Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syrian government

Hezbollah Threatens to Take Over Lebanon

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

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Syria Must Be Contained, Not Engaged

Nibras Kazimi suggests in the pages of the New Republic that the Middle East’s violent Islamists might go after the Syrian government after they’re finished in Iraq and Afghanistan. “On jihadist online discussion forums,” he writes, “they have been authoring what amount to policy papers calling on the jihadist leadership to take the fight to Syria.”

It would make a certain amount of sense if they did decide Syria ought to be next. Most of the country’s leadership is from the Alawite minority sect, which branched off Twelver Shia Islam in the 10th century and became something else almost entirely. Both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them heretics. When French Mandate authorities ruled the area after World War One, many, if not most, Alawites yearned for their own sovereign homeland along the coast of the Mediterranean apart from Damascus and the largely Sunni interior.

“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman Assad, grandfather of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, wrote in a petition to France in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. … The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”

Western foreign-policy analysts rarely seem to take this into account, but the most dangerous people in the Middle East always do. “Islamists arguing for a jihad in Syria believe that they have hit the trifecta,” Kazimi writes. “In the Syrian regime, they have an enemy that is at once tyrannical, secular, and heretical.”

One of the worst massacres in the modern Middle East occurred in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an armed insurgency against the government of Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s current president. Assad killed thousands in a single weekend in the city of Hama and then boasted about it. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers declared war on the state, but they’ve been quietly nursing their grievances and patiently waiting for the chance of revenge. The only thing that keeps the Syrian government safe, aside from its demonstrated willingness to respond with the utmost brutality, is its championship of terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq as a way to purchase street cred with its sworn Sunni enemies.

If Assad were to work with the United States by promoting stability instead of terrorism, freelance jihadists all over the region would have every reason to bump him to the top of their to-do list. A secular non-Muslim Arab government at peace with Israel and the West and an enemy of the “resistance” movements would make an obvious next stop for roaming insurgents. That’s why Assad won’t likely ever do what Washington wants unless the region as a whole changes drastically or the United States threatens his survival more than the Islamists do. All we can really do in the meantime is try to contain him.

Nibras Kazimi suggests in the pages of the New Republic that the Middle East’s violent Islamists might go after the Syrian government after they’re finished in Iraq and Afghanistan. “On jihadist online discussion forums,” he writes, “they have been authoring what amount to policy papers calling on the jihadist leadership to take the fight to Syria.”

It would make a certain amount of sense if they did decide Syria ought to be next. Most of the country’s leadership is from the Alawite minority sect, which branched off Twelver Shia Islam in the 10th century and became something else almost entirely. Both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them heretics. When French Mandate authorities ruled the area after World War One, many, if not most, Alawites yearned for their own sovereign homeland along the coast of the Mediterranean apart from Damascus and the largely Sunni interior.

“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman Assad, grandfather of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, wrote in a petition to France in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. … The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”

Western foreign-policy analysts rarely seem to take this into account, but the most dangerous people in the Middle East always do. “Islamists arguing for a jihad in Syria believe that they have hit the trifecta,” Kazimi writes. “In the Syrian regime, they have an enemy that is at once tyrannical, secular, and heretical.”

One of the worst massacres in the modern Middle East occurred in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an armed insurgency against the government of Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s current president. Assad killed thousands in a single weekend in the city of Hama and then boasted about it. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers declared war on the state, but they’ve been quietly nursing their grievances and patiently waiting for the chance of revenge. The only thing that keeps the Syrian government safe, aside from its demonstrated willingness to respond with the utmost brutality, is its championship of terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq as a way to purchase street cred with its sworn Sunni enemies.

If Assad were to work with the United States by promoting stability instead of terrorism, freelance jihadists all over the region would have every reason to bump him to the top of their to-do list. A secular non-Muslim Arab government at peace with Israel and the West and an enemy of the “resistance” movements would make an obvious next stop for roaming insurgents. That’s why Assad won’t likely ever do what Washington wants unless the region as a whole changes drastically or the United States threatens his survival more than the Islamists do. All we can really do in the meantime is try to contain him.

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RE: Frolicking with Despots

OK, not every Democrat is enamored of Obama’s Syrian engagement and technology jaunt:

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

And not every foreign policy guru is shy about blasting the administration:

The administration thinks “they can make Assad like Gorbachev,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Schenker said. “They think they are going to have some level of opening [in Syria] with the Internet.”

But “everything that the administration has dangled in front of the Syrians so far has not worked,” Schenker continued. “So now they are sweetening the pot. … The Obama administration has been trying to think creatively. They think that this is a key. They have given a whole number of things to Syria,” including airplane spare parts and lifting U.S. opposition to Syria applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, a different mentality pervades this administration, and there is no congressional majority willing to exercise the power of the purse to put a stop to this nonsense.

OK, not every Democrat is enamored of Obama’s Syrian engagement and technology jaunt:

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

And not every foreign policy guru is shy about blasting the administration:

The administration thinks “they can make Assad like Gorbachev,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Schenker said. “They think they are going to have some level of opening [in Syria] with the Internet.”

