Do No Harm

Iraq is the same dictatorial disaster it was under Saddam…plus endless non-government terror. Palestinian repression is a deep stain on the integrity of America. Somalia and Afghanistan are, by comparison with their circumstances two generations ago, destroyed societies. Saudi Arabia is on a domestic knife-edge. Iran, victim of an undeclared war by the U.S., is being terrorized, marginalized, and radicalized. Ironically, Israel, “victim” of a flood of thoughtless U.S. military aid and blind support for whatever ambitious politician happens to get elected, is also being terrorized, marginalized, and radicalized. The record of U.S. intervention in the Muslim world is one of incomprehension, immorality, arrogance, and self-defeating short-sightedness. But despair not! We have new opportunities in Yemen and Syria.

As for that new opportunity, Syria, it is surely clear that there are bad guys in Syria and it is obvious that those bad guys are backed by powerful organizations. It is only logical to assume that there are also many decent people being mistreated. Obama’s pathetic philosophy notwithstanding, a Muslim does not deserve to be killed just because that Muslim happens to be an adult male. What is not clear is whether or not any “good” organizations exist and merit support.

Given the record of U.S. influence over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, etc., it is also clear that the likelihood of Washington decision-makers correctly identifying an organization in Syria that might merit diplomatic, economic, or military support is very small.

It is no doubt useful to point out the evil being done by various Syrian politicians, though one must be careful to point out such evil regardless of which side is doing it (and few reports have such balance). But at this point, would it not be more valuable to lay out any argument that may exist to justify making a commitment to support those we think might possibly deserve our help? And if no such candidate can be identified, then the proper course of action lies elsewhere.

“Do no harm” should be the default course of action, especially for elephants. The burden of proof lies on those Westerners who presume to have the wisdom to interfere in Muslim societies and make things better.

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The Saudi Threat to U.S. Interests in Syria

The danger to U.S. interests posed by the tight U.S. embrace of the Saudi sheiks is revealed by the case of a potential collapse of Syria.
U.S. national security is increasingly under threat by the failure of American policy-makers to keep pace with the evolution of the Mideast socio-political system. Irans rise as challenger to the U.S.-centric global system, Israels increasing intransigence, the short-sighted military response to al Quaidas cultural challenge, and the Arab Spring constitute major sources of this suddenly accelerating evolutionary process. The bottom line is that the strategic pillars of U.S. Mideast policy are eroding faster than U.S. policy-makers are constructing replacements. One of these eroding pillars stands in the myth that it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to maintain a fundamentalist Sunni kleptocracy in charge of Saudi Arabia.
The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. A repressive kleptocracy that hands its educational system to violence-prone fundamentalists is a house of cards. Arming that house of cards both stimulates the weaknesses–the repression, the corruption, the cultivation of religious extremism, fanning the winds of change, and ensures that whatever replacement regime eventually arises will inherit awesome military power. Arming the house of cards is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.
The attitude that Saudi behavior is beyond criticism both abets and implicates the U.S. in the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shia but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Quaida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shii. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. The second level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and Washington is Washingtons self-defeating acceptance of Saudi sectarianism.
