Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar Assad

Israel Threatens Assad with Regime Change

The Israeli government may be moving beyond its fear and loathing of a Syria governed by somebody other than Bashar Assad. For years, Jerusalem has been careful to avoid doing anything or even saying anything that might destabilize Damascus. But after Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, threatened Israel this week with a war that would be fought “inside your cities,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman snapped. “Not only will you lose the war,” he said to Assad, “you and your family will no longer be in power.”

There are good reasons to feel squeamish about the aftermath of regime change, whether it comes at the hands of Israelis or not. The same sectarian monster that stalks Lebanon and Iraq lives just under the floorboards in Syria. The majority of Syria’s people are Sunni Arabs, but 30 percent or so are Christians, Druze, Alawites, or Kurds. Assad himself is an Alawite, as are most of the elite in the ruling Baath Party, the secret police, and the military. Their very survival depends on keeping Syria’s sectarianism suppressed. The country could easily come apart without Assad’s government enforcing domestic peace at the point of a gun. This is a serious problem. It’s not Israel’s problem, but it’s a problem.

The Israelis have been worried about something else: that after Assad, Syria might be governed by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization or something that looks a lot like it. There’s no guarantee, though, that the Muslim Brothers would take over. They aren’t in power anywhere else in the Arab world. Even if they do succeed Assad, they couldn’t ramp up the hostility much. Assad’s is already the most hostile Arab government in the world. A replacement regime, especially one dominated by Sunnis rather than by minorities who lack legitimacy and feel they have something to prove, would likely gravitate toward the regional mainstream.

Millions of Syrians sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re tired of being lorded over by secularists from a faith they consider heretical. Still, fundamentalist Sunni Arabs who try to impose some kind of theocracy will meet automatic resistance from the country’s Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, and secular and moderate Sunnis. Theocracy is hardly the norm in the Middle East anyway. Not a single Arab country — unless you consider Gaza a country — is governed by a religious regime like the one in Iran.

No dictatorship rules forever. The Alawite regime in Damascus will eventually be replaced, one way or another. Syria will have to reckon with its own demons sooner or later, and it will either hold together and muddle through, or it won’t. Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unstable countries fall apart in their own way. Only a fool would dismiss as irrelevant the sectarian bloodletting Iraq has suffered during the last several years, but Syria’s problems are its own, and a few critical ingredients that made Iraq into a perfect storm are missing.

Assad’s own foreign policy was — and, to an extent, still is — a big part of Iraq’s problem. He made Syria a transit hub for radical Sunnis from all over the Arab world who volunteered to martyr themselves fighting American soldiers, Shia civilians, and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. That won’t be a problem once Assad is out of the picture.

Freelance jihadists won’t be interested in fighting the next Syrian government anyway if the Alawites are stripped of their power. Sunnis will dominate the government again, as they should because they’re the majority. Sunni Arabs all over the Middle East are still unhappy that Iraq is mostly governed by Shias, but they’ll be at peace with a Sunni-led Syria.

I’d love to see Assad get his just desserts after what he’s done to his neighbors and his countrymen. It will be terrific if his Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is replaced with something more moderate and civilized. The odds of a smooth transition and a happy ending, though, are not great. Syria has no grassroots movement demanding democratic change right now as Iran does. The Israelis are right to be cautious.

But they’re also right to threaten to pull Assad’s plug if he doesn’t back off. He’s a lot less likely even to start the next war if he knows he’ll be held accountable. The fact that he can suppress sectarian violence at home isn’t worth much if he won’t stop exporting it everywhere else.

The Israeli government may be moving beyond its fear and loathing of a Syria governed by somebody other than Bashar Assad. For years, Jerusalem has been careful to avoid doing anything or even saying anything that might destabilize Damascus. But after Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, threatened Israel this week with a war that would be fought “inside your cities,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman snapped. “Not only will you lose the war,” he said to Assad, “you and your family will no longer be in power.”

There are good reasons to feel squeamish about the aftermath of regime change, whether it comes at the hands of Israelis or not. The same sectarian monster that stalks Lebanon and Iraq lives just under the floorboards in Syria. The majority of Syria’s people are Sunni Arabs, but 30 percent or so are Christians, Druze, Alawites, or Kurds. Assad himself is an Alawite, as are most of the elite in the ruling Baath Party, the secret police, and the military. Their very survival depends on keeping Syria’s sectarianism suppressed. The country could easily come apart without Assad’s government enforcing domestic peace at the point of a gun. This is a serious problem. It’s not Israel’s problem, but it’s a problem.

The Israelis have been worried about something else: that after Assad, Syria might be governed by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization or something that looks a lot like it. There’s no guarantee, though, that the Muslim Brothers would take over. They aren’t in power anywhere else in the Arab world. Even if they do succeed Assad, they couldn’t ramp up the hostility much. Assad’s is already the most hostile Arab government in the world. A replacement regime, especially one dominated by Sunnis rather than by minorities who lack legitimacy and feel they have something to prove, would likely gravitate toward the regional mainstream.

Millions of Syrians sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re tired of being lorded over by secularists from a faith they consider heretical. Still, fundamentalist Sunni Arabs who try to impose some kind of theocracy will meet automatic resistance from the country’s Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, and secular and moderate Sunnis. Theocracy is hardly the norm in the Middle East anyway. Not a single Arab country — unless you consider Gaza a country — is governed by a religious regime like the one in Iran.

No dictatorship rules forever. The Alawite regime in Damascus will eventually be replaced, one way or another. Syria will have to reckon with its own demons sooner or later, and it will either hold together and muddle through, or it won’t. Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unstable countries fall apart in their own way. Only a fool would dismiss as irrelevant the sectarian bloodletting Iraq has suffered during the last several years, but Syria’s problems are its own, and a few critical ingredients that made Iraq into a perfect storm are missing.

Assad’s own foreign policy was — and, to an extent, still is — a big part of Iraq’s problem. He made Syria a transit hub for radical Sunnis from all over the Arab world who volunteered to martyr themselves fighting American soldiers, Shia civilians, and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. That won’t be a problem once Assad is out of the picture.

Freelance jihadists won’t be interested in fighting the next Syrian government anyway if the Alawites are stripped of their power. Sunnis will dominate the government again, as they should because they’re the majority. Sunni Arabs all over the Middle East are still unhappy that Iraq is mostly governed by Shias, but they’ll be at peace with a Sunni-led Syria.

I’d love to see Assad get his just desserts after what he’s done to his neighbors and his countrymen. It will be terrific if his Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is replaced with something more moderate and civilized. The odds of a smooth transition and a happy ending, though, are not great. Syria has no grassroots movement demanding democratic change right now as Iran does. The Israelis are right to be cautious.

But they’re also right to threaten to pull Assad’s plug if he doesn’t back off. He’s a lot less likely even to start the next war if he knows he’ll be held accountable. The fact that he can suppress sectarian violence at home isn’t worth much if he won’t stop exporting it everywhere else.

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War and Peace in the Levant

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

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Threatening Israel Isn’t Enough Anymore

Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei posted a comment on his website (yes, even he’s doing it now) predicting the inevitable destruction of Israel, a task he generally delegates to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime,” he wrote. “How soon or late … depends on how Islamic countries and Muslim nations approach the issue.”