But “everything that the administration has dangled in front of the Syrians so far has not worked,” Schenker continued. “So now they are sweetening the pot. … The Obama administration has been trying to think creatively. They think that this is a key. They have given a whole number of things to Syria,” including airplane spare parts and lifting U.S. opposition to Syria applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, a different mentality pervades this administration, and there is no congressional majority willing to exercise the power of the purse to put a stop to this nonsense.

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Frolicking with Despots

This report confirms many of the worst qualities of the Obama foreign team brain trust — unprofessional, oblivious, juvenile, and shockingly insensitive. It seems Special Adviser on Innovation Alec J. Ross and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen, two of the State Department’s best and brightest, are yucking it up in Syria. No, really:

For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it “Creative Diplomacy.” Match that, Tehran! Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was “amused” by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that “I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus.” Good to know! …

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don’t block Twitter. …

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. “This trip to Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of netfreedom,” he tweeted.

Is it any wonder despots think they’re getting a free pass from Obama? There certainly is reason for their oppressed and brutalized people to despair.

This report confirms many of the worst qualities of the Obama foreign team brain trust — unprofessional, oblivious, juvenile, and shockingly insensitive. It seems Special Adviser on Innovation Alec J. Ross and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen, two of the State Department’s best and brightest, are yucking it up in Syria. No, really:

For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it “Creative Diplomacy.” Match that, Tehran! Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was “amused” by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that “I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus.” Good to know! …

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don’t block Twitter. …

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. “This trip to Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of netfreedom,” he tweeted.

Is it any wonder despots think they’re getting a free pass from Obama? There certainly is reason for their oppressed and brutalized people to despair.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Sigh: “The heads of the Democratic and Republican parties on Sunday criticized controversial comments made by two Senate hopefuls in their own parties, but each stood behind their candidacies [Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal].” Well, party chairmen are paid to defend the indefensible, I suppose. And really, does any ordinary voter care what Michael Steele and Tim Kaine say?

Aaargh! “‘I was offered a job, and I answered that,’ [Joe] Sestak said. ‘Anything that goes beyond that is for others to talk about.’” He was bribed by the White House to get out of the Senate primary race and isn’t going to talk about it? I think an ethics probe and a special prosecutor are in order. It is a crime, after all, to bribe a candidate.

What??! Marc Ambinder, who, as Mickey Kaus once put it, spins more furiously for Obama than a dreidel, has this to say about the alleged White House offer to Sestak: “In essence, if this White House ascribes to a higher ethical standard, then it might want to agree to some investigation even if it believes there is no legal merit.” Because after all, the administration’s own conclusion about its wrongdoing is basically conclusive, right?

Whoopee! (for Republicans): “Republican Charles Djou won a special congressional election in Hawaii Saturday night, giving the GOP a boost as it attempts to retake the U.S. House in the November elections. … Mr. Djou will become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in 20 years. Hawaii is a traditionally Democratic stronghold that is President Barack Obama’s native state.” Democrats say this doesn’t really matter because the votes were divided by two feuding Democratic candidates. Besides, only special elections that Democrats win are bellwethers.

Yikes! John Kerry is back in Syria sucking up to Bashar al-Assad. And this is no comfort: “Senator Kerry has emerged as one of the primary American interlocutors with the Syrian government.” Yes, that’s part of the problem.

Oooh: “Iran’s parliament speaker earlier Sunday repeated threats that Iran would abandon a nuclear fuel swap plan brokered by Brazil and Turkey if the United States imposes new sanctions on the Islamic state.” So don’t be passing any useless sanctions or the mullahs will reject the meaningless Brazil-Turkey deal. The only thing more absurd (and more dangerous) is Obama’s Iran policy. (Come to think of it, it’s not clear he has one.)

Ouch: “‘The oil is gushing and we’re being lied to by how much oil is gushing … and the administration has now named a commission,’ Cokie Roberts said derisively. ‘Now this is what you do when you really don’t have anything else to do: you name a commission,’ she said. ‘That’s not going to stop the oil.’” Donna Brazile had harsh criticism as well, and when Obama loses Donna Brazile, you know he’s hitting rock bottom.

Awww (subscription required): “The muted conservative response is in marked contrast to the unease among some liberal activists toward [the nomination of Elena] Kagan. Obama, they say, made a ‘safe choice’ that was more appropriate for a Senate with a 52-seat Democratic majority rather than the 59-seat advantage (counting independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) that the party holds. These disappointed liberals say that Obama, once again, has turned his back on them.”

Thunk! Maureen Dowd writes a column on Richard Blumenthal that’s daft even for her: “‘I think that lies are like wishes,’ said Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. … But chronic puffer-uppers can have impressive public service careers.” I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I think lies are like lies.

Sigh: “The heads of the Democratic and Republican parties on Sunday criticized controversial comments made by two Senate hopefuls in their own parties, but each stood behind their candidacies [Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal].” Well, party chairmen are paid to defend the indefensible, I suppose. And really, does any ordinary voter care what Michael Steele and Tim Kaine say?

Aaargh! “‘I was offered a job, and I answered that,’ [Joe] Sestak said. ‘Anything that goes beyond that is for others to talk about.’” He was bribed by the White House to get out of the Senate primary race and isn’t going to talk about it? I think an ethics probe and a special prosecutor are in order. It is a crime, after all, to bribe a candidate.

