Lee Smith
Weekly Standard, May 9, 2011


Now more than a month and a half after peaceful demonstrations kicked off in the small city of Deraa, the Syrian uprising gives the Obama administration another shot at getting history right. The first time was June 2009, when the people of Iran took to the streets to protest the fixed presidential elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office. But in time the protests expanded to critique every aspect of Iran’s closed society: from the lack of freedom of speech to Iran’s abysmal women’s rights to support of foreign terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. The Green Movement was a rebuke to the essential nature of Tehran’s obscurantist government. The Iranian people sought nothing less than freedom.

And the Obama administration blinked.…

What we know today is that the political aspirations of the Iranian people frustrated the administration’s plans to reach out to their rulers. According to an administration official quoted last week in the same New Yorker article that described the president’s strategy as “leading from behind,” “We were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.”

President Obama came to office with high hopes for engaging Syria, too. He’d promised as much on the campaign trail. If George W. Bush had isolated the Assad regime after its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, an Obama White House would bring the Syrians in from the cold and show them that it was in their own best interest to change their behavior.

The problem is that, after several decades of U.S. envoys and policymakers making the pilgrimage to Damascus with the same evangelical purpose, the Assads (first the father Hafez and now the son Bashar) know how the game is played. The Americans want concrete results—like abandoning support for Hezbollah and Hamas, splitting from Iran, closing down the jihadist pipeline into Iraq—that would cost the Syrians too much. So instead the Assads promise much, give nothing, and profit handsomely from the prestige that comes to them merely from sitting at the same table as the Americans.

It is perhaps strange that a country whose most notable export is terrorism should figure so prominently in the calculations of Washington policymakers. But for the Obama White House, Syria was central. The president intended to show his bona fides to the Arab and Muslim masses by advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, thereby dampening anti-American sentiment. As the Palestinian track faltered, Obama needed the Syrian track even more—not least because the Syrians could crash the entire peace process at any time with one spectacular act of violence against Israelis or Arabs or both. Moreover, the administration believed, progress on the peace process was a way to sideline the Iranians.

In other words, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy and regional security strategy both depended on flipping Assad. The White House is essentially protecting a man who sent tanks to fire on his own people because Syria is the cornerstone of its Middle East policy.

Events have overrun the administration’s understanding of the Middle East. As it turns out, Arabs are more concerned with the governance of their own polities than with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why they have risen around the region to reject their autocratic leaders. It is why Syrians have braved the regime’s sniper fire and tanks to protest, “silmiyyeh, silmiyyeh,” as one of the uprising’s mottoes has it: Peaceful, peaceful.

This is Obama’s second chance to get the Middle East right, by speaking out loudly and clearly against Iran’s chief ally. Unfortunately, according to administration officials, the White House doesn’t believe it has much leverage with the Syrians. Such resignation is the natural consequence of not recognizing how the United States is truly perceived in the world: as a leader, albeit an imperfect one, and a symbol of moral clarity. If the president wants to win the respect and admiration of Arab and Muslim peoples, the opportunity has presented itself, again.…

As one Lebanese friend says, “Syria never had anything more to offer Washington than blood—the blood of Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis, Iraqis, and Americans. Now that the regime is letting its own blood, the blood of Syrians, will the leader of the free world finally stop negotiating in blood?” A nation that has reckoned honestly with its own failings throughout its history has not only the prerogative but the duty to lead with the truth. The danger of leading from behind is that history will pass you by.


Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2011


It’s coming on close to four decades since the U.S. foreign policy establishment got into the business of making excuses for the Assad regime in Syria. Maybe it’s time to stop.

The excuses come in many forms. Hillary Clinton, citing the testimony of congressional leaders who have met with Bashar Assad, calls the Syrian president a “reformer.” In the National Interest, former CIA official Paul Pillar writes that “there is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent [Assad] regime, however distasteful it may be.” On PBS’s NewsHour, Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation says that Mr. Assad “can probably marshal at least 50% of the society…[who are] looking to him primarily to demonstrate that he can hold this together and keep [Syria] from turning into post-Saddam Iraq or civil war in Lebanon.”

Those are just some of the recent commentaries, offered even as the regime slaughters scores of peaceful protesters in its streets. They arrive on top of years worth of true belief that Damascus wants a peace deal with Jerusalem (if only the stiff-necks would take one); or that it is a stabilizing force in the region (or could be if its “legitimate needs” are met); or that it has been a valuable ally in the war on terror (ill-used by the Bush administration); or that, bad as the regime is, whatever comes after it would probably be worse.

