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Before Talking, See if There is Anything to Talk About

Tony Badran
6th June 2007 - The Daily Star

Recently, writing in The Washington Post, US Congressman Darrell Issa made "the case for talking to Syria." However, implementing his proposal would effectively reverse years of multilateral US policy to deal with Syrian behavior in Lebanon - a policy carefully constructed with Trans-Atlantic and Arab allies and enshrined in seven UN Security Council resolutions. Instead, Issa, a California Republican, proposed an awkward change of course for, well, it was unclear for what in exchange. The fuzziness at the heart of his argument only reflected that of most American officials who would like to see a renewal of dialogue with Syria.

The problem is that Issa failed to account for what Syrian President Bashar Assad and other Syrian officials are plainly trying to obtain whenever they talk to Arab and Western officials. Damascus doesn't want the kind of arrangement the congressman hopes for, but rather unilateral US concessions, especially on Lebanon. The Syrian leadership is not interested in anything else. Issa is right to observe: "What matters is the substance of the dialogue and the action that follows," but even he admits that implementing agreements with Syria is always elusive.

The problem is that the United States' interests are so diametrically opposed to those of Syria in the Middle East that there is practically nothing to talk about. When Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, visited Damascus last year, he declared that the prospects for cooperation were bleak. At most, he thought there might be a slight chance of achieving some cooperation on border control with Iraq. On everything else of importance, however, whether Hamas, Lebanon, or Syrian relations with Israel, Nelson said that Assad gave him the "standard party line" and the "usual dog-and-pony show." In other words, he implied that there was no potential for meaningful engagement with Damascus because of the nature of the Syrian regime, its interests and goals.

Iraq is not at the center of Issa's argument, nor is the "peace process" with Israel. In fact, the lone avenue for cooperation with Syria that the congressman proposes is counterterrorism cooperation. His downplaying the likelihood of progress on the other issues is telling: It shows that on Iraq and an opening to Israel, the road to Damascus may be a dead end.

But what about counterterrorism cooperation? Issa's description of Fatah al-Islam in Northern Lebanon as "a group linked to Al-Qaeda" leaves out serious charges of Syrian complicity in backing the group. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has repeatedly declared that there is a Syrian tie, most recently in Time magazine. In response to a question about whether Syria was involved in supporting Fatah al-Islam, he said: "This is exactly what I have heard from the interrogators [of 20 arrested suspects]. That there are some connections with some Syrian intelligence. Now whether these Syrian intelligence [operatives] are working on their own, or guided by higher superiors, I don't know. We'll have to find out."

Fatah al-Islam's leader, Shaker Abssy, was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for his involvement in the murder of US diplomat Lawrence Foley. Syria has admitted that it kept Abssy in custody for three years (much less time, incidentally, than the sentence afforded to political dissident Riad Seif); however he was never handed over to Jordan. This is hardly a model for "counterterrorism cooperation." Syria then released Abssy and allowed him to cross into Lebanon, where he set up shop with Fatah al-Intifada, which the Syrians created in 1983 to oppose Yasser Arafat. A report in Al-Hayat quoted Palestinian sources as saying that Abssy was "sent" to take charge of Fatah al-Intifada in Lebanon.

The congressman therefore has it wrong: Jihadist groups are not "using" Syria as a transit route, as he writes. Rather, Syria is inviting them to pass through in pursuit of its own interests in Lebanon and Iraq. Those interests include defeating the US in Iraq and re-dominating Lebanon, where Syria could sell itself as the only guarantor of stability. The Syrians will dangle jihadists as bait for the US, even as they will use them to hurt America and its allies. This calls for a serious reevaluation of the kind of counterterrorism cooperation that Issa envisions, especially after the Security Council last week formed an international tribunal to look into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

It's time to dispense with the myth that it's not in Syria's interests to support jihadists in Iraq or Lebanon. In fact, Syria's sole foreign policy asset - the only reason why people want to talk to Syria - is its ability to destabilize countries around it, hence inviting bargaining. It's a strategy designed and perfected precisely to induce the kind of proposal put forth by Issa. Engagement most often does not dissuade the Syrians; it encourages them. You'd think we would have learned the lesson by now.

Tony Badran is a researcher focusing on Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He hosts the Across the Bay blog ( This article is an edited version of one that appeared at the NOW site (, and is published with permission.