The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. From both Riyadhs vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants stability only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Salehs murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? Stability is not the word that comes to mind.
American pandering to the Saudi sheiks, as though no other Saudi regime would ever choose to sell its oil on the world market, thus imposes a high national security cost rather than constituting the presumed bargain. But this high-level critique is subject to critique as imprecise, theoretically plausible but not clearly grounded in specific real situations or possessing a specific time-frame. So let us take the case of Syria in its current crisis: is Riyadh a plus or a minus for U.S. efforts to resolve the current Syrian crisis?
The kleptocratic billionaire sheiks deal with their fundamentalist Sunni partners has three components that cause problems for the U.S. Allowing the fundamentalists to control Saudi education means that a steady stream of radicals are being produced, of which some portion will either fund those who choose violence or actually become violence-prone themselves. Second, the tendency of Riyadh to permit violence-prone radicals to operate freely outside Saudi Arabia in return for leaving the sheiks in control of domestic politics creates instability throughout the region. Third is the tendency of Riyadh to use the radicals as weapons in its drive for international influence throughout the Muslim world by encouraging sectarian conflict. Just as Saudi influence intensified violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, helping to stimulate sectarian civil war on top of efforts to liberate Iraq from U.S. occupation, and as Saudi military intervention in Bahrain turned a modernizing and peaceful democratic protest into sectarian oppression of the majority Shii population, Saudi involvement in a collapsed Syria would promote both the rise of a new dictatorship to shut Syria off from the Arab Spring and the rise of sectarian conflict as extremist Salafi elements gained influence within the Sunni population. This in turn would be seen as a direct challenge in Tehran, thus risking a further intensification and militarization of the broadening Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional influence.
The spread of sectarian warfare or even Iranian-Saudi proxy war might seem attractive to those American politicians under the sway of Israeli expansionists looking to set their various Muslim adversaries at each others throats. Military-industrial complex types will also salivate over opportunities for profitable arms sales. Nevertheless, over the long run sectarian chaos in the Mideast is a great threat to U.S. national security. The wasted American blood and treasure during the years of chaos in Iraq and the years of terror during the Lebanese civil war & war of resistance against Israel (recall the 200 Marines killed in their barracks in Beirut) are enough evidence that the U.S. should work to avoid sectarianism and warfare in the Mideast.
Sectarian warfare is not the only possible outcome of Saudi influence in Syria. Another possibility is simply a Saudi victory, which would install an oppressive dictatorship enforcing fundamentalist Sunni rules on a relatively moderate, secular population. Riyadh would clearly be delighted to thus screw tight the lid on the Arab Spring pressure cooker, but it may be too late to turn down the heat, and the next explosion of political demands might be a lot more violent than the current one if Arabs are taught the lesson that peaceful protest only gets you killed.
No doubt room for cooperation with Saudi Arabia to put a collapsed Syria back on its feet would exist. Managed to support the emergence of a modernizing middle class rather than to develop a playground for the rich through corrupt land deals, Saudi development funds could be useful, for example. But in general the interests of the Saudi billionaires in Syria conflict profoundly with those of the U.S. Allowing Saudi Arabia to transform Syria into a bulwark to defend the current repressive regime in Saudi Arabia will set the Mideast up for disastrous future blowback that will cost the U.S. dearly.