Today this fellow-traveling seems a bit distasteful. But the important point is that it has always been absurd. Hafez Assad turned down multiple offers from several Israeli prime ministers to return the Golan Heights. Bashar Assad once told a Lebanese newspaper that “It is inconceivable that Israel will become a legitimate state, even if the peace process is implemented.” Syria brutalized Lebanon throughout a 29-year military occupation, climaxing—but not yet concluding—with the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The regime nearly provoked a war with Turkey in the late 1990s by harboring the leader of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group. It continues to harbor the leadership of Hamas and other Palestinian “resistance” groups. It serves as the principal arms conduit to Hezbollah. It funneled al Qaeda terrorists to Iraq. It pursued an illicit nuclear program courtesy of North Korea. It is Iran’s closest ally in the region and probably in the world.

The list goes on. And as the regime behaves toward its neighbors, so too does it against its own people. A “Damascus Spring” early in Bashar Assad’s tenure quickly turned into a Mao-style Let 100 Flowers Bloom exercise of unmasking the regime’s domestic opponents. Mr. Assad was “re-elected” in 2007 with 97.6% of the vote. Freedom House notes that “Syrians access the internet only through state-run servers, which block more than 160 sites associated with the opposition.” Again, the list goes on.

All this raises the question of why the Obama administration won’t call for Mr. Assad to step aside. After all, it did so with long-standing U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak when Egyptians took to the streets, on the theory that America should stand with the people in their demand for change—even when we are not yet sure what change will bring. And it did so again with long-standing enemy Moammar Gadhafi on the theory that the international community has a “responsibility to protect” when civilians are being shot in the streets. Both conditions are now operative in Syria.

Last month I asked Robert Gates whether the U.S. would support regime change in Damascus. “I’m not going to go that far,” he answered, adding that “maybe the Syrians can take a lesson out of what happened in Egypt, where the army stood aside and let the people demonstrate.” The problem is that the Syrian army hasn’t stepped aside, and won’t, because its key units—the intelligence ministry, the Republican Guards—are in the hands of Mr. Assad’s immediate relatives.…

What, then, should the administration do? As Middle East analyst Firas Maksad notes, it would not be asking much of President Obama to recall his recently installed ambassador to Damascus as a signal of U.S. displeasure. Nor would it hurt to refer Syria’s case to the Human Rights Council, or to designate regime money-man Rami Makhlouf, another Assad relative and easily the most detested man in Syria, for Treasury Department sanctions. At a minimum, such moves would put the U.S. symbolically on the side of the protesters and improve our leverage with them should they come to power.

Yesterday I asked Henry Kissinger where the U.S. interest in Syria lies. “We don’t owe [Mr. Assad] an exit with dignity, to say the least,” he told me. “We are for a Syria that is a responsible member of the international community and that will be treated with respect and cooperation if it works for peace and if it does not support terrorist organizations in neighboring countries.”

The Assad regime has proved over 41 years that it cannot meet that standard. It’s time to help replace it with one that can.


Barry Rubin
Rubin Reports, April 30, 2011


The Obama administration no longer considers Syria a potential peace partner for Israel because of its repression against its own people. This is according to media background interviews with government officials.

But wait a minute! What do we know about that regime now that we didn’t know—I should say, should have known—a month or six months or six years ago? Syria has been a repressive, radical dictatorship at least since 1963 and arguably a few years earlier.

We know the same thing about Hizballah and the other rulers of Lebanon; Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip; and—to a much lesser extent but it’s still basically true—the Palestinian Authority.

So what has been the Western idea up until now? Namely for Israel to make a peace with these “partners” involving major risks and concessions. For example, Israel is supposed to give the Golan Heights to this regime in Syria in exchange for its promise of peace.

If you’ve never seen the Golan Heights in person you can’t imagine its unique strategic significance. Israel’s territory is perfectly flat and stretches to the nearby Mediterranean. The Golan Heights rise almost vertically above it and looks over this land like a balcony. Those up on the Heights can bombard downward to their heart’s content with artillery, rockets, missiles, and mortars. Once Israel gives up the Heights there are no natural defenses between there and the sea. And by the same token it would be very hard—and costly in casualties—for Israel to recapture the Golan.

It is almost impossible for any piece of territory to have a greater military advantage.

Giving this territory to the Assad regime is the kind of silly idea that passes as somewhere between brilliance and conventional wisdom in every Western government and mass media outlet. Of course, if the Syrian government were the kind of regime that would agree to eternal peace and keep that agreement then such a deal would make sense. But it isn’t.