Israelis should be pleased to hear they’ll be allowed to exist a bit longer if Saudi Arabia dithers. And Saudi Arabia is going to dither for a long time.

According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in 18 Arab countries think Iran is more dangerous than Israel. And according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a substantial number of Saudi citizens are even willing to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.

A third of Saudi respondents say they would approve an American strike, and a fourth say they’d back an Israeli strike. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Supporting Israel is taboo in the Arab world, and that goes double when Israel is at war. This is not the sort of thing most Arabs are comfortable admitting to strangers, yet one-fourth of Saudis just did. Read More

Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei posted a comment on his website (yes, even he’s doing it now) predicting the inevitable destruction of Israel, a task he generally delegates to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime,” he wrote. “How soon or late … depends on how Islamic countries and Muslim nations approach the issue.”

Israelis should be pleased to hear they’ll be allowed to exist a bit longer if Saudi Arabia dithers. And Saudi Arabia is going to dither for a long time.

According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in 18 Arab countries think Iran is more dangerous than Israel. And according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a substantial number of Saudi citizens are even willing to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.

A third of Saudi respondents say they would approve an American strike, and a fourth say they’d back an Israeli strike. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Supporting Israel is taboo in the Arab world, and that goes double when Israel is at war. This is not the sort of thing most Arabs are comfortable admitting to strangers, yet one-fourth of Saudis just did.

(Intriguingly, a clear majority of Saudis interviewed in the same survey think their own terrorism and religious extremism is more troubling than either Iran or Israel. There may be hope, at least in the long run, for that region yet.)

Iran’s rulers constantly threaten Israel with violence and even destruction because they know the Arabs are against them. They need to change the subject to something they all can agree on. Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in 1979 and voided Iran’s treaty with Israel, regime leaders have believed they’ll meet less resistance while amassing power for themselves in the region by saying, Hey, we’re not after you, we’re after the Jews.

It isn’t enough anymore. Even arming and bankrolling terrorist organizations that fight Israel isn’t enough anymore. Most Arabs simply do not believe Ahmadinejad and Khamenei when they not-so-cryptically suggest that their nuclear weapons will be pointed only at Israel. By a factor of 3-to-1, Saudis believe Iran would use nuclear weapons against either them or another Arab state in the Persian Gulf before using nuclear weapons against Israel.

Most Arabs hate or at the very least have serious problems with Israel, and I expect that will be true for the rest of my life, even if the Arab-Israeli conflict comes to an end. Yet the Middle East is forever interesting and surprising, and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” even applies to an extent when “the enemy of my enemy” is the “Zionist Entity.”

This was made abundantly clear during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, when Sunni Arab regimes tacitly took Jerusalem’s side by blaming Hezbollah for starting it and saying nothing, at least initially, about the Israeli response. The war was fought in an Arab country, but it was a proxy war between two non-Arab powers. Lebanon merely provided the battle space.

The Sunni Arab “street,” so to speak, didn’t take Israel’s side. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah managed to turn himself into a heroic big shot for a while by taking the fight to the enemy, but the most recent victims of Hezbollah’s violence were Sunnis in Beirut in 2008, and no one in the Middle East has forgotten it.

With only a few exceptions, the region has been firmly controlled by Sunni Arab regimes since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, yet none of these governments are strong enough to project power abroad. As author Lee Smith notes, they can’t even defend themselves. A number of analysts have pointed out in the last couple of years that the political agenda in the Arab Middle East is now set by non-Arabs in Jerusalem, Tehran, Washington, and to a lesser extent, Ankara. Syria’s Bashar Assad helps set the regional agenda as the logistics hub in the Iranian-Hezbollah axis, but he’s a non-Muslim Alawite, not a Sunni, and he’s doing it as a mere sidekick of the Persians. If all that weren’t enough, the Sunnis now depend on Israelis to defend them, and they’re not even sure the Israelis will do it.

We’ll know Iran’s power play is actually working if and when Sunni Arab governments issue not just boilerplate denunciations of the “Zionist Entity” but actually join the Iran-led resistance and fight Israel like they used to. In the meantime, they’re falling in behind their enemy, although they dare not admit it to anyone.

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The Middle East Has Always Been Hard

As Jennifer pointed out yesterday, President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he had been “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, “Well, duh,” right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. “It’s strange for me to say it,” Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad’s overlordship in his country began, “but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

The Middle East’s “Berlin Wall,” so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn’t fall.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

As Jennifer pointed out yesterday, President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he had been “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, “Well, duh,” right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. “It’s strange for me to say it,” Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad’s overlordship in his country began, “but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

The Middle East’s “Berlin Wall,” so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn’t fall.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Assad Returns as the Strong Horse

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis. Read More

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis.

Hariri and his allies in parliament resisted an extraordinary amount of pressure on these points for months before caving in, but cave in they did. They didn’t have much choice. The national army isn’t strong enough to disarm Hezbollah, and unlike Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei, Hariri doesn’t have his own private army. Hezbollah militiamen surrounded his house last year and firebombed his TV station when the government shut down its illegal surveillance system at the airport. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hezbollah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back when push comes to shove.

No one has Hariri’s or Lebanon’s back, not anymore. He and his allies in the “March 14″ coalition have sensed this for some time, which is why Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has grudgingly softened his opposition to Assad and Hezbollah lately. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country, aside from useless newswire reporters, understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt is another member of what David Schenker calls the Murdered Fathers Club. Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, put Jumblatt through a similarly gruesome experience back in the 70s during the civil war. First Assad murdered Walid’s father, Kamal, then summoned the surviving Jumblatt to Damascus and forced him to shake hands and pledge his allegiance. Who can even imagine what that must have felt like? Hariri knows now, and Jumblatt still tells everyone he meets all about it.

Hariri generally doesn’t like having long conversations with journalists on the record because he doesn’t want to calculate how everything he says will be simultaneously interpreted in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Israel, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. I can’t say I blame him. He lives under virtual house arrest as it is, with barely more freedom of movement than Hassan Nasrallah. Here is something he said, though, back when it was safer for him to do so: “Action must be taken against Syria, like isolation, to make the Syrians understand that killing members of [Lebanon's] parliament will have consequences.”

The U.S. and France did effectively isolate Assad with Saudi assistance when George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac were in charge, but presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy think they can save the Middle East by “engaging” its most toxic leaders. Syria, therefore, is no longer isolated. Lebanon’s little anti-Syrian government doesn’t stand a chance under these circumstances, especially not when Hezbollah is the dominant military power in the country.

“It’s a dangerous game these people are playing,” Lebanese activist and political analyst Eli Khoury said last time I spoke with him in Beirut, “but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again. I’ve seen every strategy: Kissinger’s step-by-step approach, full engagement — which means sleeping with the enemy, basically — and the solid stand as with the Bush Administration. I’ve seen them all. The only one that works so far in my opinion, aside from some real stupid and dumb mistakes, is the severing of relationships. It made the Syrians behave.”

