Is Dialogue with Iran and Syria Worth It?

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Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the fundamental problem in the Middle East is not intervention by the West. On the contrary, the real problem is that, for all their dabbling, the Western powers seem capable of neither war nor dialogue. This leaves everyone in the region at the mercy of the Middle East’s oppressive regimes and proliferating terrorists.

Advocates of the Iraq war lacked an understanding of the complexities on the ground to wage an effective war of liberation and democratization. As a result, their policies merely ended up eliminating Iran’s two major regional rivals: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime. This presented Iran with a golden opportunity to project itself as a regional hegemon, and Iran’s leaders are unlikely to let this opportunity slip away.

Advocates of dialogue with the Iranians and their Syrian allies, like former United States Secretary of State James Baker, labor under the delusion that they can actually reach an understanding that can enable a graceful US exit from Iraq and help stabilize that wounded country. The delusion is based on two false assumptions: that the Iranians and the Syrians can succeed in Iraq where the US has failed, and that the international community can afford to pay the price of ensuring their cooperation.

True, Syria and Iran are playing a major role in supporting Iraqi insurgents, and Syria is still encouraging the trafficking of jihadists and weapons across its borders with Iraq. But the idea that these activities can be halted at will is naïve.

For one thing, the interests of the Shia communities in Iraq and Iran are not the same. Iraqi Shia have never accepted Iranian dictates, and many took part in Saddam’s war against Iran in the 1980’s. After all, the Iraqi Shia are Arabs, and if they are now willing to coordinate their activities with their Persian counterparts, their main goal will always be to secure an independent course as soon as possible, even while they carry on with their internecine disputes within Iraq. Iran is in no better position than the US to convince them to resolve their differences.

President Basher al-Assad of Syria faces a similar dilemma. Although he has opened Syria’s border to jihadists and has allowed Saddam’s supporters to operate freely there, that choice may not be entirely his. Syria’s aid to Saddam in maneuvering around the United Nations’ oil-for food program brought Iraqi money to inhabitants of the border region, who have always been closer in customs, dialect, and outlook to their Iraqi neighbors than to their fellow Syrians. In the absence of government investment, local inhabitants’ loyalty went to Iraqi Baathists who helped improve their lot. Indeed, even local security apparatuses have been unwilling to comply with dictates from Assad and his clique to seal the borders.

In these cirumstances, neither Syria nor Iran seems capable of delivering anything but mayhem in Iraq. What, then, would the proposed dialogue between the US and these states achieve other than continue to empower their corrupt yet ambitious regimes?

The story gets more complicated when one considers the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Assad wants nothing more than to see this affair forgotten – and the proponents of dialogue think that they can give him what he wants in the hope of breaking Syria’s alliance with Iran.

But that is merely another erroneous (not to mention amoral) assumption. The alliance between Syria and Iran dates back more than two decades, and was explicitly reaffirmed by the two ruling regimes as recently as January 2005. Indeed, the two regimes are now joined at the hip. Assad’s recent refusal to attend a summit in Tehran with his Iranian and Iraqi counterparts was a mere tactical move designed to appeal to the proponents of dialogue.

In fact, Iran has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, and annual bilateral trade tops a billion dollars. Irani’s growing influence over the Syrian security apparatus is well established, and Iran is funding an effort to create Syrian Shia militias to compensate for Assad’s sagging support in the army and in the minority Alawite community.

Assad cannot turn his back on all of this. No deal would be sweet enough, even if it included the return of the Golan Heights. For Assad and his supporters, survival is more important than sovereignty.

Still, to read the well-known names of commentators and policymakers who are recommending engaging Syria and/or Iran is a testament to how inconsequential and cut off the Western powers have become from the realities on the ground in the world’s most turbulent region. That, it seems, is the price of their arrogance.


Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author, blogger and dissident. He runs the Tharwa Foundation, an independent initiative that focuses on diversity issues in the region.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

8 thoughts on “Is Dialogue with Iran and Syria Worth It?

