AIPAC’s annual gathering in Washington D.C. started up Sunday at a critical moment for American-Israeli relations. It is fair to say that the predominant mood of the gathering was “anxiety” — what is this administration’s approach to Israel and to Iran, and are we headed for a chilling in the U.S.- Israeli relationship? In other years, the attendees were depressed or euphoric, depending on recent events; this year they are nervous.
Sunday afternoon several hundred of the attendees listened to a panel on Syria, asking what is it that Bashar al-Assad really wants. Elliott Abrams, former deputy National Security Advisor, Andrew Tabler from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Dr. Eyal Zisser from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies put on quite a mesmerizing show — providing the sort of context and detail never seen in mainstream reporting. The outlook is not good if you fancy Bashar as the next Sadat waiting to transform his relationship with the U.S. and with Israel.
As Taber notes, Assad is under severe fiscal pressure (and has even become a net importer of oil), but has shown little sign (after much anticipation when he assumed power) that he intends to separate from Iran or to improve relations with the U.S., by, for example, slowing the flow of jihadists traveling into Iraq to kill Americans. Yes, the Syrians are expert at manipulating international media (with the help of their British PR firm) and had even lured former prime minister Olmert into negotiations, but so far there is little sign they are interested in modulating their maximalist demands.
Abrams was characteristically blunt, “Assad wants whatever he can get.” The North Korean nuclear reactor, the series of assassination attempts, and the flow of jihadists into Iraq suggest to Abrams that he feels he “is on the winning side with Iran.” There isn’t any sign of Assad wanting to do the things needed to promote reconcilliation with the U.S., like stop assassinating political opponents — a necessary step for normalizing relations with the West. And from Israel’s perspective following the experience in Lebanaon and Gaza there is little inclination to give up land (the Golan) for hope that such concession might bring peace. He contends it would be “a huge mistake to give any freebies” to Assad in the form of lifting sanctions, for example, given Assad’s present behavior.
Zisser, with dry wit, made clear Assad’s mode of operation. In essence, Assad declares that of course they want peace. . . but not if Israel exists. He directly took on the notion that Assad wants to liberalize and transform his country as Sadat did (which required a re-orientation of Eygpt away from the Soviet orbit). Assad, he says, is not Sadat, but Nasser. And as far as Olmert’s negotiation gambit, that was no problem because Olmert’s approval rating was already 0%.
So there was consensus: Assad shows little willingness to divorce himself from Iran and even less to do the things required to substantively alter relations with Israel and the U.S. A heavy dose of realism, is perhaps in order.
Two interesting items in the Q & A from Abrams. First, he was queried on why the Bush administration did not do more to respond to Syria’s facilitating deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq. Well, the Bush administration did of course push for sanctions, he pointed out. But, Abrams, candidly said that CENTCOM simply would not do more cross-border raids. Although there was understandable concern about expanding the war and overtaxing our forces, Abrams was blunt: this was a mistake. Second, in response to a long and rambling question on the carrots and sticks available to us and whether too much pushing for democracy was counterproductive, Abrams said that he didn’t doubt the Syrian people would like some democracy. And he wondered what the Syrians think of the Iraqis who now enjoy democratic elections and have been transformed from a Sunni dictatorship into a majority-run Shiite democracy. Might not the Sunni majority in Syria want the same? (Well, that’s a bit of Bush legacy yet to be determined, I think).
At any rate, one hopes the Obama administration is as informed and realistic as the panelists. One suspects, however, that they are indeed itching to give away “some freebies.” And for a president for whom engagement in and of itself is a sign of “success,” it is doubtful that his administration will refrain very long from passing out the carrots.