It did make the Syrians behave a bit for a while, but now the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia are bringing Assad in from the cold and giving him cocoa. His influence, naturally, is rising again, in Lebanon and everywhere else. That’s good news for Hezbollah, of course, which means it’s also good news for Iran. It’s bad news for the Lebanese, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Israelis. None of this was inevitable, but — in Lebanon, at least — it was predictable.

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Obama’s Engagement Fallout: Lebanon Surrenders

This past weekend, one of the genuine triumphs of American foreign policy in the past decade was officially reversed. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri went to Damascus to pay tribute to his country’s Syrian overlord, the 2005 Cedar Revolution was buried. Less than five years ago, American pressure, which encouraged those forces in Lebanon that longed to be free, helped bring about the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had occupied that country since the 1970s. Syria had overreached when it sponsored the assassination of Harriri’s father, Rafik, who preceded him as prime minister. That, combined with the increased influence in the region of the United States in the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, had convinced the Syrians that they must retreat.

But although the Syrian army has not returned, it now doesn’t have to. Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force that serves as a proxy for both Iran and Syria, has effectively strangled any hope of Lebanon’s escaping the grasp of those rogue regimes. Syria’s influence is once more unchallenged in Beirut. Rather than witnessing an international tribunal arraigning Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his underlings for the murder of his father, as well as the transformation of Lebanon into a genuine Arab democracy, Saad Harriri has been compelled to swallow the humiliation of fawning on his father’s murderer.

What changed? According to the New York Times, the failure of Harriri to maintain his country’s independence is due to one major difference between 2005 and 2009: “since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it.” As a result, those who thought they had the West’s backing for resisting the thugs of Damascus have been forced to swallow their pride and swear loyalty to Assad in order to save their lives.

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

It is worth recalling that back in the fall of 2008, when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin met for the vice-presidential nominees’ debate, Biden committed a gaffe when he claimed that Hezbollah had already been kicked out of Lebanon. Palin didn’t pick up on this blooper, and Biden escaped the derision he deserved for a passage in which he claimed that the best solution for Lebanon was a NATO intervention (had Palin committed such a blunder, she would never have heard the end of it). Biden probably meant Syria when he said Hezbollah, and his intention was to claim that Bush’s policies had failed in Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s revival. But as much as it should be conceded that Bush failed to sufficiently follow up on the Cedar Revolution, we now see what a year of the Obama-Biden administration has achieved in the region.

Their blind belief in engagement, as well as increased pressure on Israel, has emboldened both Syria and Iran. Those wishing to see what kind of difference Obama has made in the Middle East need only regard the wince-inducing spectacle of Saad Harriri bowing to Assad. The consequences of American engagement are not a pretty sight.

This past weekend, one of the genuine triumphs of American foreign policy in the past decade was officially reversed. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri went to Damascus to pay tribute to his country’s Syrian overlord, the 2005 Cedar Revolution was buried. Less than five years ago, American pressure, which encouraged those forces in Lebanon that longed to be free, helped bring about the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had occupied that country since the 1970s. Syria had overreached when it sponsored the assassination of Harriri’s father, Rafik, who preceded him as prime minister. That, combined with the increased influence in the region of the United States in the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, had convinced the Syrians that they must retreat.

But although the Syrian army has not returned, it now doesn’t have to. Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force that serves as a proxy for both Iran and Syria, has effectively strangled any hope of Lebanon’s escaping the grasp of those rogue regimes. Syria’s influence is once more unchallenged in Beirut. Rather than witnessing an international tribunal arraigning Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his underlings for the murder of his father, as well as the transformation of Lebanon into a genuine Arab democracy, Saad Harriri has been compelled to swallow the humiliation of fawning on his father’s murderer.

What changed? According to the New York Times, the failure of Harriri to maintain his country’s independence is due to one major difference between 2005 and 2009: “since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it.” As a result, those who thought they had the West’s backing for resisting the thugs of Damascus have been forced to swallow their pride and swear loyalty to Assad in order to save their lives.

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

It is worth recalling that back in the fall of 2008, when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin met for the vice-presidential nominees’ debate, Biden committed a gaffe when he claimed that Hezbollah had already been kicked out of Lebanon. Palin didn’t pick up on this blooper, and Biden escaped the derision he deserved for a passage in which he claimed that the best solution for Lebanon was a NATO intervention (had Palin committed such a blunder, she would never have heard the end of it). Biden probably meant Syria when he said Hezbollah, and his intention was to claim that Bush’s policies had failed in Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s revival. But as much as it should be conceded that Bush failed to sufficiently follow up on the Cedar Revolution, we now see what a year of the Obama-Biden administration has achieved in the region.

Their blind belief in engagement, as well as increased pressure on Israel, has emboldened both Syria and Iran. Those wishing to see what kind of difference Obama has made in the Middle East need only regard the wince-inducing spectacle of Saad Harriri bowing to Assad. The consequences of American engagement are not a pretty sight.

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Damascus Reverts to Form

Well, that didn’t last long. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced he would resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but now he suddenly says it’s impossible. “What we lack is an Israeli partner,” he said, “who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result.”

As an absolute dictator and a state sponsor of terrorism, Assad is in no position to boohoo about how the region’s only mature liberal democracy supposedly isn’t a peace partner — but he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could get away with it. If even the United States, of all countries, is behaving as though Israel were the problem, why shouldn’t he play along?

In a different historical context, it might be amusing, as Baghdad Bob’s alternate-universe pronouncements were, to listen to the tyrannical Assad talk as though he’s the Syrian equivalent of Israel’s dovish Shimon Peres, while the elected Israeli prime minister is a Jewish Yasir Arafat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, is acting as though the first part were true.

Sarkozy is working hard to boost France’s influence in the Middle East by carving out a role for himself as a mediator between Israelis and Arabs. When Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that they would hold talks, they did it through him. And this weekend Sarkozy offered to host Assad, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit in Paris. He can’t host any such thing, however, if the belligerents on the Arab side are shut out. So Assad has to be brought in from the cold, whether he’s earned it or not.

He hasn’t. And now that his reputation is getting an undeserved scrubbing, brace yourself for the worst sort of passive-aggressive Orwellian grandstanding. Read More

Well, that didn’t last long. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced he would resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but now he suddenly says it’s impossible. “What we lack is an Israeli partner,” he said, “who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result.”

As an absolute dictator and a state sponsor of terrorism, Assad is in no position to boohoo about how the region’s only mature liberal democracy supposedly isn’t a peace partner — but he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could get away with it. If even the United States, of all countries, is behaving as though Israel were the problem, why shouldn’t he play along?

In a different historical context, it might be amusing, as Baghdad Bob’s alternate-universe pronouncements were, to listen to the tyrannical Assad talk as though he’s the Syrian equivalent of Israel’s dovish Shimon Peres, while the elected Israeli prime minister is a Jewish Yasir Arafat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, is acting as though the first part were true.

Sarkozy is working hard to boost France’s influence in the Middle East by carving out a role for himself as a mediator between Israelis and Arabs. When Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that they would hold talks, they did it through him. And this weekend Sarkozy offered to host Assad, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit in Paris. He can’t host any such thing, however, if the belligerents on the Arab side are shut out. So Assad has to be brought in from the cold, whether he’s earned it or not.

