October 19, 2005


Next Year in Damascus: Syrian democracy is thriving--in exile. (Jeffrey Gedmin, 10/24/2005, Weekly Standard)

I ATTENDED A MEETING OF about 40 Syrian exile oppositionists in Paris last week. [...]

Farid Ghadry, the convener of the conference, was not kidding when he told me, "We're not playing anymore." Mind you, everyone I met was warm and welcoming. There were Kurds and Sunni (they make up three quarters of the Syrian population) as well as members of the Alawite minority that runs the country. There were pacifists, hawks, and self-described "liberals," whatever that means in this context. There was a lighthearted gentleman from Los Angeles, a Christian Syrian who runs a nail and hair salon. A dual patriot, he joked over dinner that the group ought to FedEx the American Constitution to the people of the Middle East. The European Syrians at our table rolled their eyes. There was a very articulate fellow from the Muslim Brotherhood and at least two important representatives from Syria who had traveled to Paris for the meeting.

Discussions were lively, disagreements sometimes sharp. I listened like a fly on the wall with a kind Syrian colleague translating from the Arabic. The group may have been diverse, but everyone seemed united on one thing: These folks all seem to believe that after 42 years in power, the Baathist order in Damascus is ready for meltdown. You do not have to be a wishful-thinking Syrian to follow the logic of the last couple of years: municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, women now free to vote in Kuwait, opposition candidates for the first time in Egypt, elections and a constitution in Iraq, a revolution in Lebanon. Did anyone really think Syria could stay immune from the trend?

You kidding? The Realists deny anything has changed anywhere in the Middle East, nevermind that things are rapidly going our way.

The squeeze on Syria (Japan Times, 10/20/05)

No matter what the cause, Mr. Kanaan's death will not end the pressure on Syria. The United States has long been suspicious of Syria because of Damascus' hostility to Israel and its support for groups like Hezbollah. The Assad regime is considered to be a source of regional instability and an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. In addition, the U.S. now believes that Syria is not doing enough to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq and is promoting unrest there. Mr. Assad has said that his country is unable to patrol its long border with Iraq, but Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, said last month that "patience is running out with Syria." Syria has offered to cooperate with the U.S. -- and has done so in the past -- but neither government has been happy with the resulting arrangement.

Difficult relations with the U.S. are a staple of Syrian foreign policy. Unfortunately for Damascus, the killing of Mr. Hariri has swayed opinion in other countries, including France, which have been more tolerant of Damascus' policies. Other Arab governments are increasingly frustrated with Syria's hard line and have had enough. They are reportedly pressing Mr. Assad to hand over anyone who may be involved in the assassination.

Mr. Assad may have no choice. And that image -- of a Syrian leader bowing to the U.N. -- could do irreparable damage to his regime. Syria has long been insulated from foreign pressure, but it is no longer invulnerable. In many respects, Damascus seems outside the mainstream in the Middle East, clinging to policies that no longer respond to circumstances. There are increasing doubts about Mr. Assad's ability to navigate the currents in the region. Those strains will only increase as the U.N. investigation continues and U.S. frustrations mount over events in Iraq.

-High Noon for Syria (David Ignatius, October 19, 2005, Washington Post)
[T]he administration pulled back from its regime-change enthusiasm in recent weeks, and officials now speak of the need for "policy" change. A big factor is the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, and his analysts at the National Intelligence Council. They have been warning Bush that if Assad is toppled, the result isn't likely to be better in terms of regional stability, and it could well be worse. The analysts also note that there isn't now any coherent, organized opposition to Assad.

Over the past month, Washington and Damascus have been sending feelers -- so far to no effect. Assad has traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where officials told him what the United States wanted on Iraq and the Palestinian issue as the price of engagement. In late September, Assad's brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian military intelligence, visited France and talked with intelligence officials there. I'm told by one U.S. intelligence source that Shawkat hinted at major Syrian concessions if France and America would make a deal. No takers, thus far.

A warning of the bloody denouement of this drama came last week, when Syria's interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, was found dead in Damascus of a reported suicide. Almost nobody takes that at face value. One version has it that Kanaan was killed (or handed the gun and told to do the honorable thing) as a fall guy in the Hariri killing. I tend to doubt that version, because Kanaan had been close to both Hariri and Washington. Instead, I wonder if his death was a counter-coup by pro-Assad operatives in Damascus who feared Kanaan as a potential rival. I'm told that Mehlis asked to examine Kanaan's body before it was quickly buried, but was refused.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2005 6:12 PM

"if Assad is toppled, the result isn't likely to be better in terms of regional stability"

Still worshiping at that shrine? Stability is not on Bush's agenda.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 20, 2005 12:26 AM

Don't any of the "realists" understand the concept "pour encourager les autres"?

Whatever stooge who replaces Baby Assad will be tugging on his forelock at the mere mention of Condi Rice's name.

And that sounds like stability to me.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 20, 2005 1:15 AM
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