  1. Excellent analysis! Should be forwarded to major news agency for publication. Maybe someone with a brain will pick it up…

  2. Ammar, It is a good balanced article and excellent description of the current situation. However, it does not address what should the western block do next. It is like keeping the current situation stand still. If the western power stands powerless on changing Syrian’s regime policy and if this regime well-established relation with Iran prevent him from choosing different rout, there are no other choices available, other than engaging him. Engagement here does not mean giving up to him on any front, and I think the Bush administration is capable of doing this. Another note: if dialogue with Syrian regime is fruitless and could back fire on the regime as I understand from your post, like the case of involving him with Iraq turmoil, it looks to me that this is a good thing that could speed up the change in Syria. The more, this regime, get engaged with more fronts, it makes him loose its grip on another front. Am on my side believe that accelerating the openness of Syrian society is a recipe for the fall of this system or at least the change in its structure.

  3. Are you trying to get published in any American newspapers? You’re pretty much preaching to the choir on your blog; you need to get this analysis out there to a wider audience.

  4. Rancher, indeed, the article has already appeared in dozens of newspapers around the world in all the languages listed above. But indeed, I do need to focus on writing an op-ed to a major new newspaper here. Trustquest, the policy alternative is to keep the isolation and build up pressures using the one thing that is readily available and won’t go away: the UN inquiry into the Hariri investigation. Everything the regime is doing revolves around its desire to wiggle out of this tight spot it voluntarily put itself in. The tribunal should be established, states from the region should be encouraged to cooperate with it, and the findings should be published when they are ready. Dialogue with the Syria regime is not going to produce the dynamics of overstretch that you are counting on. The Assads will more likely centralize more powers in their hand again, play the usual jingoistic tunes, and mobilize the populations and send the young to fight in the name of the national constants on all these multiple fronts. The society will pay for the Assads’ sins as always. Our people have a much higher tolerance levels for such state of affairs than peoples elsewhere, I call it historiosis, or even in our case, Syriosis – there is simply too much history here, too many memories of passed turbulence and promised salvations that turned into nightmares and damnations to make us all more than just cynic, we are cynicism incarnate. Time cannot change that, only miracles can. I believe that miracles are the product of constant and ceaseless experimentation by the few with unpredictable results, of course, at least on the short term. So, I am not really bogging or lobbying, I am experimenting, hence the occasional contradictory stands, and my non-ideological commitment to the NSF. To me, the NSF is an experiment that continues to prove worth it on some level since it keeps the Assads guessing.

  5. I think you have come up with something very coherent about a very chaotic problem. But the solution is still lacking. I believe there should be a very solid world front (military as well as political) headed by the US, Western Europe and moderate Arabs to ensure the success of the US (or the success of the front as a whole) in Iraq. This front will be able to act independently of the UN which has proven its inefficacy. I believe the binding factor for such front would be Iraqi oil. If the US fails, then Iran will seek to control Southern Iraq and with it the oil fields. The result will be an Iran sitting on top of over 40% of world oil reserves – a scenario dreamed by Saddam when he invaded Kuwait. If the US succeeds it will gain access to more than 60% of world oil reserves – Iraq, Kuwait, Gulf plus SA. So, there is so much at stake. Could the US and Europe afford to lose? It is time for the taboo regarding the fight for oil to be broken. After all we cannot live without this fuel – at least not in the foreseeable future! So let us begin calling things by their names and let us leave idealism aside. If Democracy comes along as a by-product, so be it. In the meantime, let us stay focused and fight the bad guys as they should be fought.

  6. Ok Ammar:The problem from the beginning is hidden in the world dialogue, because the U.S. does not make a balanced dialouge for many reasons. The united states is the unipolar power in the world, it does make orders, and not discussions. seconds, all those people that you mentioned in your article are puppets to the states, to some senators, to some oil companies, and to many thing else. The main problem then in the west, and not as you claimed in the middle east systems, because all the Middle East regimes are formed previously, and have been supported by the united states. All Islamic fundamentalists groups had been formed and grew under the umbrella of the CIA, and now it is not the west problem? We have to take under consideration the economical profits-of all the wars in the Middle East-to the owners of the United States. Profits over human, before over countries.I am not defending the puppets, like Assad and his alike in the Middle East, but they were put in power by the West, and the west responsible for the mess then. Jon

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