BACK TO THE DEBATE ON SYRIA
Alon Ben-Meir - July 16, 2007
Dr. ALON BEN-MEIR – His exceptional knowledge and insight gained by more than 25 years of direct involvement with foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, have allowed Dr. Alon Ben-Meir to offer a unique and invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international negotiations.
A noted journalist and author, Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and a professor of International Relations and Middle-Eastern studies at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and at the New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.
In addition to his essays on contemporary global conflict oriented issues, Dr. Ben-Meir writes a weekly syndicated column about current international policies and events, which is published by United Press International.
Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Dr. Ben-Meir began his career as a journalist. His frequent travels to the Mid-East and conversations with highly placed sources in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness of and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news.
Dr. Ben-Meir is the author of numerous books, including: The Middle East: Imperative and Choices, Israel: The Challenge of the Fourth Decade, In Defiance of Time, Framework for Arab-Israeli Peace, The Last Option, and A War We Must Win. He expects to publish his latest book Defeating Terrorism in the summer of 2006.
Dr. Ben-Meir's views on contemporary international affairs are often sought out by major television and radio networks, and he is a frequent speaker before groups and organizations at venues as varied as world affairs councils and town hall meetings. He is a popular lecturer on international relations at a variety of universities besides the New York University and the New School.
For a number of years, I have been advocating the importance of constructively
engaging Syria, not only to improve the prospects for a comprehensive
Arab-Israeli peace, but to substantially contribute to the stability of the
Middle East. With security conditions throughout the region deteriorating daily,
especially in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq, Damascus can play
a significant role in stemming the tide of violence. This is why it is sadly
ironic that the Bush administration, which is battling to stabilize the
situation especially in Iraq, remains blind to the fact that a change of
strategy toward Syria is critical to tilting the region's political and security
dynamic toward at the very least a modicum of peace and security.
One argument against a change of policy toward Damascus is that the United
States would be seen as rewarding extremism and bad behavior. Proponents of this
view, miss the point: Policy must, in the final analysis, be determined by the
desired outcome. If moderation and cooperation are what the administration seeks
from Syria and the present Bush's policy of regime change in Damascus has
obviously failed, is now not the very moment to consider new policy options?
Another argument against changing policy is that dealing with Syria would be
nothing less than appeasement and that the United States might as well submit to
terrorism. I think the reality is the exact opposite: By not changing course,
America is actually giving in to terrorism. Indeed Syria would collaborate with
the U.S. in the fight against terrorism in many different ways including the
sharing of intelligence as it has done immediately after September 11. A third
argument is that dealing with Syria will come at Lebanon's expense. But again,
the opposite is more likely: Engaging Syria will have a positive not a negative
effect on Lebanon. The reason lies in the very fact that causes America the most
unease, which is that Damascus exercises the greatest control over Hezbollah and
other political and security elements to the degree that it can effectively
influence their behavior in one form or another. To be sure, Lebanese internal
stability depends in large measure on Syria because Damascus remains entrenched
in Lebanon's social, economic, cultural, and security affairs.
But Damascus is fully aware that it must pay a price in any peace negotiations
with Israel if they are to lead to Syria regaining the Golan Heights. Such a
price, must however, be integral to, not a precondition of, the negotiations.
Damascus has no incentive to be helpful, let alone rein in extremism, when the
threat of regime change continues to hover over the government. In fact, the
greater the threat to the regime, the more tight is its leaders' hold on power,
while, conversely, the more secure the regime feels, the greater is the
moderation that can be expected from them. Surely, Damascus must demonstrate
that its call for peace negotiations is not some tactical play for time during
which it prepares for the next adventure but is part of a genuine peace-seeking
strategy. Thus, Syria will have to be ready to undertake clear and transparent
measures, including severing its relations with radical Islamic groups, ending
its political logistical support of Hezbollah, stemming the flow of insurgents
and military hardware to Iraq, and ending its support to Hamas to demonstrate
its commitment to peace.
Although no Syrian official will admit it, but based on what we know, a change
in policy toward Damascus will bring about much of this desired outcome because
the Syrian leaders will act in their best interest and understand the
limitations of their current policies, and are looking for a rapprochement with
the United States. For the United States and Israel, the prospective gains are
enormous, so they must not give way to doubt and thereby continue past policies
that have led nowhere, except to erode regional security conditions. Syria will
not go away. Regardless of the nature and the make up of the regime in Damascus,
be it democratic or despotic, Syria's national obsession with regaining the
Golan and its historic and special interest in Lebanon will not go away either.
As long as Damascus continues to have claims on both, it can be expected to do
whatever it can to secure its own interests. Since no functioning, stable
democracy is expected to emerge in Syria any time soon, the United States and
Israel will be far better off dealing with a regime that has the authority to
commit itself to a policy or a set of actions and take the necessary steps to
back up its commitment.
Why then is there so much talk about a new summer war that may involve Syria and
Israel, and possibly Hezbollah, when the channels for peace negotiation with
Syria are wide open, and the regional security conditions can only deteriorate
more if the current policy is left in place? Certainly, a weak Israeli
government and an American administration stuck in the Iraqi quagmire may offer
some explanation, but not enough to justify the continuation of a failed and
disastrous policy. The Israeli intelligence community has clearly stated that
Syria's peace overture is genuine and that Syria is the key to regional
stability. And in America, many influential and knowledgeable people and groups
inside and outside the administration, Republicans and Democrats, including the
Iraq Study Group, have strongly argued in favor of engaging Syria. But still no
policy change seems in the offing. Instead, the administration continues to
exert pressure on the Olmert government to ensure that no unilateral Israeli
opening toward Syria is contemplated.
Given this intransigence, and if Mr. Bush's Iraq policy offers any indication of
where this administration is going, no one should be surprised if a summer war
does break out, for no other reason than to break the debilitating 40-year