Syria’s ‘Mideast Transformation Scenario’

Could the international community act with vision and pull off a Mideast Transformation Scenario that would end the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute, redirect Iran toward economic cooperation, and redirect Israel away from expansion and militarism?
With Syria convulsed, Iran is off-balance, watching its only state ally (Iraq, still occupied, is not quite a state and is in any case not quite an Iranian ally, either) destroy itself. For an Israel led by sincere peacemakers rather than Greater Israel expansionists, the Syrian implosion would constitute a rare opportunity to cut a legitimate deal with the Palestinians while Iranian influence is minimized. A Palestinian-Israeli settlement would pull the Levantine rug out from under Tehran, removing its free lunch in the struggle for regional influence. Note that the term settlement means just that: not a Palestinian Bantustan but a united, defensible, independent state with a sufficiently inclusive political system to tempt Hamas to work within the system. Israel would have no more right to attack this state than China has to attack the U.S.
Future Scenarios For Syria
  1. The Turkish Tolerance & Greater Israel Scenarios in Can Erdogan Save Syria?
  2. The Spanish Civil War Scenario in  How Dangerous Is Syria?
If Tel Aviv had such far-sightedness, it could perhaps pull off a coup that would leave Israel in better shape both locally and vis-à-vis Iran. Iran would find itself without talking points on the Arab street, and a careful calculus of its national interest would be likely to rate economic development relatively higher on the scale of national goals than fomenting anti-Israeli sentiment. That would in turn constitute an Iran that Washington, as reality punctures hubris, might well be able to live with.
The Mideast Transformation Scenario
Imagine a scenario in which regional actors work for stability. First, Tel Aviv accepts the principle of return to the 1967 borders, opening the door to serious Israeli-Palestinian talks. Given Israeli acceptance of the principles that Israeli and Palestinians each deserve states, that Israel should return to 1967 borders, that Palestinians have a theoretical right to return to their homeland in return for Palestinian acceptance of Israels right to exist, then talks can begin on borders and compensation for Palestinians agreed not to return or for Israelis being allowed to remain in the West Bank. Then, Turkish forces establish a potent humanitarian presence inside the Syrian border, providing not just food and local protection but sufficient weapons to enable dissidents to resist regime brutality but holds back on offensive military action (Libya-light) and keeps the door open to talks with all players. As in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, everyone recalculates their self-interest, and some regime supporters join the dissidents. Iran tries to figure out how to resist Turkeys initiative, but Iran has good relations with Turkey, while Turkey has power on the ground Iran probably has no hopes of matching, and the Levant is in any case looking less and less attractive for national liberation movements since Palestine is suddenly moving toward liberation even without Iranian participation. As Tehran ponders its limited options, a neutral Syrian regime offers Turkish-style friendship to everyone. Israel congratulates the new regime, returns the Golan, and decides that a neutral but independent Syria is a big step forward. Meanwhile, seeing itself with reduced access to military support even as it is consolidating control of the Beirut regime, Hezbollah suddenly receives an Israeli offer of a return of the Sheeba Farms. Resistance is simultaneously more costly, less attractive, and rather an irritant to its new domestic strategy. One more Iranian corridor to the Levant bites the dust. Now comes the time for Washingtons move, touting a new regional nuclear security regime based on the principle of nuclear transparency for all and supporting Iranian economic integration with the region and beyond. Iran simultaneous sees its traditional anti-American and anti-Israeli stance as more difficult, less justifiable, and rather an irritant to its new international economic and security options. Tehran might well see the attractiveness of restructuring its foreign policy to replace risky nuclear braggadocio and leadership of the anti-Israeli front with the two secure pillars of building a political alliance with Shii Iraq and building a hydrocarbon alliance with moderate Muslim Turkey.
Probably no one would consider this scenario likely, but the best way to ensure it will never happen is to fail to imagine it. Anyone can point out endless potential obstacles to the moderate, good-neighbor outcome of the Mideast Transformation Scenario. Al Quaida would do its best to upset the apple cart, Alawite-Sunni discord could provoke sectarian warfare reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq, the IRGC might well go off the reservation and try to provoke a collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks to shore up its domestic political influence, and a real threat of Israeli terrorism from radical settlers unwilling to return West Bank land stolen from Palestians would exist. Nevertheless, an Israeli decision to negotiate sincerely with Palestine, a rapid Turkish initiative vis-à-vis Syria, and the willingness of Washington to offer Iran a good deal might just transform the Mideast and turn Israel back into a society that shares American values.
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Subsequent Events –

June 22 – Syrian troops mass on border with Turkey
After provoking a refugee flow into Turkey and evidently doing nothing to make amends to its erstwhile ally, Syria has now thrown sand in Erdogan’s eye by threatening refugees, provoking more, and implicitly warning Turkey that Syria is ready to fight a war. Since Syria was Turkey’s main practical example of its new moderate foreign policy, that policy now seems to be in tatters. Ankara will not be pleased.

How Dangerous Is Syria?

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, as the Syrian regime appears to be steadily losing the ability to govern in a rational manner, and as the pressure on Turkey to intervene continues to rise, consideration of the implications of a true disaster scenario becomes increasingly important.

Full-scale civil war in Syria seems unlikely on the surface simply because the protesters have no arms, but an endless stream of refugees will eventually prompt Turkey to do something, and whatever Turkey does will raise the likelihood of significant arms flowing into the arms of dissidents, increasing willingness of dissidents to fight back with force, and Syrian regime resistance with force. Once civil war occurs with Turkish forces inside Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia will start recalculating their options with increasing urgency.

From this point to a Spanish Civil War scenario, in which the powers exploit chaos in Syria to fight their broader fights, could be a short step. So the question becomes:

How likely is the Spanish Civil War Scenario in Syria, and what are the key decision points impacting the likelihood of such a scenario?

Turkey may well be able to intervene without greatly alarming any other actor. If either Iran or Israel were to insert significant military force, in contrast, that would immediately alarm the other, for good reason. The strategic difference between Syria as an Iranian ally and Syria as an Israel ally is substantial. How desperate to shore up their access to regional influence might Iran become?
How desperate to end Iranian influence over Syria might Israel become?

