Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Vision Thing.


by  Emmanuel Navon


The man whom George W. Bush used to dismissingly call "The Eye Doctor" seems to be doing fine without glasses. Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who inherited his father's hereditary job only because his older brother was killed in a car accident, has turned the tables on the United States. Five years ago, he complied with the American injunction to pull his troops out of Lebanon. Today, he is publicly humiliating the United States.


In February 2005, the US withdrew its ambassador to Syria following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Assad's involvement in Hariri's murder was so obvious that former French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri (and long-term guest in his Paris apartment), has been boycotting Assad ever since. By recalling its ambassador, the US was also expressing its discontent with the fact that Syria hosts and shields Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, transfers weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, lets terrorists crossing into Iraq, supports Iran's foreign policy goals, and cooperates with Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear capabilities (concerns about Syria's suspected nuclear program were brought to the world's attention by the Israeli bombing of an alleged nuclear facility in eastern Syria in 2007).


Last month, five years exactly after the scolding of the Bush Administration, President Obama nominated Robert Ford as the new US Ambassador to Syria. The rationale of the current US Administration is that Assad can be sweet-talked into trading his alliance with Iran for a deal with America. Obama's gamble has produced immediate results, but not the expected ones. Shortly after the nomination of Ambassador Ford, Ahmadinejad paid an official and pompous visit to Damascus (where he also met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah). Baffled, Hillary Clinton asked Assad why he was doing the opposite of what her government's policy was supposed to produce. Assad responded as follows: "We have a hard time understanding Clinton, either because of a translation problem or because of our limited capabilities." Hillary Clinton is being pushed around by Middle Eastern machos and America is being ridiculed.


Since retreating from Lebanon in 2005 under US pressure and in the face of a popular uprising against its interference, Syria has clawed its way back to a position of dominance. Exploiting Lebanon's fractiousness, Syria pushed its allies to undermine the pro-Western coalition that won Lebanon's general election in 2005. Though pro-Syrian parties failed to end the coalition's parliamentary majority in the June 2009 election, they have been able to prevent the Lebanese government from functioning. Only when the pro-Western coalition (also known as "The March 14th Alliance") met Syria's demands did Assad's Lebanese allies suddenly fall into line. As a result, the Lebanese government allows Hezbollah to keep its army, and does not press for the UN to look into Syria's involvement in Hariri's murder.


Syria's policy toward Israel has paid dividends too. Syria hosts Hamas' leadership and serves as a conduit for Iranian arms and money to Hezbollah. Rather than flipping on Iran or abandoning its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Assad has upheld "resistance" as the best way to apply pressure on Israel, while offering to negotiate with it. After hosting Ahmadinejad in Damascus, Assad said (through his foreign minister) that Syria was willing to make peace with Israel. While apparently confusing, the plot is actually obvious: Syria is convinced that it has nothing to gain from ending its relationship with Teheran, and it diverts Western pressure by pretending that the only way for Syria to reconsider its pro-Iranian policy is for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights.


This clever strategy enables Assad to keep his pro-Iranian policy intact, while having the US court him and put pressure on Israel. Not bad for an accidental leader whose regime was dubbed a "low-hanging fruit" by neoconservatives after the conquest of Iraq.


Fortunately for Assad, the Americans are not the only suckers. In December 2007, President Sarkozy said he would shun Assad until the latter allows Lebanon to have a consensus president. With the election of Michel Suleiman in May 2008, Assad officially met Sarkozy's demand (although Assad has been meddling in Lebanese politics ever since). Since then, Sarkozy has been going out of his way to "engage" Assad. He invited him to the launching summit of the "Union pour la Méditerranée" in Paris in July 2008. Last week, French Prime Minister François Fillon was in Damascus. Not only has Sarkozy secured a new recruit for his now almost-defunct Mediterranean Union, but he is incidentally reaping economic benefits too. A French consultant is working on engineering designs for the Damascus metro, and the French-based Airbus aircraft industry is in line for a contract to re-equip Syria's national airline, whose fleet is now down to just six serviceable aircraft.


The current US and French policy is convincing Assad that duplicity pays and that Syria can count on America's fear of a nuclear Iran and on France's economic interests to continue its successful juggling. One wonders what else needs to happen for Barack Obama to understand that Assad will not help him on Iran. The only thing Assad can do for his American counterpart is to check his eyesight. Unfortunately, there is no worse blind man than he who does not want to see.



Emmanuel Navon

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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