He hasn’t. And now that his reputation is getting an undeserved scrubbing, brace yourself for the worst sort of passive-aggressive Orwellian grandstanding.

“What Obama said about peace was a good thing,” he said. “We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what’s the action plan? The sponsor has to draw up an action plan.”

Notice what he’s done here? He’s portraying himself as though not only Netanyahu but also Barack Obama were less interested in peace than he is. It should be obvious, though, that Assad isn’t serious. He supports terrorist organizations that kill Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, and Lebanese — not exactly the sort of behavior one associates with leaders who agree with Barack Obama “on the principles.” Yet he’s blaming the United States for his own roguish behavior, because the U.S. does not have an “action plan.”

“Assad said that while relations with the United States had improved,” Reuters reports, “issues such as continued U.S. sanctions against Syria were hindering any joint work towards peace in the Middle East.” Got that? If the United States doesn’t drop sanctions against Syria, Assad will continue burning the Middle East with terrorist proxies.

“The Syrian regime is temperamentally incapable of issuing a statement that doesn’t sound like a threat,” Lee Smith noted last week in the Weekly Standard. Assad sure knows how to say it, though. It’s rather extraordinary that he can actually threaten to murder people in so many countries while sounding as if he were asking why we all can’t just get along. At least Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bigoted and hysterical fulminations are honestly hostile. We best get used to Assad’s act, though, unless and until Obama and Sarkozy realize there’s nothing to be gained from politely “engaging” this man.

Assad backs terrorists and thugs who have killed Lebanon’s former prime minister, members of Lebanon’s parliament, American soldiers, and civilians as well as soldiers in Iraq and in Israel – all acts of war. Say what you will about former French President Jacques Chirac. Unlike with the generally improved Sarkozy, Chirac’s relationship with Syria’s fascist and terrorist government was appropriately terrible.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: The Show Needn’t Go On

This week the Israeli government announced it will resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions, and the Syrians responded in kind.

Peace talks, if they ever actually start, aren’t going anywhere, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it. He’s going through the motions so Western diplomats don’t throw him and his country out in the cold. Syria’s Bashar Assad knows it too. He’s going through the motions so that he and his country can come in from the cold.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

This week the Israeli government announced it will resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions, and the Syrians responded in kind.

Peace talks, if they ever actually start, aren’t going anywhere, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it. He’s going through the motions so Western diplomats don’t throw him and his country out in the cold. Syria’s Bashar Assad knows it too. He’s going through the motions so that he and his country can come in from the cold.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Hezbollah’s Victory

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

March 14′s biggest supposed “victory” at Doha is the election to the presidency of Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman, who himself was always considered a compromise candidate. The majority coalition would never elect him if they could pick whomever they want. Suleiman is well-known as a moderate pro-Syrian. He may be an improvement over Lebanon’s last president, Emile Lahoud, who was nothing if not a tool of Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad, but frankly no one could be worse than Lahoud outside the ranks of the blatantly fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Hezbollah still gets to keep the unilaterally installed high-tech surveillance system in Lebanon’s only international airport, and of course its fighters will hold onto their illegal weapons. With freshly minted blocking minority powers, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has effectively neutralized any and all government power that gets in the way of his own. He can’t rule the whole country; nobody can. But he and his militia have the radical freedom to do whatever they please. They can unilaterally start wars with other countries and murder anyone in Lebanon who gets in the way. Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee.

It may take a while, but something will give. If disgruntled radical Sunnis don’t pick a fight with their belligerent Shia counterparts, Hezbollah will eventually face the Israel Defense Forces again. No one can know what exactly will happen and when, but more war is inevitable as long as violent “resistance” is Hezbollah’s raison d’être.

During Nasrallah’s July 2006 war against Israel, thousands of Shia refugees from Hezbollah’s bombarded strongholds fled north to Beirut as refugees. Christian and Sunni Lebanese took these people in despite anger at Hezbollah for starting a war no one else wanted. Don’t expect that to happen again. Hezbollah’s supporters may find themselves facing conflict on two fronts next time the Israel Defense Forces show up in a bad mood.

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

March 14′s biggest supposed “victory” at Doha is the election to the presidency of Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman, who himself was always considered a compromise candidate. The majority coalition would never elect him if they could pick whomever they want. Suleiman is well-known as a moderate pro-Syrian. He may be an improvement over Lebanon’s last president, Emile Lahoud, who was nothing if not a tool of Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad, but frankly no one could be worse than Lahoud outside the ranks of the blatantly fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Hezbollah still gets to keep the unilaterally installed high-tech surveillance system in Lebanon’s only international airport, and of course its fighters will hold onto their illegal weapons. With freshly minted blocking minority powers, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has effectively neutralized any and all government power that gets in the way of his own. He can’t rule the whole country; nobody can. But he and his militia have the radical freedom to do whatever they please. They can unilaterally start wars with other countries and murder anyone in Lebanon who gets in the way. Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee.

It may take a while, but something will give. If disgruntled radical Sunnis don’t pick a fight with their belligerent Shia counterparts, Hezbollah will eventually face the Israel Defense Forces again. No one can know what exactly will happen and when, but more war is inevitable as long as violent “resistance” is Hezbollah’s raison d’être.

During Nasrallah’s July 2006 war against Israel, thousands of Shia refugees from Hezbollah’s bombarded strongholds fled north to Beirut as refugees. Christian and Sunni Lebanese took these people in despite anger at Hezbollah for starting a war no one else wanted. Don’t expect that to happen again. Hezbollah’s supporters may find themselves facing conflict on two fronts next time the Israel Defense Forces show up in a bad mood.

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Syriana

When anything of international importance happens in or around Syria, there predictably follows a salivating at the prospect of “flipping” the Assad regime — of a peace deal with Israel, a renaissance in relations with the U.S., and a Syria that abandons, finally, its role as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Levant. After Jimmy Carter’s visits to Damascus and with Hamas, and then the embarrassing disclosure last week of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program, peace-processors everywhere again caught a case of Damascus fever, the only prescription for which is more diplomacy.

As Jimmy Carter wrote in the NYT, “Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights.” And the nuclear program? Daniel Levy thinks it was just a bargaining chip to be used in future peace talks — because that’s how badly Syria wants to get into the good graces of Israel and the U.S.

The timing of the White House’s release of intelligence about Israel’s airstrike — it happened on the same day that Syria disclosed it had been secretly negotiating with Israel by way of Turkey — fueled the idea that perhaps there was some kind of grand breakthrough in the making. And remember the Mugniyah assassination a couple of months ago? Maybe Assad pulled it off as a demonstration to the world that he is running the show in Damascus and can deal with Hezbollah and the Iranians if he wishes.

So why would Assad be talking to Israel about peace if he wasn’t serious about peace? There are an abundance of good reasons: to deflect international outrage over the disclosure of his nuclear program; to make his Iranian patron ever-so-slightly nervous and thus extract more favorable terms from Tehran; to undermine international unity on the Hariri tribunal (Daniel Levy, for example, has already called for “flexibility” on the tribunal in exchange for Syrian good behavior in other areas); to placate those in Washington who wish to return to the comparatively warmer relations of the 1990′s; to make credulous liberals swoon and fill their blogs and op-ed pages with hopeful predictions of a breakthrough (see links above). And, the overarching reason — because Assad finds himself under acute pressure. As David Schenker recently said on NPR, “These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they’re almost routine now — you can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.”

