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Iran, Arab Summit, and Sy Hersh

March 31, 2009

Sy Hersh has a new article on the Middle East, this time about the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Syria.  Hersh argues that al-Assad’s overtures suggest Syria is genuinely interested a peace deal.  He cites a number of prominent Middle East hands in the piece as well as the predictable littany of unamed sources. 

Qifa Nabki makes a case that this is further evidence that the Israelis have a ready and willing partner in the Syrians, and he may be right. Regardless, taking Hersh’s story on its own merits (my own reservations about some of his recent reporting on the Levant notwithstanding), I notice some disconnects in the way some US policymakers and al-Assad talk about Iran.  Below are some relevant excerpts from Hersh’s article:

If Israel wants a settlement that goes beyond the Golan Heights, Assad said, 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. Wherever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.” He added, “Hezbollah is in Lebanon and Hamas is in Palestine. . . . If they want to solve the problem of Hezbollah, they have to deal with Lebanon. For Hamas, they have to deal with Gaza. For Iran, it is not part of the peace process anyway.” Assad went on, “This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel.”

Martin Indyk said, “If the White House engages with Syria, it immediately puts pressure on Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” He said that he had repeatedly sought, without success, to convince the Bush Administration that it was possible to draw Syria away from Iran. In his recent memoir, “Innocent Abroad,” Indyk wrote, “There is a deep divergence between Iran and Syria, captured in the fact that at the same time as Iran’s president threatens to wipe Israel off the map, his Syrian ally is attempting to make peace with Israel. . . . Should negotiations yield a peace agreement, it would likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian axis.” When we spoke, he added, referring to Assad, “It will not be easy for him to break with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, but he cannot get a peace deal unless he does. But, if he feels that things are moving in the Middle East, he will not want to be left behind.”

I realize that Indyk is not in the Obama administration, but the above sentiment that Syria can be split from Iran seems to shared by the President’s team.  As I’ve expressed before, I find it unlikely that a Syrian-Iranian split will happen in a way that is of significant use to the US with regard to the nuclear issue.  Syria is highly unlikely to distance itself from Iran ex ante as part of peace negotiations, as that would surrender a valuable bargaining chip.  Given the timetable of the Iranian nuclear program and the imminent need for some sort of US negotiations/action it seems unlikely that Syria can offer much here beyond playing the role of mediator between the two camps.  While I remain skeptical that al-Assad is a serious partner on the Golan if Lebanon is controlled by a March 14 government and Fatah is the recognized Palestinian partner by the West, peace between Israel and Syria is a desirable goal in and of itself and should at least be explored by the Obama administration.  However, they ought not to hinge their Iran strategy around Syria.

Ultimately, the Doha Summit does not appear to have acheived much beyond an amusing outburst from Qaddafi and strong support for an indicted war criminal.  Ahmadinejad, contrary to some prior suspicions, was not invited to the summit.  The second item of the closing statement reads, “We urge resolving Arab differences through targeted and constructive dialogue.  We will work to consolidate Arab relations and strengthen their openness and roots and protect the High Arab national interests for the Arab nation.”  This is really all the statement offers with regard to the issue of reconciliation.  Thus the summit can probably be said to be a failure in so far as the overiding aim following Abdallah’s overture to Syria in Kuwait was supposed to be rapprochement.  The absence of Mubarak certainly didn’t help, but what this really shows is that the divisions within the Arab world are too deep and significant for a two months of diplomacy to ease.  Saudi Arabia clearly is trying to draw Syria away from Iranian fold.  The problem is that Syria probably feels that the relative strength of the “resistance” camp in the Palestinian and Lebanese spheres, al-Assad’s relative popularity on the proverbial “Arab street” (for an Arab head of state), and the line of diplomats and journalists on its doorstep presents little incentive to shift course.

The March 14 friendly Lebanese daily an-Nahar features in today’s edition a fascinating article on Iran, Syria, and recent  diplomacy.  This piece illustrates the divide separating Syria and the Sunni moderates on the Iranian issue.  After describing the efforts of Arab states to split Syria from Iran and then listing a number of grievances that the two states are allegedly the source of:

واوضح لنا ديبلوماسي عربي مطلع “ان قائمة الاعتراضات العربية على الاعمال والممارسات والمواقف والسياسات الايرانية تظهر ان الخلاف بين مصر والسعودية ودول عربية عدة مع الجمهورية الاسلامية ليس شكليا وعابرا، وليس ناتجا من سوء تفاهم يمكن تسويته بسهولة. بل ان هذا الخلاف العربي – الايراني جدي وعميق وهو ناتج من تصميم ايران على فرض ذاتها كقوة مهيمنة على المنطقة العربية وشؤونها، وعلى العمل بالتعاون مع سوريا و”حماس” و”حزب الله” وتنظيمات متشددة اخرى، على اضعاف الموقف العربي والفلسطيني لمصلحة الجمهورية الاسلامية ومخططاتها”.

وفي هذا المجال كشف لنا مسؤول عربي بارز وجود خلاف بين الرئيس بشار الاسد وعدد من الزعماء العرب في شأن “تقويم التهديد الايراني” وطريقة التعامل مع ايران. واكد المسؤول العربي ان الاسد دافع خلال لقاءاته الاخيرة مع عدد من الزعماء العرب عن ايران وسياساتها ومواقفها، وقلل خطورة “مواقفها واعمالها السلبية”
 
دفع الاسد عن علاقات سوريا الخاصة والقوية مع ايران قائلا: “انها لمصلحة العرب

The Arab diplomat clarified for us, “The list of Arab objections to Iranian acts, practices, positions, and policies show that the difference between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states with the Islamic Republic is not formal or passing.  And it is not resulting from a misunderstanding that it is possible to easily solve.  But rather this Arab-Iranian disagreement is serious and deep and results from the intention of Iran to impose itself as a hegemonic power on the Arab region and its affairs.  And with regard to working on cooperating with Syria, Hamas, Hizbollah and other extremist groups, it weakens the Arab and Palestinian position in favor of the Islamic Republic and its planners.

On this subject the prominent Arab authority revealed to us that there is a disagreement between al-Assad and a number of the Arab leaders on the issue of “evaluating the Iranian threat” and the way of dealing with Iran.  The Arab authority confirmed that al-Assad, during his recent meetings with Arab leaders, defended Iran and its policies and positions and minimized the danger of its “negative positions and actions”.

al-Assad defended Syria’s special and strong relations with Iran saying, “that it is for the interest of the Arabs”.

Thus, if we take the paltry Arab “reconciliation” at Doha and the an-Nahar piece into account, the US ought not to make “flipping” Syria a central part of its Iran strategy.  There appears to be a fundamental disagreement between the moderate Western allied Arab states and the US on the one hand and Syria on the other with respect to Iran.  The former group would like to isolate the Islamic Republic and force it to make hard choices.  Meanwhile Syria, considering the an-Nahar piece and al-Assad’s offer to serve as a mediator between Iran and the West, prefers to legitimize Iran as an actor and draw it further into the Arab world.Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

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