contribute to a better future for the entire region."6 That is a tragedy, but its roots lie in the accusations of Syrian complicity in political assassination.
Assassinations are an age-old method of destabilization. But their effect as catalysts for change will, in the end, be determined by how others choose to react to them. This is, of course, the whole point.
Unfortunately, there are those who are almost indecently quick to suggest an iron-clad connection between Syria and the destabilization of the Lebanon. From my meetings with senior Syrian officials last year I would be surprised if that were the case. As an explanation it smacks of oversimplification.
It is more reasonable to recognize that groups loosely affiliated to Syrian interests do exist within the Lebanon, instead of merely ascribing a modern day Führerprinzip to President Assad.
The United Kingdom has a long history of combating terrorism and dissidence in the form of the Irish Republican movement. It is arguable that a breakthrough in our own home-grown peace process was only possible once we recognised that there were limits to the centralized control of the republican movement.
Just as Sinn Fein / IRA disowned the leadership and goals of the 'Real IRA', so too must it be possible for the Syrian Government to disown those who may believe that they are pursuing Syrian interests within the Lebanon but who are, in fact, acting for their own ends.
Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Syria must get a grip. Perhaps more importantly at this level of international affairs it must be seen to be doing so. Syria must now show the world, and must want to show the world, that the spate of tragedies which have affected its neighbour will provoke some introspection, instead of merely further enflaming regional tensions.
The Prime Minister has argued that what is happening in the Middle East is simple. If that is so then the answer to it is equally simple: any policy which does not seek to engage all parties with strategic interests in the region will founder before it has even begun.
He has tentatively admitted that everyone, including Syria, needs a seat at the table, and has even conceded that there is no automatic identity of interest between Iran and Syria. But, having done so, he seems to have been happy to proceed with the fiction that there is identity of interest elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Lebanon will not stand by while a solution is found for Israel and the Palestinians, still less Syria. Those countries are all part of any sustainable settlement and must be a part of the peace process from the start.
In the wake of the Prime Minister's Guildhall speech in November an embattled American State Department attempted to preserve the idea of a consensus between the UK and the US on the future of engagement with Syria and Iran, and to deny the existence of what others had dubbed "The Blair formula."
But the US still clings, in a way that I hope we do not, to the notion of a neat Manichean fault-line in the Middle East. The 'Axis of Evil' makes for a good sound bite but for dodgy diplomacy. Similar regrettable examples are to be found in the Iraq Study Group's advocacy of a 'New Diplomatic Offensive'; to be made, presumably, by the Prime Minister's 'Alliance of Moderation.'
All of this rhetoric sounds suspiciously bellicose given that the subject is diplomacy, and that feeling is not discouraged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's declaration that "It is not an issue of whether you talk to somebody. I will talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime under the right circumstances if I think we can make progress. I'm not afraid to talk to anyone."7
Even visits to Syria have become a vexed issue. Reacting to a visit to Syria by US Senators in December a White House spokesman said that "You can take a tough line all you want but the Syrians have already won a PR victory" simply because visits give "legitimacy to a Government that undermines the cause of democracy in the region."8
Visits seem to have become another extension of the taboo placed on diplomatic engagement. But President Bush's 'Axis of Evil' has always drawn self-consciously on Cold War rhetoric and it is that same rhetoric with which his opponents now answer criticism: "If Ronald Reagan could talk to the Evil Empire, surely United States Senators with a responsibility to American troops can visit Syria?"9
Nevertheless, the refrain is still that Syria has not met the preconditions for dialogue. As the former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard L. Armitage, has said about the need for engagement with Syria, "We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies."10
The attachment to preconditions undermines any claim by the State Department that talking is a process rather than an objective in itself. After the Prime Minister's Guildhall speech a State Department spokesman was keen to drum home this principle by saying that "talking isn't a policy…talking and discussion is a mechanism to achieve your policy goals." But, unfortunately, he immediately fell victim to a reporter who asked: "Talking is not a policy. Is not talking a policy then?"11
Predictably enough, perhaps, this drew nothing more than a tautology worthy of Donald Rumsfeld as the spokesman floundered into the statement that "if you look very clearly at Iran and Syria, our policies are quite clear." The clarity which managed to elude him during his own press briefing seems to be that engagement with Iran and Syria is not open-ended but remains contingent on a list of up-front concessions.
This is not only unsatisfactory but it is unsustainable. It is also strictly at odds with the Baker-Hamilton Report, which recommended that the strategic partners with an interest in Iraq and the wider Middle East "should actively engage Iran and Syria in its own diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions."
Further emphasis, if it were needed, can be found in Recommendation 9 which argues that "the United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies towards Iraq and other regional issues."
The message of the Iraq Study Group is that a commitment to talk is not a commitment to a particular outcome, it is the manifestation of a belief in the value of diplomacy.
This is a point that the Prime Minister appeared to concede in December when he said that "we stand ready, willing and able to deal with anybody who is prepared to deal with us on proper constructive terms, and those don't mean agreeing with everything we think and say."12
But, nevertheless, the White House still reacts pugnaciously to the Syrian government, calling it "adventurous and meddlesome in Iraq and in Lebanon."13 Unfortunately that accusation could equally well be levelled against the Bush Administration. Meanwhile the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report look set to be ignored by President Bush and, at the start of 2007, there has been no news of the New Diplomatic Offensive.
On Wednesday evening (10th January, 2007) President Bush announced his future strategy for US involvement in Iraq. Although he admitted that "we benefited from the thoughtful recommendations of the Iraq Study Group," he has not acted upon them. Unfortunately the focus on the wider strategic issues affecting Iraq remains on military rather than diplomatic engagement. The President was adamant that "we will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria." But when it comes to using "America's full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq" Syria is still excluded from the list of potential interlocutors.
In the wake of Pierre Gemayel's killing the President pledged to defend Lebanese democracy "against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability." The best way to do this is not to stand idly by while Lebanon is torn apart, but to engage with Syria and other strategic partners before it is too late. Perhaps Mr. Bush has found his very own Inconvenient Truth.
If we are looking for simplicity in the Middle East, as the Prime Minister believes; or clarity, as the US State Department would have it, then we need look no further than a commitment to engagement without preconditions. That is not being mealy-mouthed or lacking backbone; it is Realpolitik. A true "whole Middle East" strategy must not be yet another series of steps towards a contrived goal, but a reappraisal of the goal itself in which all voices are heard.
1 Prime Minister, speech to business leaders in Dubai, 20th December 2006
2 Tony Blair, Guildhall Speech, 13th November 2006
3 Tony Blair, Guildhall Speech, 13th November 2006
4 Lawrence to Bruce Rogers (20 August 1931)
5 Diaries 12th September 1920
6 10 Apr 2003 : Column 407
7 Wednesday, November 15, 2006 Secretary Condoleezza Rice Briefing En Route Hanoi, Vietnam
8 Financial Times, 15th December 2006
9 Ibid, John Kerry's spokesman
10 Washington Post Critics Cite 'Constrained' Mideast Policy: By Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz Sunday, August 6, 2006; A16
11 State Department Daily Press Briefing Sean McCormack, Spokesman Washington, DC November 14, 2006
12 Tony Blair at a press conference with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, 18th December 2006
13 Financial Times, 15th December 2006"