If you take a moment and think about this situation from the perspective of Syria, you’ll quickly understand why no breakthrough is in the offing.

If you are Bashar Assad, you’re in the enviable position of being the only Arab ally of Iran, which you believe will soon be the greatest regional power, and a nuclear one. You were recently forced out of Lebanon, but your ally Hezbollah is still there, growing in power, ensuring your political influence today and your return in the future. You provide aid and safe haven to Hamas, which gives you a strong hand not only in thwarting America and Israel in the peace process, but in manipulating Palestinian violence. Your minority Allawite rule is bolstered by the state of emergency that has been in effect since Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967. The only real problems you have to weather are isolation from the U.S. and Israel and some impotent resentment from the Arab states — and once Iran goes nuclear, that Arab resentment will magically turn into obsequiousness.

If you’re Bashar Assad, why would you give up your alliance to the ascendant power in the Middle East and the connections to the terror groups that ensure your ability to dominate your neighbors? For nice words from the Americans? Barack Obama might be president soon, so you’ll probably get those anyway.

When anything of international importance happens in or around Syria, there predictably follows a salivating at the prospect of “flipping” the Assad regime — of a peace deal with Israel, a renaissance in relations with the U.S., and a Syria that abandons, finally, its role as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Levant. After Jimmy Carter’s visits to Damascus and with Hamas, and then the embarrassing disclosure last week of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program, peace-processors everywhere again caught a case of Damascus fever, the only prescription for which is more diplomacy.

As Jimmy Carter wrote in the NYT, “Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights.” And the nuclear program? Daniel Levy thinks it was just a bargaining chip to be used in future peace talks — because that’s how badly Syria wants to get into the good graces of Israel and the U.S.

The timing of the White House’s release of intelligence about Israel’s airstrike — it happened on the same day that Syria disclosed it had been secretly negotiating with Israel by way of Turkey — fueled the idea that perhaps there was some kind of grand breakthrough in the making. And remember the Mugniyah assassination a couple of months ago? Maybe Assad pulled it off as a demonstration to the world that he is running the show in Damascus and can deal with Hezbollah and the Iranians if he wishes.

So why would Assad be talking to Israel about peace if he wasn’t serious about peace? There are an abundance of good reasons: to deflect international outrage over the disclosure of his nuclear program; to make his Iranian patron ever-so-slightly nervous and thus extract more favorable terms from Tehran; to undermine international unity on the Hariri tribunal (Daniel Levy, for example, has already called for “flexibility” on the tribunal in exchange for Syrian good behavior in other areas); to placate those in Washington who wish to return to the comparatively warmer relations of the 1990′s; to make credulous liberals swoon and fill their blogs and op-ed pages with hopeful predictions of a breakthrough (see links above). And, the overarching reason — because Assad finds himself under acute pressure. As David Schenker recently said on NPR, “These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they’re almost routine now — you can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.”

If you take a moment and think about this situation from the perspective of Syria, you’ll quickly understand why no breakthrough is in the offing.

If you are Bashar Assad, you’re in the enviable position of being the only Arab ally of Iran, which you believe will soon be the greatest regional power, and a nuclear one. You were recently forced out of Lebanon, but your ally Hezbollah is still there, growing in power, ensuring your political influence today and your return in the future. You provide aid and safe haven to Hamas, which gives you a strong hand not only in thwarting America and Israel in the peace process, but in manipulating Palestinian violence. Your minority Allawite rule is bolstered by the state of emergency that has been in effect since Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967. The only real problems you have to weather are isolation from the U.S. and Israel and some impotent resentment from the Arab states — and once Iran goes nuclear, that Arab resentment will magically turn into obsequiousness.

If you’re Bashar Assad, why would you give up your alliance to the ascendant power in the Middle East and the connections to the terror groups that ensure your ability to dominate your neighbors? For nice words from the Americans? Barack Obama might be president soon, so you’ll probably get those anyway.

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Re: Seven Years Later

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

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Hillary Isn’t the Monster

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that it could have been written by a neoconservative. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak forced me to take a fresh look. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday she resigned after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power disavowed her most controversial idea–that American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories–but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

Though not actual monsters, they are indeed monstrous.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons and has compared the state of Israel to “bacteria” after threatening to wipe it off the map. Power called Clinton deceitful, but that goes ten-fold for Syria’s Bashar Assad, the assassin of prime ministers, the armorer of Hezbollah, and the car-bomber of liberal Lebanese journalists.

It has been said before that conservatives rely too much on military force and that liberals rely too much on diplomacy. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I suspect the liberal yearning for dialogue with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Assad might be less troublesome if advocates of diplomacy gave some sign that they consider the tyrants and terrorist regimes of the Middle East to be more of a threat than election opponents.

We have met the enemy. And it isn’t us.

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that it could have been written by a neoconservative. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak forced me to take a fresh look. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday she resigned after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power disavowed her most controversial idea–that American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories–but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

Though not actual monsters, they are indeed monstrous.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons and has compared the state of Israel to “bacteria” after threatening to wipe it off the map. Power called Clinton deceitful, but that goes ten-fold for Syria’s Bashar Assad, the assassin of prime ministers, the armorer of Hezbollah, and the car-bomber of liberal Lebanese journalists.

It has been said before that conservatives rely too much on military force and that liberals rely too much on diplomacy. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I suspect the liberal yearning for dialogue with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Assad might be less troublesome if advocates of diplomacy gave some sign that they consider the tyrants and terrorist regimes of the Middle East to be more of a threat than election opponents.

We have met the enemy. And it isn’t us.

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The “Hands off Syria” Crowd

Steve Clemons, stalwart of the liberal foreign-policy establishment, picked the wrong day to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as it was the same day that Hezbollah fighters buried Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus. Clemons applauded Syria for cracking down on terrorism and attacked the Bush administration for introducing a new round of financial sanctions against Syrian government figures. Syria, he says, should instead be thanked for its sheltering 1.2 million Iraqi refugees (many of whom are returning to Iraq, by the way), and rewarded for being such a good international citizen.

Let’s parse this short excerpt:

Syria must be a party to any arrangement with the broader Arab world — and thus far, Syria has been on the whole reasonably behaved with regard to Israel. When Israel attacked some warehouses that Seymour Hersh argues were not nuclear weapons related, Syria restrained itself from attacking back and did not unleash agents into Israel to create domestic strife.

“Reasonably behaved with regard to Israel?” You’ve got to love how Clemons uses the construction “Seymour Hersh argues” as if it were de facto proof of the charge’s veracity. He then goes onto applaud Syria for its “restrained” response to Israel’s attack last year on suspected nuclear facilities, as the Baathists in Damascus held back from causing “domestic strife” in Israel, a terrific euphemism for terrorism  I’ll remember the next time my younger brother and I get into a fight about playing X-Box or something. When Hezbollah inevitably retaliates for the murder of Mughniyeh at an El-Al airport counter or Jewish Community Center, perhaps Clemons will wag his finger at Syria for its “bad behavior.”