Calculating national interest concerning Syria is not simple. One could argue that, as status quo powers, the U.S., Israel, and Turkey would all benefit from a joint operation to eliminate the Assad regime. But if this operation left Israel effectively doing to Syria what it did in the 1980’s to Lebanon, that would have an enormously destabilizing impact, greatly facilitating an Israeli attack on Iran and thus probably provoking risky Iranian countermeasures. Such destabilization is unlikely to be viewed with equanimity in Ankara. The case has already been made that the U.S. and Israel are trying to overthrow Assad. Whether or not literally true today, the temptation to pursue this old dream is clear…and rising. Will Ankara see this line of reasoning as evidence for a rapid unilateral intervention?

While even senior Israeli officials are sufficiently concerned about a miscalculation in Tel Aviv to express their fears publicly, it seems somewhat alarmist to anticipate Israeli aggression against Iran the minute they get the ability to base planes in Syria. In fact, any major military initiative designed to transform Syria into a proxy state by any outside player seems alarmist at the moment. The more likely route to a Spanish Civil War Scenario for Syria is a long series of short, seemingly harmless little steps in a complex dance in which no outside player actually wants to invade but in which each player feels compelled to match all the others. Politics being politics, the end result will no doubt be that most of the steps will more than match the opponent, like a group of waltzing couples on a slanted dance floor, each of whom is simply trying to keep up with some other couple perceived to be dancing faster; the faster they dance, the harder it is to stay in place, so imperceptibly the whole group moves closer and closer to the edge.

Given Israel’s proclivity for overreaction, any step by Iran in the direction of stimulating a Syrian Hezbollah in the context of a collapsing Assad regime would make it very difficult for Tel Aviv to resist military intervention. A second way disaster could occur would be the rise of a serious Saudi-financed Salafi move to transform Syria into the center of Sunni activism in the region. This would strengthen Saudi claims to Muslim world leadership, constitute a direct defeat of Iran, and serve the Saudi campaign to pull Iraq away from Iran, while pushing the ambitious Turks back to the regional periphery. Once again, Israel would no doubt view this with alarm, though how it would balance off a check on Iran vs. an improvement in jihadi prospects is unclear since jihadis have not focused on targetting Israel. In any case, it is not hard to imagine a Spanish Civil War scenario leading quickly to a Greater Israel Scenario.

Can Erdogan Save Syria?

As Syria collapses, the likelihood of intervention rises. The nature of that intervention is key to the future of the Mideast.
As Syria morphs into Libya, two very different scenarios are beginning to appear on the distant horizon, with profoundly distinct implications for Mideast stability. One scenariothe Israeli Expansion Scenario–is that of a U.S.-Israeli intervention in the name of humanity that would invade, eliminate the barbaric Assad regime, and effectively colonize Syria in the interests of Israel. The otherthe Turkish Tolerance Scenario–is a Turkish initiative, also to eliminate the barbaric Assad regime in the name of humanity, conceivably diplomatic but more likely also a military invasion, that would oversee the creation of a moderate Syrian popular regime.
The Israeli Expansion Scenario would antagonize the whole region, threaten to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks, infuriate hardliners in Tehran, embolden hard-liners in Tel Aviv, excite hardliners in Riyadh.  The Turkish Tolerance Scenario would offer Syrians neutral ground for working out a national consensus, catch both Iran and Israel off-guard but simultaneously mitigate the fears and ambitions of each, slam the door in the face of Salafi jihadists looking for their next opportunity, and turbo-charge the Arab Spring with a breathtaking victory for moderate, democratizing modernization with a Muslim flavor.
Israeli Tanks [Amir Farshad Ebrahimi]

Almost no one would like an effective Israeli takeover of Syria under a 1970s Lebanon-style proxy regime. A frontal invasion by the IDF is perhaps the least likely way such a scenario would develop, but a more subtle Israeli role would cause nearly as much damage as long as Israel were perceived regionally as expanding its area of influence at Syrian expense. Iranians would rightly fear the construction of offensive Israeli air bases near Iranian territory, committing the normally cautious Iranian national security elite to emergency countermeasures. Muslim hardliners from the IRGC to al Quaida would have a field day with easily justified campaigns against Zionism that would exponentially magnify their regional popularity. Israeli hardliners would see the takeover of Syria as a brilliant coup giving them a fast-closing window to take out Iran as a regional competitor. Even if no country actually decided to start a war, the rising tensions and rapid pace of developments would dramatically raise the danger of war through miscalculation or a third-party provocation.

