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Looking Forward

ARTICLE PUB  : The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition: 1996‑05‑10 00:01

With the Lebanese cease‑fire holding temporarily, the West has some breathing space to develop a better response to the next Arab‑Israeli flare‑up. The circus of seven foreign ministers‑from the U.S., Russia, France, the EU troika and Iran‑tripping over each other in Damascus reflected badly on all. The squabbling over who got to see Syrian President Hafez Assad next was unseemly. And after all that effort, the situation has returned to just about where it was three years ago. 

None of the underlying problems were settled, making another eruption inevitable  Mr. Assad has learned how to get the West to reward him when he takes steps to relieve problems he helped create. Mr. Assad sponsors terrorists galore: 10 Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel have offices in Damascus; the Kurdish PKK terrorists would never have been able to become a serious force in Turkey without his help; and he is godfather to the Hezbollah who operate out of  Lebanon.  When these Syrian‑protected groups seize hostages and Mr. Assad aids in their release, the West's reaction is to praise the dictator for his goodwill. The U.S. puts Syria on its list of terrorist sponsors, but sometimes waives the resulting export restrictions that allow Mr. Assad to import things such as U.S. armored vehicles and planes. Since he pays no price for his behavior, its no surprise that Mr. Assads attitude toward terrorism remains unchanged. He boycotted the March antiterrorism summit co‑hosted by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and blasted those Arab leaders who attended  When Syria boycotted the October 1995 Middle East economic summit in Amman, Jordan, the European Unions response was to court him all the more vigorously. Next month, for instance, the EU begins negotiations with the Assad administration on a partnership with the EU as part of the Euro‑Med strategy for a 27‑nation free trade zone. When Syria piled up $4 billion in debt arrears to creditors, including EU members and the World Bank, the EU responded last year by giving Mr. Assad 55 million Ecu to reform Syria's Finance Ministry and state‑owned banking system. Another 79 million Ecu is on the way for such projects as improving Syrias infrastructure.  Western policy toward Mr. Assad has been all carrot and no stick. It is time to consider the alternative to wooing Mr. Assad namely, to isolate him. The first step should be diplomatic isolation. 

 Instead of visiting Syria more than 20times in three years, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher should take a page from the book of his predecessor, James Baker. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not seem eager to advance the peace process, Mr. Baker publicly told Mr. Shamir: You know our phone number, call us when you are ready for peace. 

Instead of pilgrimages to Mr. Assads study, Western foreign ministers should talk publicly about restoring Lebanon’s independence. The foreign ministers should also meet with human rights groups to denounce torture in Syria, and with democratic Syrian exile groups to support freedom of expression .

Besides these diplomatic steps to isolate Mr. Assad, the West should encourage the recent Israeli‑Turkish military cooperation agreement, which Mr. Assad thinks is aimed against him. Western powers should also urge Jordan to join with Israel and Turkey, so Mr. Assad will feel he is being surrounded by the friends of peace. And the U.S. should make clear its readiness to protect any of the West’s three friends from Syrian terrorism or attack. The U.S. could conspicuously monitor Syria's military ships and planes. Military confrontation should not be excluded as a possibility if Syria continues to support terrorists .  Isolation can be particularly effective because Mr. Assad is weak. He has lost his sponsors. Most obviously, there is no Soviet Union to ship him billions of dollars in sophisticated arms each year. 

Almost as important, the oil‑rich Arab states are no longer willing to bankroll him, partly because they are no longer as rich with growing populations and oil prices well below their 1980‑85 peak. Mr. Assad has been kept alive in recent years by Syria's newfound oil supply, but that too is starting to fade from iits $2 billion per year peak   France, Syrias ex‑colonial power, has a special responsibility to help control Mr. Assad. Instead of its recent role as the advocate for states sponsoring terrorism (such as Iraq, Iran and Syria), France should defend  Lebanon, the Middle East state in which the French language and culture is most vibrant . 

Lebanon’s existence as a separate country is being undermined by Syria. The problem is not just the 35,000 Syrian troops in  Lebanon . Mr. Assad's secret police arrest and torture hundreds of Lebanese each year. The 500,000‑plus Syrians who work in Lebanon are threatening the identity of that country of three million.  Lebanon is becoming another Syrian province, which is what Syrian propaganda claims it rightfully is  

So what explains the West’s posture of appeasement toward Syria? The common excuse for caving into Mr. Assad is that he has a vital role in the Arab‑Israeli peace process because of his influence over the terrorists. But Mr. Assad creates some wiggle room by complaining that he is not fully in control of, or responsible for, the actions of the terror cells he harbors. These groups, however, would be seriously imperiled‑if not paralyzed‑if Mr. Assad withdrew his support. But the West has given him no incentive to reel in these terrorists. To the contrary, if the groups became less active, Mr. Assad knows that he would become less important to the peace process and less valuable to the West. Western concessions only motivate the Syrian dictator to continue to instigate terrorist activity and put off any agreement with Israel as long as possible. Syria’s involvement in the peace process also gives Mr. Assad a veto on the proceedings, which other Arab states use as an excuse for their own inaction, If Syria was ever to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, then Mr. Assad would be on the spot to enforce it‑meaning that Western pressure and criticism might replace the current Western policy of listening respectfully and offering inducements. He would lose his claim to leadership of the Arab world, which is based only on his status as a leading opponent of Israel.

A treaty with Israel could also be dangerous to Mr. Assad at home. He and his ruling clique are based in the Alawite religious minority, whose credentials as Muslims are rejected by many, if not most, Syrians. Without an external enemy to unite them, Syrians might be less inclined to put up with rule by this minority sect. More generally, a treaty might start perestroika in Damascus. Free trade with Israel, much less free flow of ideas, would be subversive to his heavy‑handed rule. In short, it is doubtful that Mr. Assad wants peace with Israel: He still has to prove it, and the West should insist that he does. 

Mr. Clawson is a senior research professor at the National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., and senior editor of Middle East Quarterly.

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