From David Schenker
Earlier this month, the Saban Center at Brookings published a monograph by Itamar Rabinovich titled Damascus, Jerusalem, and Washington: The Syrian-Israeli Relationship as a U.S. Policy Issue. Rabinovich, a distinguished Israeli academic and former diplomat, has been a longtime analyst of the Israeli-Syrian peace track. Based on the title, I had expected to read a proposal for how Washington might best advance Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.
But the paper doesn’t make a proposal. Instead, the study focuses on the history of the Israeli-Syrian track and the U.S.-Syrian bilateral relationship since 1974, concluding with four short scenarios of how that relationship might evolve.
Rabinovich is a highly regarded historian of Syria (he has just published a very readable collection of his essays on the subject), and there is little with which to quibble in his description of U.S.-Syria-Israel dealings from 1974 to 2001. But his analysis of Bush-era Syria policy rests on a subtle presumption that the Bush administration erred in refusing to engage with Damascus. The stage is set in the preface, where Rabinovich critiques the Bush administration’s policy “neither to engage with nor attack [Syria], but to seek soft ways of penalizing it [that] failed to work.”
Rabinovich could have been a bit more charitable. After all, Israeli efforts to engage Damascus in the 1990s (in which he took part) not only failed to deliver any benefits, but resulted in the strengthened position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the erosion of Israeli deterrence. But the main problem with this paper is that the author tends to downplay the Syrian contribution to the impasse in U.S.-Syrian relations, by a method that might be described as argument by elision and omission. Here are a few examples.
• Syria in Iraq. Rabinovich notes that in September 2008, Secretary of State Rice commended the Syrians for (in Rabinovich’s words) “taking serious steps to seal their border with Iraq.” “In contrast to Rice,” he complains, “Bush persisted with his anti-Syrian, anti-Asad view and conduct.”
In fact, Bush had good cause to “persist.” The very month when Rice made her comment, Maj.-Gen. John Kelly, Commander of MNF-West in Iraq, said this in a press conference:
The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side… The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side… Syria is problematic for me but, more importantly, for the Iraqis because it doesn’t seem that there’s much being done on the other side of the border to assist this country in terms of maintaining the border and the integrity of, you know, Iraqi sovereignty.
It was immediately subsequent to Rice’s praise of Syria’s border measures that the United States launched a commando strike that killed a senior Al Qaeda operative on Syrian territory.
Syria’s role in abetting the killing of Americans in Iraq was probably the central issue in the U.S. approach to Syria during the Bush years. Bush “persisted” not because he was “anti-Syrian” or “anti-Asad,” but because progress in Iraq depended on persistence against its opponents, which Syria chose to become. Even Bush’s critics now acknowledge that such U.S. persistence in Iraq has paid off.
• Syria-Iran. Rabinovich cites the President’s September 2007 UN General Assembly address, claiming that Bush “lump[ed] it [Syria] together with Iran.” In English, one “lumps together” unlike things that should rightly be separated. But in retrospect, Bush’s rhetorical linkage of Damascus to Tehran was well warranted. The speech came just weeks after the discovery and September 7, 2007 destruction of the illegal Syrian nuclear facility in Kibar. As it turns out, if recent reports are to be believed, the North Korean-built facility was financed by Iran.
In fact, it has been Syria which has been keen to “lump” itself with Iran, and which has issued repeated assurances that it will not be “de-lumped.” As Syrian President Bashar al-Asad explained just last month, Syria-Iranian relations
are firm and continuously improving; they are strategic relations, which have proved their efficiency and importance in all of the issues which our region has been passing through since the Revolution in Iran in 1979. They are not transitory relations.We have no option but to be in a stable and enduring relation[ship].
Last September, Press TV reported that Asad compared Syria’s relations with Iran to Israel’s relations with the United States. “Israel’s demand [that Damascus cut ties with Tehran] ,” he said, “is the equivalent of Syria requesting Israel to break its relations with the United States.” Could Syrian and Iran be more closely “lumped” together?
(Parenthetically, Rabinovich misattributes the reason the Bush administration revealed the details of the Kibar operation in spring 2008. He says the administration released this information to “embarrass the Syrians and their North Korean suppliers.” But the Bush administration didn’t embark on a gotcha effort to embarrass anyone. The precipitating cause of the revelation was Congressional demands for information on the Israeli strike. If there was a secondary motive, it had to do with putting pressure on Iran.)
• Pelosi visit. When Rabinovich discusses House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pilgrimage to Damascus in 2007, he merely notes that it provoked President Bush, and caused “a brief strain in the relationship” between the United States and Israel, which endorsed the trip. He doesn’t mention the regrettable and predictable aftermath of the visit: the incarceration of several leading members of Syrian civil society. The Bush administration didn’t oppose such legitimizing gestures out of pique, but in the full realization that the price would be paid by Syrians.
Omissions in the monograph extend beyond presentation of Bush policy, to two other crucial points: Syria’s relationship to Hezbollah, and Israeli opinion on the Golan.
• Syria-Hezbollah. Rabinovich treats the 2006 war with Hezbollah as an isolated incident, as though Syria were uninvolved. There is no mention whatsoever of the weapons that Syria provided directly from its own arsenal to the Shiite militia, including, most prominently, the Syrian-produced 220 mm rocket—one of which hit the main train station in Haifa, killing ten Israelis—and the Syrian provision of top-of-the-line Russian anti-tank Kornet missiles to Hezbollah that disabled several IDF Merkava tanks, killing several IDF soldiers. Damascus played a crucial role in building Hezbollah’s impressive arsenal, eventually deployed against Israel during the 2006 war. One wouldn’t know that from this paper.
• Golan. Rabinovich notes that in Israel’s most recent election campaign, “right wing parties were vociferous in their opposition to withdrawal from the Golan Heights,” as though such opposition were a fringe sentiment. He does not mention that this is widely believed to be the predominant opinion of Israelis. In fact, according to polling, the vast majority of Israelis would rather divide Jerusalem for peace with Palestinians than return the Golan for a Syria deal.
The concluding section on “Lessons for the Obama Administration” similarly seems to argue by omission. Instead of discussing the elephant in the room—the nature and likelihood of a potential Syrian reorientation or the kind of changes Syria would have to effect to make a deal with Israel feasible—Rabinovich refers to unnamed Syrian officials who have “alluded to the position that Syria’s alliance with Iran is not fixed and that it is mostly a result of Washington’s rejection of Syria.”
It’s a remarkable line—blaming Syria’s relationship with Iran entirely on Washington—yet Rabinovich lets it stand uncontested. He could have identified dozens of other quotes by the same officials—even by President Asad himself—claiming that the alliance is fixed, and is based on shared objectives. “We do not belong to those states which build temporary, transitional or circumstantial relations,” Asad told Iranian TV in September. “We do have our principles, and interests; thus the factors binding Syria and Iran are increased and more solid day by day.” Why isn’t that also worth quoting?
In summation, the triangle of relations that Rabinovich attempts to describe is enormously complex. Yet from reading this paper, one gets the sense that Israel and Syria might already have a peace treaty, were it not for President Bush. Rabinovich knows far too much about Syria not to know better. One hopes that his next paper will shift the focus to decision-making in Damascus.
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