          
Turkish P.M. Erdogan [Copyright by World Economic Forum
swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler]
The impact of a solution to the Syrian mess dominated by Ankara would be far less dangerous to regional stability. Regardless of who liked or did not like a moderate Turkish leadership role in forming a new Syria, such an arrangement would be sufficiently non-threatening and offer sufficient potential benefits to make everyone else take a deep breath before using violence to oppose it. Washington could calculate that a democratic Syria under Turkish guidance would no longer be a regional irritant. Tehran could calculate that its expanding economic ties with Turkey are, in the end, worth far more than its alliance with a discredited Assad. Even if it did not, what could Tehran do once Turkish ground forces were inside Syria? Tel Aviv would lose a military opponent, potentially gain a neutral Syrian state, and might think it could talk Ankara into forgetting about the Golan Heights. Riyadh could figure that it could always work with Sunni Turkey and slowly gain influence in Syria through its financial clout. And Erdogan, now solidly in control with his impressive 2:1 electoral victory over his nearest competitor and justified by the growing urgency of addressing the Syrian refugee flood, might just be able to pull this off. At the end of the day, Turkey has a unique regional combination of low fear-factor and high power.
But Erdogans moment to act is now. The world will not be able to ignore the unfolding horror in Syria forever. Sooner or later, if it continues to worsen, Washington will intervene militarily. If that happens, we will see Iraq all over again, but with Israel even more deeply involved and, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia both spring-loaded to protect their perceived interests. Lacking popular support, the time that was available to Bush for his anti-Iraq war preparations, the strong economy inherited from Clinton, and military force (given current commitments in Afghanistan), Obama will intervene with insufficient power, opening the door to both Israeli and Saudi influence. Each of the latter will move to radicalize the situation for their own short-term interests. Syrian popular interests will be ignored, and extremists will have their day, once more. Iraq 2005 and Lebanon late-1980s come to mind. Every regional action hero will move to Syria for every imaginable purpose except helping Syrians.

The danger of the Israeli Expansion Scenario lies in the number of conflicting and interacting military and sectarian dynamics it would provoke. This set of dynamics will contain more exponential shifts of influence, more tipping points, more tricky delayed reactions, more oscillations derived from negative feedback loops than anyone will be able to understand in time to react. It will be plagued by fixes that fail including expensive examples of the subset, Shooting Yourself in the Foot, e.g., applying military force to prevent terrorism and thus provoking terrorism; shifting the burden, e.g., forgetting social collapse while fighting political enemies; and the needless creation of accidental adversaries, thereby spoiling some beautiful relationships. The overwhelming complexity of the situation will stimulate a degree of self-organization that may give rise to the emergence of some unsettling new political phenomena.  Recent examples of self-organization include Aum Shinrikyu, al Quaida, the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation, illegal Israeli settler terrorism, and Tahrir Square. Attempts by the status quo forces artificially to constrain disconcerting but stabilizing change will pave the road to more black swans (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, The Black Swan of Cairo, Foreign Affairs May-June 2011: 90:3, 33-39), further stunning and roiling the world. All involved actors, guilty of the action bias (Taleb, 39) that so plagues U.S. foreign policy-making, will end up making incomprehensible circumstances worse by following the honored dictum, when in doubt, just do something. Syria is moving toward chaos, but that in no way proves that more energy (money, weapons, feverishly busy actors) inserted into the system will not just push it faster in the same direction.

Moreover, as former Israeli officials themselves have warned, Israel today may either be plotting war against Iran or stumbling into it. Both dangers will only be increased by an Israeli Lebanonization of Syria.
Syria is weak but strategically located. As a stable, rationally governed state, Syria acts as a buffer, keeping the regional tigersIran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabiafrom scratching each others eyes out. But as a failed state, Syria is transformed from buffer into battleground. To get at each other, Israel and Iran must cross Syria. Weak Lebanon in its turn becomes further exposed to outside influences if no strong state presence is guarding its Syrian border. Syria as a power vacuum is a threat to the region that will demand action.
These are just scenarios; neither is a prediction, nor are they by any means mutually exclusive or logically exhaustive. The two could even combine into one marvelous dream world of Turkish leadership putting a Muslim face on an international effort backed quietly by American power. But that too requires quick initiative by an Erdogan whose  time may just have come. In a word, the region now needs Erdogan to put his money where his mouth is.
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My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this article.

Turkish Air-Defense Shield for Lebanon?

