War or Peace? What Bashar Really Wants

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Three weeks ago Israel launched an air strike on “nuclear equipment” in Syria provided secretly by North Korea.  So goes the received version of what happened over Syrian skies, suggesting that Israel’s operation was a reprise of its successful preemptive attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

North Korea and Syria may indeed have been collaborating on a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.  Since Israeli government and military officials are virtually mum, everything we hear has come from the Bush Administration, or from “leaks” to the media from anonymous Israeli intelligence sources which are treated breathtakingly as revelatory scoops.  The Bush Administration would never spin a story or twist intelligence information to suit its pre-conceived worldview, now would it?  Newsweek reports that “current and former U.S. intelligence officials, willing to speak only if they were not named, say they’ve seen no credible evidence yet of nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria, whether before or since the Israeli operation.”  Even former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, now at the a conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, who made a career of claiming, against all CIA assessments, that Syria was developing nuclear weapons, now admits that “whether [it was] a nuclear or missile facility [that the Israelis hit] is not clear.”

For years, the Bush Administration shunned direct talks with North Korea and reversed U.S. support for South Korea’s “sunshine” policy of using economic, security and political incentives to dissuade the North Koreans from building more nuclear weapons.  It created a confrontational atmosphere that led to precisely that outcome, along with the first North Korean nuclear bomb test explosion.   Syria had cooperated with the U.S. after 9/11, as did Iran, sharing intelligence information with the U.S. on Al Qaeda, prompting U.S. officials to report that Syria had helped to save American lives.  By the time of the Iraq war in 2003, neo-cons in the Bush Administration insisted that Syria should be lumped with Iran, Iraq and North Korea in Bush’s “axis of evil.”   They had long advocated sanctions and isolation of Syria, Iran and Iraq to be followed by U.S. and Israeli military strikes and regime change in all three countries.

On the precipice of catastrophic failure not only in Iraq but in North Korea, with the “evil axis” strategy blowing up in its face, the Bush Administration finally did a 180, listened to its moderate, pragmatic faction, once led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now by his successor Condoleezza Rice.  Under Rice’s direction, the U.S. earlier this year negotiated a deal directly with North Korea to trade aid and other guarantees for first steps in what could become a North Korean arms denuclearization program, an objective it achieved before with Libya.

Vice President Cheney and other hawks in and out of office have been apoplectic, believing that the US has “declared defeat” by “trusting” the North Koreans, hoping to scuttle the agreement.   On other fronts, Cheney has personally called leaders in Arab countries and told them not to listen to Secretary of State Rice because “she doesn’t speak for the administration,” leading American Syria scholar David Lesch recently told a Century Foundation luncheon for a small group of diplomats and foreign policy editors which I attended.

Pyongyang has long supplied Damascus with missiles; but nuclear warheads or materials?  Would the North Koreans really risk their nuclear bargain with the U.S., imagining that neither the U.S. nor Israel would detect their actions in Syria?   Would they play into the hands of the hard-line clique in the White House who want to sabotage their deal?   Perhaps they are that reckless.   But we should maintain a healthy skepticism until the administration comes clean and shows the public incontrovertible evidence.   And if North Korea did export nuclear material to Syria, it points not to the failure of diplomacy per se—any more than a poorly executed war proves the bankruptcy of military force in general—but rather to what many policy analysts see as the Bush Administration’s muddled and half-hearted approach to nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang.

As for Syria, Rice has struck a symbolic blow against the hawks, announcing that the U.S. will invite it, along with other Arab states who do not maintain diplomatic relations or peace treaties with Israel, to the Palestinian-Israeli peace parley planned for November.   Doubtful that the conference will deliver substantive results, Syria is unlikely to attend.   At the same time, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last month found that Damascus has been cracking down on Al Qaeda-affiliated foreign terrorists attempting to infiltrate Iraq, significantly reducing the number of incursions.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been telling visiting scholars and diplomats that Syria’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is essentially tactical, and largely expendable in exchange for the right incentives from the U.S. and Israel.    Syria is a weak country, economically distressed and running out of oil; it is always seeking leverage, bargaining chips, and in need of Western and Sunni Arab aid.   It will trade away its strategic assets with the Islamists in exchange for dividends of greater value from the West.   But it won’t surrender its booty in advance of a negotiation, as the Bush Administration has demanded, before confirming that American and Israeli benefits will truly be forthcoming.

Bashar told Lesch in May 2007:  “Whoever works more for our [Syria’s] interests, I will be their friend.  It is about interests, not ideology, and if the United States works for my interests, I will be their friend.”  When one has few friends, Bashar intimated, one cannot be choosy, implying that “Damascus has had no choice but to draw closer to Iran.”  But if “given a legitimate option in another direction, it might loosen its ties to Teheran.”

Bashar has also told Lesch that he would be a “hero” if he could bring about the return of the Golan to Syria through negotiations.  If the U.S. continues down the path of isolation and confrontation with Syria, a largely Sunni state, we will push it even more into the arms of Shia Iran and Hezbollah.  The U.S. and Israel must now work towards an American-backed Israeli-Syrian peace treaty and arms control pact enabling Syria to join the U.S.-allied coalition of Sunni Arab states and Israel against Shia extremists—before the next, far more devastating war.

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, September 26, 2007

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