In the comments to Clemons’s piece, Eli Lake of the New York Sun takes issue with Clemons’s use of the word “strangle” to describe U.S. sanctions, since, as he says,  Syrian “top regime apparats…themselves ‘strangle,’ I don’t know, Kurdish opposition figures, liberal newspaper editors, and anyone suspected of disloyalty in their police state.”

Steve Clemons, stalwart of the liberal foreign-policy establishment, picked the wrong day to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as it was the same day that Hezbollah fighters buried Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus. Clemons applauded Syria for cracking down on terrorism and attacked the Bush administration for introducing a new round of financial sanctions against Syrian government figures. Syria, he says, should instead be thanked for its sheltering 1.2 million Iraqi refugees (many of whom are returning to Iraq, by the way), and rewarded for being such a good international citizen.

Let’s parse this short excerpt:

Syria must be a party to any arrangement with the broader Arab world — and thus far, Syria has been on the whole reasonably behaved with regard to Israel. When Israel attacked some warehouses that Seymour Hersh argues were not nuclear weapons related, Syria restrained itself from attacking back and did not unleash agents into Israel to create domestic strife.

“Reasonably behaved with regard to Israel?” You’ve got to love how Clemons uses the construction “Seymour Hersh argues” as if it were de facto proof of the charge’s veracity. He then goes onto applaud Syria for its “restrained” response to Israel’s attack last year on suspected nuclear facilities, as the Baathists in Damascus held back from causing “domestic strife” in Israel, a terrific euphemism for terrorism  I’ll remember the next time my younger brother and I get into a fight about playing X-Box or something. When Hezbollah inevitably retaliates for the murder of Mughniyeh at an El-Al airport counter or Jewish Community Center, perhaps Clemons will wag his finger at Syria for its “bad behavior.”

In the comments to Clemons’s piece, Eli Lake of the New York Sun takes issue with Clemons’s use of the word “strangle” to describe U.S. sanctions, since, as he says,  Syrian “top regime apparats…themselves ‘strangle,’ I don’t know, Kurdish opposition figures, liberal newspaper editors, and anyone suspected of disloyalty in their police state.”

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Assad Suckers Obama

Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

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Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

“Washington must rectify the wrong policy of President George Bush in Lebanon and resort to an efficient and permanent diplomacy, rather than empty slogans,” he said.

“What is bizarre about this sentence,” Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran said to me in an email, “is that the Lebanon policy has been precisely that. While Sen. Obama’s statement — and indeed conventional wisdom — tries to paint all Bush administration policies with the old brush of arrogant unilateralism, in reality, the Lebanon policy has always been a multilateral policy of consensus, through the UN security council, through international law, and through close partnership with European and regional allies like France and Saudi Arabia. It is unclear how Sen. Obama wishes to ‘replace’ that. The current policy is as consensual, multilateral and internationalist as you can get. What you need to replace ‘hollow rhetoric,’ as he put it, is not more ‘diplomatic engagement,’ it’s more tools of pressure.”

This is exactly right. Pressure of one kind or another is the only thing Bashar Assad, or his more ruthless father Hafez Assad, ever responds to.

Syria has exported terrorism to almost all its neighbors – to Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. So far only Turkey has managed to put an end to it once for all, and did so by threatening to invade. Turkey could smash Syria to pieces almost as quickly and easily as the Israelis were they so inclined. So that, as they say, was that.

Likewise, Assad withdrew all his occupation troops from Lebanon in 2005 after a million Lebanese citizens – almost a third of the total population – protested in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and demanded their evacuation. It wasn’t the protest, though, that forced Assad out. It was what he felt was extraordinary pressure from the international community, most pointedly from the United States. “I am not Saddam Hussein,” he said at the time. “I want to cooperate.”

I doubt the Bush Administration threatened an invasion of Syria. It wasn’t necessary. The United States had just pulled the trigger in Iraq.

“We have,” Tony Badran continued, “as have our allies and friends, tried talking to the Syrians and the result is always the same: disastrous failure. Mr. Obama might think that his own personal charm is enough to turn Assad into a gushing 14 year old girl at an N’Sync concert, but he should pay close attention to the recent experience of one of our closest trans-Atlantic allies, French president Nicholas Sarkozy.”

Sarkozy thought he could achieve what Obama says he’ll achieve. After finally getting over the learning curve he decided, as have all others before him, that the only solution is a united Western front against Syria. That united Western front would join the already existing united Arab front against Syria. Every Arab government in the world is aligned against Syria already. The only Assad-friendly government in the region is the (Persian) Islamic Republic of Iran. All Arab governments are ahead of Obama, just as they were ahead of Sarkozy, who refused to listen when they warned him.

Assad is not going to break the Syrian-Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis because Obama talks him into it over tea after everyone else who has ever tried has failed utterly. Obama could be counted on to iron out at least some differences with European diplomats and Republicans in Congress, but that’s because they’re democratic, civilized, and basically on the same side. Syria is an enemy state and acts accordingly. Assad isn’t a spouse in a troubled marriage on the Dr. Phil show. Obama is no more able to flip Syria into the Western camp than Syria can convince the U.S. to join Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Common ground does not exist. We have nothing to talk about because what Assad wants first and foremost – Syria’s re-domination of Lebanon and its absorption into its state-sponsored terrorist axis – is unacceptable for everyone involved from Barack Obama to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

A united Arab-Western front against Syria might be effective. That’s what Assad is afraid of, and it’s the reason he continues to pretend what he wants is just “dialogue.” As if he just wants a friend and Bush is mean for not listening, as if “dialogue” is a cry for help so someone can help him kick his terrorist habit. There is always another sucker, somewhere, who thinks he or she can talk sense into the man and is willing to sabotage a united front in order to try.

Everyone who has ever tried to reason with Assad at length will tell you what I’m telling you now. It’s not a “liberal” or “conservative” thing, it just is. Obama is like the smart and popular college kid with a bright future, yet who still needs time to learn how the world works. He hasn’t acquired any foreign policy experience or expertise, and unfortunately his advisors are failing him here. They, of all people, should know this by now, yet they do not.

Obama desperately needs an advisor who understands Syria, and if he wants one who isn’t conservative he could could far worse than bringing on board political analyst and blogger Abu Kais, a Lebanese Shia who moved to Washington and is a critic of the Bush Administration.

“Murder has been profitable in our country, and in the region,” he wrote last month after assassins murdered anti-terrorist investigator Wissam Eid with a car bomb. “No one is going after the killers – their harshest punishment to date took the form of ‘initiatives’ and ‘dialogue.’ Lebanon, once again, is where anything goes, a free killing zone sanctioned by its enemies, and by friends who talk too much and do nothing.”

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Obama’s Muslim Summit

Reuters reports that if Barack Obama becomes President, he’ll hold a summit with all leaders of Muslim countries:

“Once I’m elected, I want to organize a summit in the Muslim world, with all the heads of state, to have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West.”

Is he planning on doing this before or after bombing Pakistan? Because that could have an effect on that gap he’s talking about. And in what phase of their nuclear program will Iran be when Obama has this sit-down with the mullahs? And will he require Tehran to rebuild the cobwebbed American embassy first or is he through with international law altogether? And when it’s the Iraqi prime minister’s turn to speak, what will Obama do when he requests the return of the 100,000 troops he just withdrew from that country?