What??! Marc Ambinder, who, as Mickey Kaus once put it, spins more furiously for Obama than a dreidel, has this to say about the alleged White House offer to Sestak: “In essence, if this White House ascribes to a higher ethical standard, then it might want to agree to some investigation even if it believes there is no legal merit.” Because after all, the administration’s own conclusion about its wrongdoing is basically conclusive, right?

Whoopee! (for Republicans): “Republican Charles Djou won a special congressional election in Hawaii Saturday night, giving the GOP a boost as it attempts to retake the U.S. House in the November elections. … Mr. Djou will become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in 20 years. Hawaii is a traditionally Democratic stronghold that is President Barack Obama’s native state.” Democrats say this doesn’t really matter because the votes were divided by two feuding Democratic candidates. Besides, only special elections that Democrats win are bellwethers.

Yikes! John Kerry is back in Syria sucking up to Bashar al-Assad. And this is no comfort: “Senator Kerry has emerged as one of the primary American interlocutors with the Syrian government.” Yes, that’s part of the problem.

Oooh: “Iran’s parliament speaker earlier Sunday repeated threats that Iran would abandon a nuclear fuel swap plan brokered by Brazil and Turkey if the United States imposes new sanctions on the Islamic state.” So don’t be passing any useless sanctions or the mullahs will reject the meaningless Brazil-Turkey deal. The only thing more absurd (and more dangerous) is Obama’s Iran policy. (Come to think of it, it’s not clear he has one.)

Ouch: “‘The oil is gushing and we’re being lied to by how much oil is gushing … and the administration has now named a commission,’ Cokie Roberts said derisively. ‘Now this is what you do when you really don’t have anything else to do: you name a commission,’ she said. ‘That’s not going to stop the oil.’” Donna Brazile had harsh criticism as well, and when Obama loses Donna Brazile, you know he’s hitting rock bottom.

Awww (subscription required): “The muted conservative response is in marked contrast to the unease among some liberal activists toward [the nomination of Elena] Kagan. Obama, they say, made a ‘safe choice’ that was more appropriate for a Senate with a 52-seat Democratic majority rather than the 59-seat advantage (counting independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) that the party holds. These disappointed liberals say that Obama, once again, has turned his back on them.”

Thunk! Maureen Dowd writes a column on Richard Blumenthal that’s daft even for her: “‘I think that lies are like wishes,’ said Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. … But chronic puffer-uppers can have impressive public service careers.” I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I think lies are like lies.

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GOP Says “No” to Syrian Engagement

Josh Rogin reports:

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter, 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren’t satisfied with the State Department’s latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren’t buying State’s argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

“If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior,” the letter reads.

A few points are noteworthy. First, is every single Democrat going along with the Ford nomination? Apparently, when the White House barks, they all jump.

Second, it appears Hillary Clinton didn’t bother to respond to an earlier inquiry: “Indicating some pique that Clinton didn’t respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, ‘We would appreciate a response from you personally.’” Maybe it did not make her to-do list.

And finally, 12 is more than enough for a filibuster, so the choice for Obama now is whether to pull the nomination or suffer an embarrassing defeat. I suspect the vote won’t be scheduled anytime soon. If that proves to be the case, then this is an important watershed — the Republican senators have risen up to block a disastrous foreign-policy move. We can only hope that this is the beginning of a trend.

Josh Rogin reports:

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter, 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren’t satisfied with the State Department’s latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren’t buying State’s argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

“If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior,” the letter reads.

A few points are noteworthy. First, is every single Democrat going along with the Ford nomination? Apparently, when the White House barks, they all jump.

Second, it appears Hillary Clinton didn’t bother to respond to an earlier inquiry: “Indicating some pique that Clinton didn’t respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, ‘We would appreciate a response from you personally.’” Maybe it did not make her to-do list.

And finally, 12 is more than enough for a filibuster, so the choice for Obama now is whether to pull the nomination or suffer an embarrassing defeat. I suspect the vote won’t be scheduled anytime soon. If that proves to be the case, then this is an important watershed — the Republican senators have risen up to block a disastrous foreign-policy move. We can only hope that this is the beginning of a trend.

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So Much for Syrian Engagement

Obama is batting .000 in the engagement-of-despotic-regimes department. Iran, China, Sudan, and Burma have not responded to kind words, bows, or promises of future good relations with the U.S. And now Syria has officially — according to Obama — rebuffed us as well. This report explains:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he would extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, citing the Arab state’s continuing support for terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama’s decision means that despite Washington’s recent attempts to ease tensions with Damascus, United States economic sanctions against Syria, introduced in May 2004, will remain in force.

“While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies, including continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Obama said in a statement.

So the administration has now admitted failure — really, how could the Obami do otherwise? Even left-wing Haaretz must concede:

The Obama administration’s strategy of engagement has so far produced disappointing results, with Assad this year hosting Iran’s virulently anti-American President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a high-profile Damascus summit, alongside leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah – both on the State Department’s list of terror organizations.

In April tensions soared further following Israeli claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with advanced Scud missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel’s major cities – an accusation Damascus denies.

So what now — will the Obami decide to forget about returning an ambassador to Damascus? That, at least, would make the administration’s stance less incoherent. But the real issue remains — what will we do to replace the failed engagement gambit? Come to think of ,it that’s the dilemma with all the regimes that have slapped the open hand.

