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By Barry Rubin

Listen how the administration’s best expert on Syria tries to defend U.S. policy of being nice to the regime there. Then listen to the Egyptian foreign minister interpreting this policy as meaning Syria and its friend Iran are winning so Egypt better start thinking of jumping on the bandwagon.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is one of the smartest people in the administration’s foreign policy hierarchy. As former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, he understands what Syria’s regime is like and how Damascus along with Iran and Hizballah are trying to take over Lebanon.

What’s really fascinating is when smart people support administration policy in an honest way, since that shows just how thin the veneer is. My favorite was last September’s New York Times editorial touting the great foreign policy achievements of the administration. All it could up with were closing Guantanamo Bay (nope, not yet done seven months later) and getting the Russians to “think” about sanctions (same as above).

So in this vein, here’s Feltman explaining U.S. policy toward Syria in a congressional hearing. Let’s listen:

“While the United States is working with our international partners to mitigate Iran’s influence in the region, Syria stands out for its facilitation of many of Iran’s troubling policies. Syria’s relationship with Iran seems primarily based on perceived political interests, rather than cultural ties or complementary economies.”

Good that he starts by pointing out how Syria helps Iran. But then he tries—in very clear language—to explain why the U.S. government is engaging Syria’s regime and going soft on it.

What does he come up with? First, true they have perceived political interests in common but what about those cultural ties and economies? Regarding economies, Iran gives Syria lots of money, funds that Syria desperately need. That sounds pretty complementary to me regarding Syria’s interests. As for a lack of cultural ties, does this mean they can’t be allies because Syrians don’t like Iranian music? Or perhaps they have more culturally in common with the United States than with fellow Muslim-majority Iran?

“But as with most partnerships, there are clear policy differences. With respect to Israel, the Syrians have a clear interest in negotiating a peace agreement for the return of the Golan Heights, whereas Iran opposes any form of peace with Israel.”

Well, they have a lot of policy similarities: They both want control over Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians, in fact the whole region. They both want Israel wiped off the map and America kicked out of the region. As for Syria’s “clear interest” one might ask: Who says so?

We get into the dangerous area here of the United States trying to tell Syria’s government what its interests are rather than seeing what the Syrian government thinks and then acting accordingly. Note how the U.S. policy today is similar toward Iran and other dictatorships. Nothing is more ridiculous than some Westerner with no experience in running a Third World dictatorship telling the elite there that their real interest is being moderate and democratic.

Helpful Hint: If those countries become moderate and democratic than those running them now will become imprisoned or dead. The truth is that Syria, like Iran, also “opposes any form of peace with Israel.” The regime just plays with the idea in order to lure unwary Westerners into the quicksand of giving it lots of concessions and gifts in exchange for nothing.

“Syria has a secular government, whereas Iran has a theocratic one.”

Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But precisely because Syria has a secular government it needs the Islamic cover of Iranian approval, with Tehran saying: Yeah, these guys might seem like godless Alawite* pagan infidels but in fact we give them our certificate of approval as good Shia Muslims who support revolutionary Islamism.

I mean, what’s the problem? When they hold joint meetings to plot anti-American terrorist attacks and Islamist takeovers in Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Israel the Syrian leaders have to forego a scotch and soda?

Feltman continues:

U.S. policy therefore does not operate from an assumption that these two countries are a permanent bloc.” Ok, fair enough. But one should mention that their alliance has now endured for around 30 years with hardly a scratch or a dent, that’s the entire life of the Islamic republic of Iran so far! I’d suggest that one might say that the United States and the United Kingdom also don’t necessarily form a “permanent bloc” either despite their cultural similarities. A few more gag gifts from President Obama to the queen and who knows?

“The goal of U.S. policy is to press both governments to adopt policies that advance regional stability and security.” Agreed.

“One way to do that is to demonstrate to Syria why it is clearly in Syria’s national interests — as well as ours — for Syria to have better relations with its neighbors and the West and to end its support for terrorism and other actions that undermine peace and prosperity.”

Right. But there is more than “one way” to demonstrate this idea. An alternative is to inflict high costs on Syria to persuade it to change and block its ambitions. Such a strategy might also involve helping their intended victims—Israel, Lebanon’s moderate forces, Iraq (though the U.S. government has turned down Baghdad’s pleas to get tougher on Syrian help for terrorists murdering Iraqis and Americans there), and the internal Syrian opposition (and I don’t mean the Muslim Brotherhood).