A logical future step in Turkey’s emergence as an active, independent player in Mideast affairs would be military moves to enhance regional security. Such a step would constitute a regional political (and perhaps military) gamechanger, with winners and losers surprisingly hard to calculate. But could Turkey even take such a step? Here’s one possibility.
Would it be feasible for Turkey to defend Lebanon against Israel? Consider:
Russian S-400 air defense missiles have a range of 250 miles. Lebanon is 135 long and separated from Turkey by less than 100 miles of Syrian territory. Russia and Turkey have been discussing Russian sale of both the S-300 missile that Russia had contracted to sell to Iran and the more advanced S-400.
What would happen if the Israeli F-16’s that regularly violate Lebanese airspace were attacked by Turkish S-400’s from Turkey I cannot say, but politically this would be a Mideast game-changer. An air defense shield over Lebanon from Turkey would:
  • Call into question Israel’s military superiority (“calling into question” constitutes a significant political step regardless of the technical details);
  • Make moderate Turkey rather than radical Iran the main potential military ally for Lebanon;
  • Diminish Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese defense and reduce Hezbollah’s freedom of action since it could not be sure that an offensive move by Hezbollah would be supported by air cover from neutral Turkey;
  • Raise the issue of Turkish air protection of Syria (Turkish-Syrian military relations are already improving);
  • To at least some degree complicate Israel’s tactics for any aggression against Iran.
Aggression by anyone in the region would be harder to pull off, the likelihood of victory would be harder to calculate, the regional political calculus would be more complicated, the influence of the current leaders on all sides (Iran, Israel, and the U.S.) would be reduced; Turkey would emerge as an independent actor with the apparent and perhaps real capacity to influence the outcome of any war in the Levant. A bilateral, near-zero-sum, Levantine confrontation would be replaced by a tri-lateral situation in which calculating one’s self-interest would be more difficult for all, implying that all would have to adopt less risky behavior. Mideast stability would be enhanced.

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Background Reading:

The State of Lebanon

Syrian Scuds to Hezbollah Signal Frustration

More than a year after Obama entered the White House, it is not clear what anyone has gained from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. If anyone knows of any substantive concession yet made by either side, please send me a note. Words matter…but they only go so far, especially in a context where words pour out from all quarters in a steady flood that mixes nice with nasty just the way real floods mix rain with mud. So what are we to make of the new story of Syrian Scuds being turned over to Hezbollah?
If Israel made this story up, then it is extremely serious for it would suggest Israel is looking for an excuse to start another war. But that is a very cynical interpretation for which I have no evidence, so enough about that.
If Syria in fact gave Scuds to Hezbollah or plans to give them or is trying to create the impression that it intends to give them, then the most obvious interpretation would seem to be that, amazingly, Damascus has figured out…that it is not clear it has gained anything from the new conciliatory tone in U.S.-Syrian relations. This statement rests on the assumption that what Syria really wants is a combination of national security and the return of the Golan Heights. On neither score is it getting anywhere.
Perhaps the enormous prestige of having a U.S. ambassador in residence and the possibility of various economic incentives that might flow from an improved bilateral tone are more important than security and territory, but land and security are normally pretty basic goals. By Occam’s Razor, I’m going to stick with that assumption until presented with some persuasive evidence to the contrary. It flows from this logic that Damascus has decided that it needs to signal Washington that its core interests are not being served by a “new tone” in bilateral diplomacy. This isn’t a romance; it is an effort to create a military balance in the Levant to replace the current Israeli dominion that sees Israel with not just an overwhelming military edge but also with the political ability to 1) decide what weapons its opponents may possess, 2) attack without being attacked in return, 3) overfly its opponents’ territory without penalty, and 4) keep in perpetuity whatever it conquered in 1967.
The Scuds, balanced against Israeli weaponry, aren’t much of a strategic military weapon, but they constitute a serious political statement. Washington should be interpreting the Scuds not as a threat but as a message. Lunch on the White House lawn is not Syria’s goal; it’s goal is redress of grievances.

Building Confidence Between Tehran & Washington

Following the Cold War, a highly abnormal period during which the minor members of each global bloc were expected to make sacrifices for their respective blocs, it is probably fair to say that most countries looked forward to gaining a bit more freedom of maneuver, a bit more consideration of their particular viewpoints. Thus, when some country protests that Washington’s pressuring of Iran is not the appropriate approach, Washington should not be too hasty to dismiss this argument. Such comments have become increasingly prominent lately, e.g., in Brazilia and Ankara.