Obama is batting .000 in the engagement-of-despotic-regimes department. Iran, China, Sudan, and Burma have not responded to kind words, bows, or promises of future good relations with the U.S. And now Syria has officially — according to Obama — rebuffed us as well. This report explains:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he would extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, citing the Arab state’s continuing support for terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama’s decision means that despite Washington’s recent attempts to ease tensions with Damascus, United States economic sanctions against Syria, introduced in May 2004, will remain in force.

“While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies, including continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Obama said in a statement.

So the administration has now admitted failure — really, how could the Obami do otherwise? Even left-wing Haaretz must concede:

The Obama administration’s strategy of engagement has so far produced disappointing results, with Assad this year hosting Iran’s virulently anti-American President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a high-profile Damascus summit, alongside leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah – both on the State Department’s list of terror organizations.

In April tensions soared further following Israeli claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with advanced Scud missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel’s major cities – an accusation Damascus denies.

So what now — will the Obami decide to forget about returning an ambassador to Damascus? That, at least, would make the administration’s stance less incoherent. But the real issue remains — what will we do to replace the failed engagement gambit? Come to think of ,it that’s the dilemma with all the regimes that have slapped the open hand.

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Hillary Speaks to the AJC

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke to the AJC gala in Washington D.C. Her speech is a hodgepodge of platitudes and reveals how sharply the Obami’s rhetoric departs from their policies — the inevitable result of a disingenuous “charm” offensive that seeks to soothe domestic critics of their assault on Israel while continuing their disastrous approach to the Middle East.

She began, as she did with AIPAC, with a series of fluffy assurances, which bear no relationship to the Obami’s actions:

We Americans may never fully understand the implications of this history on the daily lives of Israelis – the worry that a mother feels watching a child board a school bus or a child watching a parent go off to work. But we know deep in our souls that we have an unshakable bond and we will always stand not just with the Government of Israel but with the people of Israel. (Applause.)

Lovely sentiments but disconnected from their recent conduct. Was she feeling that unshakable bond deep in her soul when she chewed out Bibi for 43 minutes and instructed her State Department flack to relate the tongue-lashing to the entire world? Did Obama think he was standing with the government of Israel when he treated its prime minister with appalling rudeness?

Next, Hillary defends the administration’s defense of Israel in international institutions:

That is why the United States is fighting against anti-Semitism in international institutions — our special envoy for anti-Semitism is traveling the world as we speak, raising the issue at the highest levels of countries from one end of the world to the next. It is why we led the boycott of the Durban Conference. (Applause.) It is why we repeatedly and vigorously voted against and spoke out against the Goldstone Report. (Applause.) And it is why we have worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, providing nearly $3 billion in annual military assistance. When I became Secretary of State, I asked my longtime defense and foreign policy advisor from my years in the Senate, Andrew Shapiro, to personally manage our defense consultations with Israel. And today, I am proud to say our partnership is broader, deeper, and more intense than ever before. (Applause.)

That envoy would be the one who slapped down Michael Oren, not exactly the sort of defender Israel needs. And as for the UN, she doesn’t of course bring up the anti-Israel resolution we failed to block or explain how our presence on the UN Human Rights Council or our muteness on the admission of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women helps Israel’s cause.

She defensively repeats Obama’s retort that there is “‘noise and distortion’ about this Administration’s approach in the Middle East.” It’s all a grand misunderstanding, you see. Weren’t we listening, she says, when she went to AIPAC and told us how devoted she was to the Jewish state? Weren’t we listening when she made another speech at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace? It is quite telling that her “defense” in the face of criticism is to cite her own pablum-filled speeches. This, she imagines, should put the whole matter to rest.

She then repeats the flawed premise of the Obami’s Middle East policy, namely:

Well, tonight I want to focus on the regional threats to Israel’s security and the imperative of reaching a comprehensive regional peace that will help defuse those threats. Because without a comprehensive regional peace, the Middle East will never unlock its full potential, and Israel will never be truly secure. Pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors can be a mutually reinforcing process, and today it is more essential than ever to make progress on all tracks.

This falsely assumes that Iran’s nuclear threat will melt when peace breaks out with the Palestinians. It assumes that Assad and his Hezbollah surrogates will no longer threaten Israel once the peace deal is inked. In short, it ignores reality — both the impossibility of a peace deal in the near future and the lack of relevance such a deal has to Israel’s most pressing challenge: the existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Remarkably, she then undermines her own case by pointing to Syria (Assad is going to be impressed with proximity talks? He’ll rein in Hezbollah as soon as Israel gives up the Old City?) and offering only words, again disconnected from reality and the Obami’s actions:

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian Government. Transferring weapons to these terrorists — especially longer-range missiles – would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior — nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership. (Applause.)

Here we go again with “accept” (the Obami’s favorite word when they are doing nothing about a disagreeable situation) – we don’t accept it, but what are we doing about it? How does “engagement” not appear as a reward or a concession? And wouldn’t a military strike on those rockets be a superior method of conveying a strong and unmistakably clear message to Syria’s leadership, rather than dispatch an ambassador to glad-hand with Assad?

