Syria sets a trap for Obama

Middle East scholar and Syria watcher Tony Badran has a great article in the latest issue of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). It's part of a symposium featuring several excellent pieces by authors like Dr. Barry Rubin, Patrick Clawsen, and David Schenker, all on the subject of "An Obama Administration in the Middle East."

Badran's article is "Syria sets its traps for the Obama Administration." Tony opens our eyes to why Syria is licking its chops at the prospect of negotiations with the United States under President Obama:

The problem is that Syria's priorities are basically at odds with those of the United States. These main goals including preserving a strong relationship with Iran--which many in the West think they can break--controlling Lebanon, projecting influence into Iraq, locking Israel in a proxy war of attrition, dominating the Palestinian question, and undermining Jordan. Since Iran shares and furthers these goals, the common denominator to which is undermining American interests and allies in the Middle East, the alliance between Damascus and Tehran is strong and durable.

Regarding Lebanon, Syria is the main factor subverting that country's independence and stability. This strategy includes ongoing armament of Hizballah and other Lebanese and Palestinian militias; facilitating the crossing of radical terrorists and their equipment, including the Fatah al-Islam terror group; refusal to fully demarcate and monitor the common borders; and constant subversive interference in Lebanese domestic affairs in an attempt to restore full Syrian hegemony.

At the same time, Syria is trying to dismantle the two main challenges to its domination of Lebanon: the Chapter VII International Tribunal into the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri plus others and UN Security Council resolutions--including 1559, 1680, and 1701--designed to end chronic Syrian subversion of Lebanese independence and sovereignty and to limit Hizballah's freedom of action there.

Obama, in his naivete, wishes to engage Syria and make them a "partner in peace" as they attempt to solve the Israeli-Palestinian riddle. Badran shows why this is folly:

Rather than show any willingness to change such policies, Syria has taken the offensive by demanding unilateral concessions from the United States. These include insistence that the United States appoint a new ambassador to Syria, restore normal diplomatic ties (originally cut to protest Syrian sponsorship of terrorism and subversion in Lebanon), end "anti-Syrian rhetoric," lift sanctions, repeal the Syria Accountability Act, renew intelligence cooperation, endorse Israel-Syria talks, to terminate effectively the International Tribunal, and show gratitude for alleged Syrian cooperation in blocking the flow of terrorists into Iraq. Following close behind is insistence that the United States accept Syrian hegemony over Lebanon on the pretext of its "combating" radical Islamist groups there, when the only such groups have been dispatched from Syria and fought by the Lebanese Army.

After these concessions are granted, Syria hints in English that it might reconsider its alliance with Iran. On top of it all, Syrian leaders and their mouthpieces make it clear that the alliance with Iran is non-negotiable and any request to sever it constitutes a "non-starter." Regarding Iraq, Damascus, currently laying another trap, has expressed itself as willing to accept intelligence cooperation in order to facilitate an "honorable U.S. exit," but on the condition that the United States reassigns an ambassador to Damascus, under the pretext of "starting with a clean slate." Also hidden in there is what the Syrians euphemistically called a "package deal" in 2006-2007, when the United States did approach Syria over Iraq's security. "Package deal" was simply code for giving Syria a free hand in Lebanon.

The problem is that the Syrian slate is not clean. As noted above, Bashar al-Asad has piled up an astonishing record of brazen and overt belligerence towards the United States and its allies and violation of international law. Wiping that slate clean through unconditional engagement would send all the wrong signals to both enemies and allies in the region.

Read the entire article for more insights. And make sure you bookmark Tony's excellent blog on Syria and Lebanon Across the Bay.