Obama represents a foreign policy disaster of untold proportion. With a doctrine of pre-emptive appeasement and the perfect advisory team to institute it, every gain made by the Bush administration would evaporate. The greatest overarching accomplishment of the past five years was implementing the imperative that we will not deal with hostile nations on their terms. In many Muslim countries, the “gap” Obama talks about is not a side-effect of cultural differences, but the stated goal of anti-American policies. The only course of action is to support Muslim moderates in their efforts against extremists and secular tyrants. Our president doesn’t need to sip tea with Bashar Assad or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and hear about the evils of Israel in order to work towards that goal.

Reuters reports that if Barack Obama becomes President, he’ll hold a summit with all leaders of Muslim countries:

“Once I’m elected, I want to organize a summit in the Muslim world, with all the heads of state, to have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West.”

Is he planning on doing this before or after bombing Pakistan? Because that could have an effect on that gap he’s talking about. And in what phase of their nuclear program will Iran be when Obama has this sit-down with the mullahs? And will he require Tehran to rebuild the cobwebbed American embassy first or is he through with international law altogether? And when it’s the Iraqi prime minister’s turn to speak, what will Obama do when he requests the return of the 100,000 troops he just withdrew from that country?

Obama represents a foreign policy disaster of untold proportion. With a doctrine of pre-emptive appeasement and the perfect advisory team to institute it, every gain made by the Bush administration would evaporate. The greatest overarching accomplishment of the past five years was implementing the imperative that we will not deal with hostile nations on their terms. In many Muslim countries, the “gap” Obama talks about is not a side-effect of cultural differences, but the stated goal of anti-American policies. The only course of action is to support Muslim moderates in their efforts against extremists and secular tyrants. Our president doesn’t need to sip tea with Bashar Assad or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and hear about the evils of Israel in order to work towards that goal.

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A Lebanon War Postmortem

Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, the enormity of Israel’s bungling has become increasingly clear. A new after-action review has just been released, this one by Amir Kulick of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The piece analyzes Hizballah’s military strategy, which “rested on the assumption that Israeli society was weak and incapable of absorbing a large number of casualties…. Hizballah believed that undermining Israel’s resilience would perforce lead to an end to the fighting on terms favorable to the organization.” Of Hizballah’s efficacy in battle, the report states: “the operational logic that directed Hizballah proved militarily correct.” The author has interesting things to say about Hizballah’s rebuilding effort since the end of the war, how UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army affect its freedom of movement, how the war changed its relationship with Syria and Iran, and what the next conflict might look like.

It is a nicely-done and informative analysis, but I’d like to add two points: First, the report misses one of the central, and most successful, pillars of Hizballah’s strategy, which was to use civilian casualties in Lebanon and the sensational media images resulting from them as a means of undermining the Israeli war effort. And second, Israeli strategists must think about a rather unconventional way to respond to Hizballah in the next outbreak of hostilities, which is to bypass fighting in Lebanon and go directly to Hizballah’s local source of weaponry, money, and support: Syria.

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Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, the enormity of Israel’s bungling has become increasingly clear. A new after-action review has just been released, this one by Amir Kulick of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The piece analyzes Hizballah’s military strategy, which “rested on the assumption that Israeli society was weak and incapable of absorbing a large number of casualties…. Hizballah believed that undermining Israel’s resilience would perforce lead to an end to the fighting on terms favorable to the organization.” Of Hizballah’s efficacy in battle, the report states: “the operational logic that directed Hizballah proved militarily correct.” The author has interesting things to say about Hizballah’s rebuilding effort since the end of the war, how UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army affect its freedom of movement, how the war changed its relationship with Syria and Iran, and what the next conflict might look like.

It is a nicely-done and informative analysis, but I’d like to add two points: First, the report misses one of the central, and most successful, pillars of Hizballah’s strategy, which was to use civilian casualties in Lebanon and the sensational media images resulting from them as a means of undermining the Israeli war effort. And second, Israeli strategists must think about a rather unconventional way to respond to Hizballah in the next outbreak of hostilities, which is to bypass fighting in Lebanon and go directly to Hizballah’s local source of weaponry, money, and support: Syria.

Regarding my first point, about Hizballah’s strategy: its rocket fire sought to accomplish more than just the bombardment of the northern third of Israel. The fire reliably provoked Israeli return fire, which, tactically speaking, allowed Hizballah to call down Israeli munitions on its preferred targets in Lebanon. Consider the places from which Hizballah fired many of its rockets: neighborhoods, apartment buildings, anywhere civilians could be found. The rocket fire was thus intended to have two effects for Hizballah, the first and obvious being the placement of a large part of Israel under Hizballah’s missile umbrella, and the second and less obvious—but ultimately more important—being the moral delegitimization of the Israeli war effort. We see Hamas today employing the exact same tactic in Gaza, where Palestinian children are sent on suicide missions to retrieve rocket launchers after they’ve fired their payloads toward Israel. For Hamas, the tactic is a win-win—they either get their launchers back, or the children are killed by Israeli return fire and Hamas enjoys the moral absolution that derives from international condemnation of Israeli self-defense. Cynical, but very smart.

For Hizballah, this tactic worked better than the limited success Hamas has had with it in Gaza. The war in 2006 was not so much a vindication of the weakness of the Israeli home front as it was a demonstration of Israel’s inability to wage war in contravention of the wishes of the “international community,” primarily the United States and the UN. As soon as pictures of Lebanese children killed in Israeli air strikes began appearing on the front pages of newspapers around the world, Hizballah had set in motion an end to the conflict on terms largely favorable to it.

Israel’s benighted pursuit of an air campaign to the almost total exclusion of a sustained ground effort contributed to the civilian-casualties calamity—but is it really plausible that a large-scale ground war would have spared civilian lives? Not likely. Israel simply has no good options in fighting a group that intentionally operates from among a sympathetic civilian population and that intentionally tries to get its own civilians “martyred” by the IDF.

This leads back to my second point. The INSS report says correctly that Syria and Iran “are Hizballah’s financial, logistical, and military lifeline.” By fighting in southern Lebanon, Israel plays directly into Syria and Iran’s hands, allowing them to remain isolated from the fighting, and enables their support for Hizballah to be largely cost-free. But terrorism—especially Hizballah’s—has a return address. As far as Israel is concerned, that address is Damascus.

The next time around, Israel should refuse to fight Syria and Iran’s war. It should bypass Lebanon and go straight to the source. Hizballah exists largely as a means for Syria and Iran to wage war against Israel without having actually to fight Israel, and Israel has continuously reinforced the wisdom of this strategy by refusing to include Syrian targets in its war plans. I do not expect that in the next conflict we will see Bashar Assad’s palaces in ruins, but it is an interesting thought to entertain.

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Syria’s Useful Israeli Idiots

The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

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The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

The law is absurd from the West’s point of view, and from the point of view of many Lebanese, too. Lebanon is “the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world,” as Lebanese political consultant and analyst Eli Khoury told me last year. But Lebanon, despite its moderation outside the Hizballah camp, is still under the shadow of the Syrian-Iranian axis, and remains threatened with de facto re-annexation. The reactionary law is still on the books, and even a leader as prominent as Walid Jumblatt dare not break it.