Her discussion of Iran consists of a single, terse paragraph in which she admits we’ve accomplished nothing by engagement but aren’t doing much else. And there is again no mention of “all options” remaining at our disposal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Iran, with its anti-Semitic president and hostile nuclear ambitions, also continues to threaten Israel, but it also threatens the region and it sponsors terrorism against many. The United States has worked with the international community to present the leaders in Tehran with a clear choice: Uphold your international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations, or face increased isolation and painful consequences. At every turn, Iran has met our outstretched hand with a clenched fist. But our engagement has helped build a growing global consensus on the need to pressure Iran’s leaders to change course. We are now working with our partners at the United Nations to craft tough new sanctions. The United States is committed to pursuing this diplomatic path. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. (Applause.)

She then prattles on, paragraph after paragraph, describing the wonders of the peace process. On Jerusalem she sidesteps all the condemning and the administration’s reneging on prior agreements with another bit of sly puffery. (“The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply, profoundly, important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And we believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world.”) So why demand a unilateral concession from Israel now, in advance of any negotiations?

All in all, the speech is a vivid example of the degree to which the Obami are willing and able to divorce rhetoric from action, and policy from reality. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if the “applause” reflects genuine enthusiasm for her display of hypocrisy. If so, it’s confirmation that American Jewry — at least those represented by organizations like the AJC — is eager to be sold a bill of goods. Meanwhile, the administration undermines sanctions, threatens an imposed peace deal, and dawdles on the Scud missiles. But they’ve got a heck of a PR plan.

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke to the AJC gala in Washington D.C. Her speech is a hodgepodge of platitudes and reveals how sharply the Obami’s rhetoric departs from their policies — the inevitable result of a disingenuous “charm” offensive that seeks to soothe domestic critics of their assault on Israel while continuing their disastrous approach to the Middle East.

She began, as she did with AIPAC, with a series of fluffy assurances, which bear no relationship to the Obami’s actions:

We Americans may never fully understand the implications of this history on the daily lives of Israelis – the worry that a mother feels watching a child board a school bus or a child watching a parent go off to work. But we know deep in our souls that we have an unshakable bond and we will always stand not just with the Government of Israel but with the people of Israel. (Applause.)

Lovely sentiments but disconnected from their recent conduct. Was she feeling that unshakable bond deep in her soul when she chewed out Bibi for 43 minutes and instructed her State Department flack to relate the tongue-lashing to the entire world? Did Obama think he was standing with the government of Israel when he treated its prime minister with appalling rudeness?

Next, Hillary defends the administration’s defense of Israel in international institutions:

That is why the United States is fighting against anti-Semitism in international institutions — our special envoy for anti-Semitism is traveling the world as we speak, raising the issue at the highest levels of countries from one end of the world to the next. It is why we led the boycott of the Durban Conference. (Applause.) It is why we repeatedly and vigorously voted against and spoke out against the Goldstone Report. (Applause.) And it is why we have worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, providing nearly $3 billion in annual military assistance. When I became Secretary of State, I asked my longtime defense and foreign policy advisor from my years in the Senate, Andrew Shapiro, to personally manage our defense consultations with Israel. And today, I am proud to say our partnership is broader, deeper, and more intense than ever before. (Applause.)

That envoy would be the one who slapped down Michael Oren, not exactly the sort of defender Israel needs. And as for the UN, she doesn’t of course bring up the anti-Israel resolution we failed to block or explain how our presence on the UN Human Rights Council or our muteness on the admission of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women helps Israel’s cause.

She defensively repeats Obama’s retort that there is “‘noise and distortion’ about this Administration’s approach in the Middle East.” It’s all a grand misunderstanding, you see. Weren’t we listening, she says, when she went to AIPAC and told us how devoted she was to the Jewish state? Weren’t we listening when she made another speech at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace? It is quite telling that her “defense” in the face of criticism is to cite her own pablum-filled speeches. This, she imagines, should put the whole matter to rest.

She then repeats the flawed premise of the Obami’s Middle East policy, namely:

Well, tonight I want to focus on the regional threats to Israel’s security and the imperative of reaching a comprehensive regional peace that will help defuse those threats. Because without a comprehensive regional peace, the Middle East will never unlock its full potential, and Israel will never be truly secure. Pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors can be a mutually reinforcing process, and today it is more essential than ever to make progress on all tracks.

This falsely assumes that Iran’s nuclear threat will melt when peace breaks out with the Palestinians. It assumes that Assad and his Hezbollah surrogates will no longer threaten Israel once the peace deal is inked. In short, it ignores reality — both the impossibility of a peace deal in the near future and the lack of relevance such a deal has to Israel’s most pressing challenge: the existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Remarkably, she then undermines her own case by pointing to Syria (Assad is going to be impressed with proximity talks? He’ll rein in Hezbollah as soon as Israel gives up the Old City?) and offering only words, again disconnected from reality and the Obami’s actions:

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian Government. Transferring weapons to these terrorists — especially longer-range missiles – would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior — nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership. (Applause.)

Here we go again with “accept” (the Obami’s favorite word when they are doing nothing about a disagreeable situation) – we don’t accept it, but what are we doing about it? How does “engagement” not appear as a reward or a concession? And wouldn’t a military strike on those rockets be a superior method of conveying a strong and unmistakably clear message to Syria’s leadership, rather than dispatch an ambassador to glad-hand with Assad?