If one could have a real knowledge in advance that its successor would also keep a peace treaty—as long as the sky is blue and the rivers flow—it could be justified. But that’s not true either, as the situation in Egypt is showing, as the situation in the Gaza Strip has shown. How many examples do you need?

And if one could know that the Western countries would keep their promised guarantees and then come riding like the cavalry to smite the evildoer who broke agreements with Israel than those guarantees would be credible. But, once again, that’s not true, as the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, and the truce ending the 2006 war with Hizballah, and the 1993 agreement with what became the Palestinian Authority show. How many examples do you need?

According to the current way of thinking then, only after the concessions have been made, the risks undertaken, and the piece of paper signed do we find out that these weren’t partners for peace. But then it would be too late.

Isn’t it better to learn such things beforehand? In fact, isn’t it better to learn that reality right now this minute?

(Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center,
and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
Mr. Rubin will be a guest speaker at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research’s
upcoming Gala, scheduled for June 15, 2011.)


Martin Peretz
New Republic, May 11, 2011


…The present upheavals [in the Arab world] in their cumulative impact are deadening. Not only to the victims of the regimes but to their observers, commentators, rapporteurs.

Actually, many of these observers, perhaps most, are infatuated with the Arabs. But infatuation is really a variant on infantilization. The torment now spreading in the Arab world, however, is an evidential repudiation of this view, a cardinal attribute of which is that whatever difficulties obtained in the vast space from the Maghreb to the outskirts of Baghdad are attributable to Israel, in particular, and maybe even to the Jews, in general. This was very convenient in that it matched with the traditional bigotries of Western diplomatic elites. Yet it had a contemporary ring to it—from Barack Obama’s pastor to the increasingly monolithic editorial view of the liberal press.

One of the reasons that this is so is that this is a field where knowledge is certainly arcane, if not deliberately suppressed. Given the phantasmagoric nature of Arab governmental documents, would you trust material from official archives? In addition to all of this is the haste and fashion of news itself. The “experts” simply do not know much about the topics on which they have to anddo pretend expertise. Many who report and interpret for us know exactly zero about their quickly changing subjects. For most, a one-page memo or a quick update will do. Syria is a case in point. I would bet that some of the authoritative press people don’t know the difference between Hama, a town the population of which Bashir Assad’s father, Hafez, bombed to smithereens and killed some 10,000 to 40,000 (a difference that maybe should make a difference) Sunnis in the process, and Hamas, the governing terrorist organization in Gaza that is itself Sunni but is willing to make alliances with anybody—that is, Turks, the Shia of Iran, and the secularized Alawites in Damascus—as long as they are antagonists, loathing antagonists, of Israel. In this sentence alone lay a thousand facts and factoids. And don’t forget that between Turkey and Syria lies a land dispute with a long past and passions aplenty to match it.…

Actually, it is Syria where outside ignorance and inattention have reaped for the regime enormous latitude over the years. And enormous latitude now when it has over just about a month murdered a thousand people, maybe more. Not exactly its own people, by the way, but that is how things are in the body counts of tyrannies. How many wounded have been picked off by snipers (here acting as random rather than precise killers) nobody really knows. But the scandal of this all is the fact that the presidency of Barack Obama has been more or less allied with the dictatorship since it came to power, a part of the liberal idealist’s opening to the Arabs whoever they were. Or, to be precise, the ignominy of it all was that it was a courtship by the paradigmatic democracy of the paradigmatic oppressor which would respond to every overture with insult and scorn.…

Of course, the Obama-Clinton diplomacy—oops, I almost typed “Carter” for “Clinton”—with Syria was initially an aspect of the president’s patently foolish diplomacy with Iran about which people nodded sagely but knew deep inside it was twaddle. But long after Obama understood—reluctantly, I am certain—that there weren’t deals to be had with Tehran (neither with Ahmadinejad nor with Khamenei) the president pursued his Damascus gamesmanship with a stubbornness that was born of his sense that he was always right. At least in foreign policy, about which he knows even less than about technical economic issues, his tenacity has been the cause of an almost seamless set of international failures. Alas, very few in the United States notice because we are fixated on our domestic exertions. Now, it may not be that Obama actually desires American authority and grip in the world to slip away, although I suspect that he might see this as a triumph for what old enthusiasts of this disposition call international morality and international law. Still, the decline of America is the sure consequence of his actions.