Jumblatt traveled to Washington this past weekend to give a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which you can read here. After Cham Press published its fabricated story, his office phoned the institute to make sure the Israeli Defense Minister would not be attending. He needed to be sure the two could not even run into each other by accident and make Syria’s bogus assertion look true.

Israeli journalists who “reported” this non-story should have noticed that they published a claim that Jumblatt and Barak will meet in the United States after the meeting was supposed to have already happened. Cham Press said the meeting would take place on Sunday, and Israeli media placed the alleged meeting in the future tense the following Monday.

Re-reporting Syrian lies in the Israeli press makes Cham Press look almost legitimate, its lies almost plausible. This should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. The Damascus regime knows what it is doing and has been using gullible foreign journalists to its advantage for a while now.

“Regime flacks fed New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh outrageous propaganda about how the United States supposedly supported the Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in Lebanon,” said Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Then they quoted his New Yorker story to get themselves diplomatically off the hook for their own support of those terrorists in the camp.”

And here we go again. Cham Press now says Israel’s Omedia reported that Jumblatt met with Barak and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington. Cham Press no longer quotes only itself; it quotes Israeli websites as backup. But the only reason Israeli media reported any of this in the first place is the initial false story appearing in Cham Press. Syrian media is still just quoting itself—only now it does so through Israel.

Jumblatt is near or at the top of Syria’s hit list. No Lebanese leader opposes Syrian terrorism and attempts at overlordship in Lebanon as staunchly as he. His pro-Western “March 14” bloc in parliament is already accused of being a “Zionist hand” by Hizballah and the Syrians. He was the second person Syrian ruler Bashar Assad threatened by name shortly before former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others were assassinated by a truck bomb in downtown Beirut. (“I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatt’s,” Assad said to Hariri.) As Tony Badran pointed out to me, the Syrian regime has a habit of planting false stories about Lebanese leaders just before dispatching them with car bombs. The idea of Jumblatt meeting with Barak may seem innocent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but it marks him for death in Lebanon and in Syria.

Syria is at war with both Israel and Lebanon. Journalists who wish to write about a conspiracy between Israel and Lebanon to destroy the regime in Syria need a better source for that story than the manipulative and murderous Syrian state.

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The Tehran-Damascus Axis

The New York Times has an interesting article reporting on the deepening economic ties between Iran and Syria. Hugh Naylor writes from Damascus:

The Syrian government estimates that Iranian investment in 2006 alone surged to more than $400 million, making Tehran the third-largest foreign investor here, behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Though exact figures are unavailable, by some estimates Iran has invested a total of $3 billion in Syria, most of that in the last few years.

In September, officials from both countries announced plans to expand Iranian projects in Syria to $10 billion over the next five years, which would cast Tehran as the economic powerhouse here.

But of course this being the New York Times, the writer can’t stick to the facts—facts that suggest that some of us have reason to be increasingly alarmed about the Tehran-Damascus Axis. He has to throw in a jab at the Bush administration, too. Naylor claims that Iran and Syria are cementing their ties only because neither one can do business with America, since they’re both under American-led sanctions. He cites anonymous “Western diplomats and analysts,” who say “that Washington has effectively pushed Damascus and Tehran into deepening their alliance of nearly three decades.”

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The New York Times has an interesting article reporting on the deepening economic ties between Iran and Syria. Hugh Naylor writes from Damascus:

The Syrian government estimates that Iranian investment in 2006 alone surged to more than $400 million, making Tehran the third-largest foreign investor here, behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Though exact figures are unavailable, by some estimates Iran has invested a total of $3 billion in Syria, most of that in the last few years.

In September, officials from both countries announced plans to expand Iranian projects in Syria to $10 billion over the next five years, which would cast Tehran as the economic powerhouse here.

But of course this being the New York Times, the writer can’t stick to the facts—facts that suggest that some of us have reason to be increasingly alarmed about the Tehran-Damascus Axis. He has to throw in a jab at the Bush administration, too. Naylor claims that Iran and Syria are cementing their ties only because neither one can do business with America, since they’re both under American-led sanctions. He cites anonymous “Western diplomats and analysts,” who say “that Washington has effectively pushed Damascus and Tehran into deepening their alliance of nearly three decades.”

This is pretty much the party line at places like the Times whenever other countries align against the United States: It can’t be because they don’t like us, or because our interests are mutually incompatible. It must be because we spurned their generous and deeply felt offers of friendship.

Thus, over the years, we have heard all sorts of elaborate fictions about how everyone from Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro to Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin was really a good guy, a pro-American, if only we had overcome the paranoia of hawks and reached out to him. In each and every instance, historical research has shattered these illusions, showing that these communist dictators were only pretending to be pro-Western at various points in their careers for tactical reasons, while in reality they were committed Marxists all along.

Yet the illusions never die and now adhere to such unlikely candidates as Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. How can anyone plausibly argue that they would love to reach out to America if only we would let them? The reality is that the Clinton administration spent much of the 1990′s trying to reach a rapprochement with both countries and never got anywhere. Today they are farther apart from the U.S. than ever before as they support Islamofascist terrorist groups (Hamas, Hizballah, al Qaeda in Iraq) and connive in the murder of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the strategic alignment between Iran and Syria—symbolized by a defense pact they signed in 2006 that Naylor never mentions—it makes perfect sense that they are also aligning their economic interests. Or, put more crudely, that Iran is using its oil revenues to subsidize the bankrupt Baathist regime in Damascus.

How is this America’s fault?

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Why Try?

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

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Three Cheers for Olmert

A round of applause, please, for Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who, a couple of days ago, very deftly rubbed Bashar Assad’s face in the humiliation of Israel’s recent air strike. Olmert displayed an uncharacteristic sense of insouciance and panache in announcing to a group of journalists (Russian ones, no less) that “we are willing to make peace with Syria unconditionally and without demands. I have a lot of respect for the Syrian leader and the Syrian policy.” Magnificent! Assad, of course, is as far away from being able to hold peace talks with Israel as he has ever been—he and his feckless military, and Syria’s much-touted mutual defense pact with Iran, are the laughingstock of the region. And now Olmert is publicly offering him “unconditional” peace talks! Absolutely perfect! Three cheers for Olmert and whoever convinced him of the idea.

A round of applause, please, for Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who, a couple of days ago, very deftly rubbed Bashar Assad’s face in the humiliation of Israel’s recent air strike. Olmert displayed an uncharacteristic sense of insouciance and panache in announcing to a group of journalists (Russian ones, no less) that “we are willing to make peace with Syria unconditionally and without demands. I have a lot of respect for the Syrian leader and the Syrian policy.” Magnificent! Assad, of course, is as far away from being able to hold peace talks with Israel as he has ever been—he and his feckless military, and Syria’s much-touted mutual defense pact with Iran, are the laughingstock of the region. And now Olmert is publicly offering him “unconditional” peace talks! Absolutely perfect! Three cheers for Olmert and whoever convinced him of the idea.

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