Her discussion of Iran consists of a single, terse paragraph in which she admits we’ve accomplished nothing by engagement but aren’t doing much else. And there is again no mention of “all options” remaining at our disposal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Iran, with its anti-Semitic president and hostile nuclear ambitions, also continues to threaten Israel, but it also threatens the region and it sponsors terrorism against many. The United States has worked with the international community to present the leaders in Tehran with a clear choice: Uphold your international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations, or face increased isolation and painful consequences. At every turn, Iran has met our outstretched hand with a clenched fist. But our engagement has helped build a growing global consensus on the need to pressure Iran’s leaders to change course. We are now working with our partners at the United Nations to craft tough new sanctions. The United States is committed to pursuing this diplomatic path. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. (Applause.)

She then prattles on, paragraph after paragraph, describing the wonders of the peace process. On Jerusalem she sidesteps all the condemning and the administration’s reneging on prior agreements with another bit of sly puffery. (“The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply, profoundly, important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And we believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world.”) So why demand a unilateral concession from Israel now, in advance of any negotiations?

All in all, the speech is a vivid example of the degree to which the Obami are willing and able to divorce rhetoric from action, and policy from reality. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if the “applause” reflects genuine enthusiasm for her display of hypocrisy. If so, it’s confirmation that American Jewry — at least those represented by organizations like the AJC — is eager to be sold a bill of goods. Meanwhile, the administration undermines sanctions, threatens an imposed peace deal, and dawdles on the Scud missiles. But they’ve got a heck of a PR plan.

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RE: What the U.S. Should Do About the SCUDs

The U.S. government has confirmed the delivery of SCUD missiles by Syria to Hezbollah. Its response? A remarkably tough press release from a State Department spokesman, which reads as follows:

The most senior Syrian diplomat present in Washington today, Deputy Chief of Mission Zouheir Jabbour, was summoned to the Department of State to review Syria’s provocative behavior concerning the potential transfer of arms to Hezbollah.  This was the fourth occasion on which these concerns have been raised to the Syrian Embassy in recent months, intended to further amplify our messages communicated to the Syrian government. Our dialogue with Syria on this issue has been frank and sustained. We expect the same in return.

The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah. The transfer of these arms can only have a destabilizing effect on the region, and would pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon. The risk of miscalculation that could result from this type of escalation should make Syria reverse the ill-conceived policy it has pursued in providing arms to Hezbollah. Additionally, the heightened tension and increased potential for conflict this policy produces is an impediment to on-going efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. All states have an obligation under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to prevent the importation of any weapons into Lebanon except as authorized by the Lebanese Government.

We call for an immediate cessation of any arms transfers to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations in the region. Syria’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism is directly related to its support for terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah.

This is certainly a step above what we usually hear from the Obami when it comes to aggression by their friends in the “Muslim World” – silence. It doesn’t exactly say what consequences there will be for violation of the UN Resolution 1701. But after all, there has already been such a violation. And who knows what we and Israel have agreed on. It would be nice if we’ve changed our mind about sending our ambassador to Damascus (should he ever be confirmed). And it would be even better if we actually mentioned Israel and its right of self-defense. But this is the first sign that reality has crept into Foggy Bottom and that some re-evaluation of our Syrian engagement policy is underway. Perhaps next we could go to the UN to get a declaration that Syria is in violation of 1701 and that states in the region are entitled to act in self-defense. Well, we can always hope.

The U.S. government has confirmed the delivery of SCUD missiles by Syria to Hezbollah. Its response? A remarkably tough press release from a State Department spokesman, which reads as follows:

The most senior Syrian diplomat present in Washington today, Deputy Chief of Mission Zouheir Jabbour, was summoned to the Department of State to review Syria’s provocative behavior concerning the potential transfer of arms to Hezbollah.  This was the fourth occasion on which these concerns have been raised to the Syrian Embassy in recent months, intended to further amplify our messages communicated to the Syrian government. Our dialogue with Syria on this issue has been frank and sustained. We expect the same in return.

The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah. The transfer of these arms can only have a destabilizing effect on the region, and would pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon. The risk of miscalculation that could result from this type of escalation should make Syria reverse the ill-conceived policy it has pursued in providing arms to Hezbollah. Additionally, the heightened tension and increased potential for conflict this policy produces is an impediment to on-going efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. All states have an obligation under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to prevent the importation of any weapons into Lebanon except as authorized by the Lebanese Government.

We call for an immediate cessation of any arms transfers to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations in the region. Syria’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism is directly related to its support for terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah.

This is certainly a step above what we usually hear from the Obami when it comes to aggression by their friends in the “Muslim World” – silence. It doesn’t exactly say what consequences there will be for violation of the UN Resolution 1701. But after all, there has already been such a violation. And who knows what we and Israel have agreed on. It would be nice if we’ve changed our mind about sending our ambassador to Damascus (should he ever be confirmed). And it would be even better if we actually mentioned Israel and its right of self-defense. But this is the first sign that reality has crept into Foggy Bottom and that some re-evaluation of our Syrian engagement policy is underway. Perhaps next we could go to the UN to get a declaration that Syria is in violation of 1701 and that states in the region are entitled to act in self-defense. Well, we can always hope.

