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The Price Of Talking To Damascus

This column was written by Lee Smith

Presumably, outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already sent condolences to his old friend, the former president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel. On Tuesday, his son, Pierre, the 34-year-old Minister of Industry was killed in Beirut when an assassin stepped up to his car window and shot him.

It is unlikely Gemayel's murderers had the Rumsfeld relationship in mind, but it is almost certain that an American ally was killed because the United States is perceived to be weak. Our enemies likely see things something like this: Rumsfeld's resignation in the wake of a resounding vote of no confidence in the Bush administration is another storyboard in the long narrative of American weakness, destined to end in a thorough rout of U.S. allies, interests, and policies in the Middle East.

"Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah have already declared that the U.S. has been defeated in the Middle East," says Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. "Nasrallah in fact made a specific reference to the Baker group and said that the U.S. will cut a deal with Iran and Syria."

Of course, James Baker's Iraq Study Group does not make foreign policy (or not yet, anyway) but the fact that it's out there is injuring our position in the region. Americans believe, correctly, that diversity of opinion is one of the strengths of pluralist, liberal democracies. But diversity of opinion doesn't help in the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes interpret it as confusion and lack of resolve. Professional diplomats speak glibly about having to "talk to" our enemies; it suggests they sometimes forget that it is our enemies with whom they are so eager to talk.

Who wants to talk to Damascus? Besides the Baker group and a pack of "realists" in the press corps and policy community, there is our chief European ally, Britain. Poor Tony Blair, a courageous man who is unsure of his place in history and thinks Bashar al-Asad can help.

There will be a steep price to pay for engaging Damascus. "The Syrians are bound to interpret any such opening as a license to retake Lebanon," says Badran. "The assassination today is a consequence of the mere chatter of talking to Syria." The fact is that Syria has been talking to us for quite a while now, explaining their sincerest desires for the region with the bodies of dead American soldiers and U.S. allies. If we insist on trying to dialogue with Syria in our fashion rather than theirs, then we are showing our allies we are indeed hopeless — just like Nasrallah says.

Many Bush administration critics have argued that Washington's unstinting support of Israel during this past summer's month-long Hezbollah war represented a betrayal of our Lebanese friends in the March 14th movement. In fact, it wasn't until rumors of engaging Syria and Iran started that the government in Beirut got nervous. Even fence-sitters like Amal chief Nabih Berri didn't blink till three months after the end of the war when he visited Tehran to ask for protection from the Syrians. Only the Islamic Republic can call off Damascus and the danger is that other Lebanese leaders might be tempted to follow Berri's lead, especially if the Gemayel assassination is unanswered.

The good news is that the Syrians have shown their weakness, too: The Syrian regime is terrified of the U.N. investigation into the February 14, 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. For the last year and a half, Bashar and his local cutouts have waged a campaign of bombings and assassinations in and against Lebanon, particularly in the Christian areas. Analysts such as William Harris even argue that Hezbollah's war was meant to derail the investigation, and protect Syria.

Now Damascus is trying to bring down the Lebanese government and block the formation of an international tribunal that would hand down indictments in the Hariri assassination. Last week, six pro-Syrian ministers walked out of the government; this week Damascus improved the odds by killing Gemayel. The Lebanese constitution stipulates that if the cabinet loses more than a third of its members, the government is dissolved — which means that Syria only has to kill two more ministers to have their way. Indeed, hours after the killing of Gemayel, gunmen made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Michel Pharaon, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs.

What's most interesting about this trail of blood is that everyone knows that there is no obvious mechanism to arrest figures in the Syrian regime should they be indicted. The president, his brother Maher, and brother-in-law Asef might be grounded at home for a long stay, but are in no real danger unless the United States decides to invade, an unlikely scenario. International sanctions? Saddam survived sanctions just fine. What's strange is that Damascus has killed again and again just to avoid being called killers. Why go to all the trouble?

The Syrian regime is weak; their bloody and urgent war against Lebanon describes just how weak it is. Even after all the Arab nationalist credit Damascus earned this summer by helping Hezbollah fight the Zionists, Bashar al-Asad's claim to rule is still fragile. After all, it is an Alawite regime that has no genuine popular legitimacy in a nation that is 70 percent Sunni.

So if we know that Damascus is weak, and that it chooses to dialogue with force, America should take note. Our response should be the same, whether we decide to leave Iraq in the immediate future or decide to stay another decade or more. If we go, then we leave on a high-note having taught a vital lesson lost during the course of our efforts to democratize Iraq: The price for messing with U.S. citizens, interests, and allies is steep. And if we stay it is an excellent platform on which to rebuild our reputation and take the momentum away from Iran and Syria.

If Bashar falls, so be it. After all, the choice is not between stability and instability, but between the existence of a regime that creates instability in order to advance its interests and the termination of such a regime.
By Lee Smith

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