I have just read two articles about Syria. One, “Hundreds Reported Arrested as Syria’s Crackdown Widens,” is in The New York Times, datelined Beirut. One knows that it is based on sources in Damascus and other Syrian cities. But names can’t be used and, even in Lebanon, informants are better off nameless lest Assad’s long-armed secret police reach over the feeble frontier to silence him, like he silenced Rafik Hariri, the zillionaire Sunni prime minister of the neighboring cedar republic in 2005. “The scale and ferocity of the crackdown” is actually hair-raising, what with young children being arrested with their elders. There were dead…but no one can make a true estimate.…

“Living Dead: Why is Syria Going Up in Flames?” is the second article, really an interpretative essay on Syria where a new writer for TNR, Theo Padnos, lived for several years. We think we know a dictatorship by how it behaves in exigent threat. But Padnos actually conveys the essence of how “normal” life prepares people slowly, almost casually, for dread. You can even sing along with the fashionable young of Damascus in the jolly days. But you’ll end up being cannily knowing about the erratic and also almost completely static rhythm of the police state. How well the tyranny plays off these two impulses determine its destiny. Maybe Assad will win this call. But maybe he won’t.

Still, the Obama administration has been wishing him well for at least two years. Or, rather, it should be said that Obama administration initiatives involving Syria—had they been successful which, of course, they were not—would have propped up the dictatorship by exaggerating its intrinsic sway, its own freedom of movement and the justice of its grievance against Israel. It is as if we have suddenly decided that a regime that tries to capture another country and loses territory in the process has the right to have it repatriated as if nothing had ever happened. Try, try, and try again, so to speak.

This is especially the case in the Levant where the diplomacy of boundaries going back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire—whose power had been wielded at a time from Vienna to Central Asia—was so scrawly and shifting that no one could know from one day to the next where this scepter held sway and that one did not. A propos these vagaries, in the diplomatic talks between France and England following the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 up to 1923 the biblical phrase “from Dan to Beer-Sheva” was the template of any map. But, of course, the words were more evocative than determinate, metaphoric than concrete. And so the cartographic war, from then and now, continues. What are Syria’s real claims to the Golan Heights? There were Syrian Arabs in the Golan prior to 1967. But no one actually thought of himself as ethnically or nationally Syrian. Instead, they replicated the diversity of hate, the permanent schismatics of difference. Moreover, the resident Alawite contingent—surprise! surprise!—is quite loyal to Israel. And there are Druze whose affinities are hard to judge since they are neither Arab nor Jew. In any case, what is Syria? It is certainly not a coherent or cohesive nation, what with its constant incitement of sectarian strife. And then there is the hydrostrategics of its geography, a permanent temptation for anyone governing from Damascus.

Spotted around Israel are failed states. I doubt that the states to the north, Lebanon and Syria, can be mended. Their essence was always difference. But certainly not as democracies where the rights of diverse groups are honored.… In Syria, 10 percent of the population governs. The majoritarian rest, the Sunnis and their Muslim Brotherhood vanguard, have been cowering since 1982.… Pity the Alawites when the Sunnis will strike for revenge. On the other hand, how much can you pity the Alawites who have been plundering and imprisoning and also murdering for four decades?

What had Obama in his head when he tried to jumpstart Israeli negotiations with Syria? Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, what else? The answer is simple and transparent: Israel’s retreat from territories it had captured while they were being used by enemies trying to vitiate Israel itself. But this is the president’s steady trope. Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and ancient Jerusalem and East Jerusalem and, yes, the Golan Heights, too, without a shred of evidence that it would be protected, could be protected from attack by armed soldiers, armed aircraft and armed terrorists, by a deadly admixture of regular troops with guerrillas somehow coddled by human rights organizations which define the latter virtually as civilians. Do you believe that the Arabs truly want peace? Does President Obama? Well, I don’t.…

Why am I not a believer? Because the only unifying strand in the disparate state systems of the Arabs is their struggle against the Jews, the Zionists, the Israelis. Nothing else motivates them so doggedly. The Christians also are targets of the various Muslim governments under which they live, and their numbers are falling in every country of the region—except Israel.…

The future plight of the Christians in the region has been foreshadowed in Egypt where yet another slaughter of innocents took place on May 8 after a string of fiery incidents. “We are in a jungle,” cried a Coptic bishop. Eleven men and women, both Christian and Muslim, were left for dead, with about 250 wounded, of which some 50 were shot. Two churches were incinerated. It was an assault by Salafists who make the Muslim Brothers appear moderate.

We are now being sermonized, mostly by journalistic oracles, to believe that these last months are a Prague Spring for Muslims. They have an agenda and it is to convince Israel not to be a killjoy but to join the party and ease the path to peace. I happen to believe that Arabs need to learn to live with each other before Israel opens itself to its neighbors’ villainy now being practiced on their own.

(Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.)