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The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

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How’s Syrian Engagement Working out?

As we’ve noted, the Obami recently sent the U.S. ambassador back to Syria, in an effort, we are told, to engage Damascus and wean Syria away from Iran. It’s not working too well. Not at all, really:

The U.S. administration has asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to immediately stop transferring arms to Hezbollah. American officials made the request during a meeting Friday with the Syrian ambassador to Washington. …

The move was described as an opportunity to discuss the next steps following the visit to Damascus by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns on February 17.

The administration also said the meeting was part of its efforts to achieve a direct dialogue with Syria on issues of interest to both sides.

Haaretz has learned that Burns’ visit to Damascus ended unsatisfactorily for the U.S. administration. During Burns’ meeting with Assad, the Syrian leader denied all American claims that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.

Assad essentially told Burns that he had no idea what the American was talking about.

Well, why would it be, do you think, that Assad is playing dumb? After all, we sent our ambassador back without asking for anything in return, and we have been so mute… er… respectful of the Syrian government on the subject of human rights. Oh, wait. Could it be that having given Assad pretty much all he wants up front, we have no leverage to extract anything further from him? Could be.

And it’s not like this should come as any surprise. Last August, Elliott Abrams wrote that the Obama policy of unilateral diplomatic gestures was bearing no fruit:

Syria continues to support Hezbollah’s blocking of the formation of a government in Lebanon, backing Hezbollah in its demand for a “blocking third” that would prevent any decisions Hezbollah opposes in any new Cabinet. The Palestinian terrorist groups remain headquartered in Damascus, and under no visible restraints. And on August 19, President Bashar Asad paid a visit to President Ahmadinejad in Tehran, to showcase his support of the latter during the current Iranian political crisis.

So we tossed in more goodies – the return of Ambassador Ford — and lo and behold, still no results. In fact, Assad seems emboldened to defy American requests, secure in the knowledge there will be no downside to his snubbing of the administration. (What — we’re going to pull Ford out the week after he was sent? Hardly.) This is the appeasement game in action, of course. Defenders of the Obama policy, as they would do for all such gambits, insist we simply aren’t trying hard enough and have to do even more to encourage the Assad regime.

If we had not already sent Ford back to Damascus, would we have been more successful? Hard to know. But at least we would not have looked foolish in the process and convinced Assad he has the upper hand. And in the meantime, had we not been ingratiating ourselves with Damascus, we might have given some moral and political support to those Syrians under the boot of the despotic regime. Now we have the worst of all worlds — a defiant Assad, no leverage, and further erosion of America’s moral standing. That’s a regrettably familiar pattern with Obama’s “smart” diplomacy.

As we’ve noted, the Obami recently sent the U.S. ambassador back to Syria, in an effort, we are told, to engage Damascus and wean Syria away from Iran. It’s not working too well. Not at all, really:

The U.S. administration has asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to immediately stop transferring arms to Hezbollah. American officials made the request during a meeting Friday with the Syrian ambassador to Washington. …

The move was described as an opportunity to discuss the next steps following the visit to Damascus by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns on February 17.

The administration also said the meeting was part of its efforts to achieve a direct dialogue with Syria on issues of interest to both sides.

Haaretz has learned that Burns’ visit to Damascus ended unsatisfactorily for the U.S. administration. During Burns’ meeting with Assad, the Syrian leader denied all American claims that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.

Assad essentially told Burns that he had no idea what the American was talking about.

Well, why would it be, do you think, that Assad is playing dumb? After all, we sent our ambassador back without asking for anything in return, and we have been so mute… er… respectful of the Syrian government on the subject of human rights. Oh, wait. Could it be that having given Assad pretty much all he wants up front, we have no leverage to extract anything further from him? Could be.

And it’s not like this should come as any surprise. Last August, Elliott Abrams wrote that the Obama policy of unilateral diplomatic gestures was bearing no fruit:

Syria continues to support Hezbollah’s blocking of the formation of a government in Lebanon, backing Hezbollah in its demand for a “blocking third” that would prevent any decisions Hezbollah opposes in any new Cabinet. The Palestinian terrorist groups remain headquartered in Damascus, and under no visible restraints. And on August 19, President Bashar Asad paid a visit to President Ahmadinejad in Tehran, to showcase his support of the latter during the current Iranian political crisis.

So we tossed in more goodies – the return of Ambassador Ford — and lo and behold, still no results. In fact, Assad seems emboldened to defy American requests, secure in the knowledge there will be no downside to his snubbing of the administration. (What — we’re going to pull Ford out the week after he was sent? Hardly.) This is the appeasement game in action, of course. Defenders of the Obama policy, as they would do for all such gambits, insist we simply aren’t trying hard enough and have to do even more to encourage the Assad regime.

If we had not already sent Ford back to Damascus, would we have been more successful? Hard to know. But at least we would not have looked foolish in the process and convinced Assad he has the upper hand. And in the meantime, had we not been ingratiating ourselves with Damascus, we might have given some moral and political support to those Syrians under the boot of the despotic regime. Now we have the worst of all worlds — a defiant Assad, no leverage, and further erosion of America’s moral standing. That’s a regrettably familiar pattern with Obama’s “smart” diplomacy.

