CHANGING COURSE WITH SYRIA
Alon Ben-Meir - October 10, 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.
The notion that the focus of the Middle-East conference is to reach an agreement
in principle between Israel and the Palestinians, and so other conflicting
parties, such as Syria, are marginal to the deliberation, is fundamentally
flawed. The Bush administration must quickly reassess its position regarding
Syria if it wishes to achieve even a modicum of success at the conference. There
are several reasons that support this argument:
First, any agreement achieved between Fatah and Israel is only half an agreement
even pursued fully, which is in itself extremely doubtful. No agreement can be
fully implemented without Gaza an area populated by 1.5 million Palestinians
over which Hamas is in full control. There is very little that Israel or the
Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas can do to bring Hamas to heed. Since
Syria's direct and indirect support of Hamas is critical to the organization,
Damascus can exercise substantial influence over whether Hamas recants or mounts
even greater resistance to any agreement between Israel and the Fatah-led
Second, although there is no time for Israel and Syria to reach an agreement
prior to the conference, the Syrian presence at the conference offers a golden
opportunity to reach a mutual declaration of intent with Israel to achieve peace
through negotiations. Both Israel and Syria have openly declared their
willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations. The Bush administration
has, therefore, an obligation to embrace what both nations seek and not allow
its obsession with regime change in Damascus to torpedo a momentous opportunity
to bring about quantum change in the Middle East. It is ironic that while both
Israel and Syria want and need peace, it is the administration that is
preventing Israel from entering into any substantive negotiations with Syria.
Third, it is a given that for the conference to achieve even modest success, the
participation of other Arab states and mustering the collective Arab will behind
any emerging agreement is absolutely essential. Although the administration is
fully cognizant of this fact, it has hardly deigned to pay lip service to the
Arab initiative, which is the only document that expresses the Arab states'
collective political will to establish a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which
must include Syria. Only a united Arab position can modify the direction of
Hamas and other extremist groups. And only the full-fledged participation of
Saudi Arabia (as the original author of the Arab initiative) and Syria (as the
most critical conflicting party, besides the Israelis and the Palestinians) will
improve dramatically prospects for the conference's success, so necessary to
building future progress.
Fourth, Syria, as a major Arab state and a critical antagonist of Israel, cannot
be treated as an adjunct to the conference where the core of the Arab-Israeli
conflict is being discussed. Although Syria was invited as part of the Arab
League delegation, it is not likely to unless it is invited to attend on its own
and given the opportunity to express its own grievances. From the Syrian
perspective the current invitation is nothing more than a continuation of the
administration's efforts to marginalize Damascus by portraying it as
inconsequential to the region's future. The administration may wish this to be
the case, but it is not. Syria has been, and continues to be, a major player for
good or evil, depending on the prevailing geopolitical conditions and Damascus's
threat perception to the present regime. There is no doubt that the
administration can influence Damascus's future course of action but not to the
detriment of the regime itself. America's conflict with Iran over its nuclear
weapons program, the turmoil in Lebanon, the level of instability in Iraq,
Palestinian extremism, and Hezbollah's fortunes are all affected by what Syria
does or does not do.
This brings us to the fundamental question: Since the policy of regime change in
Damascus, so vigorously pursued by the administration over the past six years,
has by all accounts failed, is it not time to change such a counterproductive
policy? All that the administration has been able to achieve is to push the
regime in Damascus further and further into Iran's belly and to also force it to
tighten control domestically. Syria is hardly foolish enough not to take
American threats seriously, and thus has been compelled to take extraordinary
measures, however unsavory some of these measures may be, to protect itself.
Regardless of the reality or the merits of American grievances against Syria,
none can be settled by public recriminations and accusations. The agreement with
North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program should be a telling lesson to
the administration. Only when it conceded to the North Korean demand for
face-to-face negotiations was an agreement finally hammered out with Pyongyang,
an agreement which could have been achieved five years ago and certainly before
North Korea got to the point of conducting an actual nuclear test.
Inviting Syria to the peace conference is not a reward to Damascus for its
alleged mischievous behavior; it is a matter of real necessity dictated by the
prevailing turmoil in the Middle East to which the Bush administration has
contributed so largely. The Middle- East conference offers the Bush
administration an opportunity to change course toward Syria without loosing face
not to speak of preventing a colossal failure.