Feltman, I’m confident in asserting though I don’t know him and have no inside information, understands everything I’ve written here is true. But as an administration official he has to say that stuff. The problem is that when we read his words we understand even better what’s wrong with the strategy they’re trying to sell. Of course, one could argue that U.S. policy was tough on Syria for part of the previous administration and the regime there didn’t crumble. But then, when Syria is tough on the United States, Europe, and their friends, they do indeed crumble.

U.S. policy today is sort of like the Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition in which victims are “tortured” by putting them in a “comfy chair.” Syria’s policy is more like the real Spanish Inquisition.

Once again, thank goodness for the Washington Post as a voice of sanity. It’s latest editorial explains:

“Bashar al-Assad is proving to be an embarrassment for the Obama administration….The problem isn’t that Mr. Assad is not getting the U.S. message. It’s that he sees no need to listen.”

Despite U.S. envoys heading to Damascus in relays, the Syrian to “engage” him, the Syrian dictator keeps kicking America in the groin, tightening his friendship with Iran and shipping missiles to Hizballah. And because Feltman is good, he knows what should be done: “President Assad is . . . making decisions that could send the region into war. He’s listening to Ahmadinejad. He’s listening to Hassan Nasrallah. He needs to listen to us, too.”

Right, and how to make him listen? Do I need to tell you the old country joke about how to get a mule to listen?

The punchline is: You have to get his attention first. I’ll leave you to fill in the rest.

But there’s someone else listening: Egypt. And it is concluding that what it’s hearing is that it also better listen to Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah and Bashar al-Asad.

So now the Egyptian government is starting to sound like it’s moving closer to Damascus. Perhaps this was politeness and a desire to mend fences, but it seems to me like the sour fruit of U.S. policy.

The current Egyptian government doesn’t like its Syrian counterpart for lots of reasons, some going back decades. The two countries have long been rivals for Arab leadership and Syria led the other states in boycotting Egypt after it made peace with Israel. More recently, the Egyptian regime views Syria as a traitor for siding with non-Arab Iran against its Arab brothers.

In addition, Egypt is angry over Syrian sponsorship of Hamas (which works with the Egyptian government’s Islamist enemies) and Hizballah (which threatened to overthrow the Egyptian government last year). Indeed, an Egyptian court has just convicted 26 men of working with Hizballah to launch terrorist attacks within Egypt.

Why then all the sudden friendliness toward Syria?

Well, the Egyptians may conclude he’s on the winning side. The United States is trying to engage Syria so why shouldn’t Egypt also forget about its differences with a fellow Arab dictatorship. Iran, Syria’s ally, is speeding largely unimpeded toward nuclear weapons. Hamas is still in power while Syria and Hizballah are gaining more control over Lebanon.

So the Egyptian foreign minister leaped to Syria’s defense in proclaiming that Israel was lying in claiming Syria sent Hizballah long range missiles and warned that if Israel ever attacked Syria or Lebanon, Egypt would take their side. Note that it didn’t do so in the 1982 or 2006 wars. He referred to Israel as an enemy and Syria as a sister. There are hints that this is only the beginning of a major rapprochement between Egypt and Syria.

The Egyptians aren’t so naive. They have tried and failed to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, surely knowing that Syrian and Iranian backing for Hamas is a big part of the problem. They are worried about Iran getting nuclear weapons and Syrian ambitions. They can’t be expectant about dramatic progress in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Rather, their problem is that if the only superpower isn’t going to stand up and support their interests while acting against the radicals, the Egyptian government better start building its own bridges. This is nothing compared to what’s going to happen when Iran has nuclear weapons.

*The Alawites comprise only about 12 percent of Syria’s population but almost all the ruling elite. In my view they are not Muslim but the rulers pretend to be Shia Muslims. If they didn’t have this cover the two-thirds or so of the Syrian population who are Sunni Muslims would be far more unhappy with the current regime. The Muslim Brotherhood portrays the Alawite rulers as non-Muslims. (The Sunni/Shia issue is ignored in Syria though of course the distinction is important elsewhere.) See my book, The Truth About Syria, for a detailed discussion of this issue.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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