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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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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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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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The Price of Engaging Syria

After the Annapolis conference, there was a brief burst of optimism about the prospects of “engaging” rather than confronting Syria. Advocates of this approach pointed to the fact that Syria agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to this meeting as a great triumph. They also pointed to more ambiguous evidence of a reduction in the number of jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq, although it’s unclear whether this is due to action on the part of the Syrian government or by American and Iraqi security forces, or whether it is due simply to an overall decline in the number of terrorists willing to kill themselves in a losing cause.

A further cause for optimism was said to be the agreement reached between Syrian-backed forces in Lebanon and their Franco-American-backed adversaries for the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, to take over as the country’s President, thus breaking a long impasse.

Then this week a car bomb rubs out Brigadier General Francois Hajj, one of Suleiman’s top officers and a leading candidate to succeed him as army chief of staff. No one knows who planted the bomb, but suspicions naturally focus on Syria, which has a long history of using such weapons to kill and intimidate its opponents in Lebanese politics. Indeed, a special UN tribunal has found Syrian fingerprints all over the car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Syria seems plainly intent on reestablishing Lebanon firmly within its sphere of influence, using Hizballah and Sunni terrorist groups as proxies. The price of “engagement” is to let the Syrians have their way, thus betraying Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. That’s a high price to pay, especially since it’s far from clear what, if anything, Syria will do for us in return.

After the Annapolis conference, there was a brief burst of optimism about the prospects of “engaging” rather than confronting Syria. Advocates of this approach pointed to the fact that Syria agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to this meeting as a great triumph. They also pointed to more ambiguous evidence of a reduction in the number of jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq, although it’s unclear whether this is due to action on the part of the Syrian government or by American and Iraqi security forces, or whether it is due simply to an overall decline in the number of terrorists willing to kill themselves in a losing cause.

A further cause for optimism was said to be the agreement reached between Syrian-backed forces in Lebanon and their Franco-American-backed adversaries for the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, to take over as the country’s President, thus breaking a long impasse.

Then this week a car bomb rubs out Brigadier General Francois Hajj, one of Suleiman’s top officers and a leading candidate to succeed him as army chief of staff. No one knows who planted the bomb, but suspicions naturally focus on Syria, which has a long history of using such weapons to kill and intimidate its opponents in Lebanese politics. Indeed, a special UN tribunal has found Syrian fingerprints all over the car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Syria seems plainly intent on reestablishing Lebanon firmly within its sphere of influence, using Hizballah and Sunni terrorist groups as proxies. The price of “engagement” is to let the Syrians have their way, thus betraying Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. That’s a high price to pay, especially since it’s far from clear what, if anything, Syria will do for us in return.

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Congratulations, Facebook!

You’ve proven sufficiently adept at aiding and abetting free political discourse (no doubt exuding decadent Western sexual mores all the while) to require being banned by the Syrian government! This happened last Sunday. Plenty of coverage on blogs, relatively little in the press. And the really remarkable thing about the story—that the political potential of a general social networking site can terrify an entire government—has not been mentioned enough, in my opinion.

You’ve proven sufficiently adept at aiding and abetting free political discourse (no doubt exuding decadent Western sexual mores all the while) to require being banned by the Syrian government! This happened last Sunday. Plenty of coverage on blogs, relatively little in the press. And the really remarkable thing about the story—that the political potential of a general social networking site can terrify an entire government—has not been mentioned enough, in my opinion.

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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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Syrian Incursion

Michael Totten reports today a piece of incredibly disturbing news: Syria, on Thursday of last week, made a quiet incursion three kilometers into Lebanon. The Syrian troops are digging in, according to Totten’s citation of the Lebanese daily Al Mustaqbal:

The sources said Syrian troops, backed by bulldozers, were fortifying positions “in more than one area” along the Lebanese border, erecting earth mounds and digging “hundreds” of trenches and individual bunkers.

And the Syrian government is, apparently, evacuating Syrian citizens from Lebanon. Totten goes on:

Syria can, apparently, get away with just about anything. I could hardly blame Assad at this point if he believes, after such an astonishing non-response, that he can reconquer Beirut. So far he can kill and terrorize and invade and destroy with impunity, at least up to a point. What is that point? Has anyone in the U.S., Israel, the Arab League, the European Union, or the United Nations even considered the question?

Read the rest here.

Michael Totten reports today a piece of incredibly disturbing news: Syria, on Thursday of last week, made a quiet incursion three kilometers into Lebanon. The Syrian troops are digging in, according to Totten’s citation of the Lebanese daily Al Mustaqbal:

The sources said Syrian troops, backed by bulldozers, were fortifying positions “in more than one area” along the Lebanese border, erecting earth mounds and digging “hundreds” of trenches and individual bunkers.

And the Syrian government is, apparently, evacuating Syrian citizens from Lebanon. Totten goes on:

Syria can, apparently, get away with just about anything. I could hardly blame Assad at this point if he believes, after such an astonishing non-response, that he can reconquer Beirut. So far he can kill and terrorize and invade and destroy with impunity, at least up to a point. What is that point? Has anyone in the U.S., Israel, the Arab League, the European Union, or the United Nations even considered the question?

Read the rest here.

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