Now China’s special envoy to the Mideast, Wu Sike, is reported by China Daily on March 9 as asserting that China’s primary reason for opposing sanctions (the economic equivalent of war) is that “tough measures may backfire.” Wu’s point is historically solid – economic blackmail or economic warfare, if you find that a more appropriate term, has a rather poor record of effectiveness.
However, there is a broader point. Whether the possibility of failure is more important to China’s leaders than economic considerations (i.e., China’s large oil imports from and trade ties with Iran) or not, it seems safe to assume that Beijing genuinely views with concern any international precedent for bullying countries that do not follow rules “made in the USA.”
That point of course also applies to Ankara and Brazilia, both of which are demonstrating rising interest in finding their own way internationally. Syria, despite its alliance with Iran, also belongs firmly in this group.
It may be that the Obama Administration has a brilliant behind-the-scenes policy of asking Ankara, Beijing, Brazilia, and Damascus to engage politely in sincere discussions with Tehran. If not, Obama deserves an F in international relations. If so, he still deserves no more than a D because he is allowing his former competitor for the presidency, a specialist in health care policy where she is desperately needed rather than international affairs, to make public remarks that will sabotage any sincere effort by Washington to encourage regimes with good contacts in Tehran to make use of those contacts in the interests of the common good.
Rather than running scared in the face of the standard rightwing attacks against anyone in favor of international peace and cooperation, Obama should allow the ravings of those extremists to stand as a warning of what could happen to a recalcitrant Iran and himself develop a consistent public/private policy of searching for compromise.
For those who, even if not right-wingers, don’t know the definition of the word “compromise,” it means that both sides make concessions. Perhaps you think sarcasm is unnecessary here, but the truth is that not very many people in Washington understand this word. Searching for compromise means that Obama needs to start laying out not “what Iran needs to do” – a phrase that should constitute grounds for immediate dismissal of any so-called diplomat from whose lips it escapes – but what Washington is willing to offer.
If you are having trouble with this, think of it in terms of poker. When your antagonist plays a card, you don’t say, “What you need to do is remove that card.” No, you counter with a card of your own. Back in the Cold War days, such cards were called “confidence-building measures,” and they did much to avoid nuclear holocaust.

"Dear Tehran: Let’s Do Lunch"

Sometimes Ahmadinejad says some odd things, but other times he hits the nail right on the head. For example, on his recent visit with his good friends in Syria, not to mention Nasrallah and Meshaal, (a trip I’m sure you read all about in your local paper), he said (Arab News, March 8):

(The Americans) want to dominate the region but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that.

It is hard to argue with that remark.
Continuing, Ahmadinejad stated in his trademark conciliatory negotiating stance that, for the life of me, reminds me of no one so much as Hillary:

We tell them that instead of interfering in the region’s affairs, to pack their things and leave.

There you have it, folks: the nub of the issue between Tehran and Washington. Of course, we really can’t literally ask Iran to pack its things and leave; they live there. But that is the essence of Washington’s policy. Pardon me for believing that the Mideast is big and complex enough so that these two parties ought to be able to co-exist there. Of course, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to admit that because his career is based on being a tough guy (for an American parallel, a certain former vice president comes to mind). But out of 70,000,000 Iranians, that still leaves 69,999,999 with whom we could have a chat.
So, how about some low-keyed informal chats between national security officials or non-official specialists on both sides, press absent to avoid posturing, so we can get to know each other? Think back to the Cold War 70’s and Soviet USA specialist Arbatov’s first meeting with Professor Kissinger. Did the world fall apart because the two gentlemen had a chat? Imagine a conversation between, say, Flyntt Leverett and Ali Larijani…
Meanwhile, official Washington continues to pour gasoline on Mideast flames:
  1. Hillary to Lebanese Speaker Berri: “Washington cannot make an effort to prevent Israel from making any aggression if Hizbullah does not stop replenishing its arsenal.”
  1. Hillary again: [called on Syria] “generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran.”
  1. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley: “We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region….One step would be to make clear to Iran what it needs to do. Unfortunately, this did not happen.”
How any foreign government could resist such gentle and beguiling language is beyond me.