Diplomatic Diary: Target Syria?

Throughout the long buildup to war in Iraq last year, the Bush administration insisted it was sorely misunderstood. While the Arab world and much of Europe accused the United States of warmongering, the administration clung to another mantra. Far from seeking war, the White House insisted, America wanted peace. All the drumbeats of war and all the military buildup in the region were part of a strategy, Washington said, that could be distilled into a single phrase: diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force.

Now that the war is over, the residents of Damascus are experiencing their own taste of that style of diplomacy. What started with a cursory warning by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the war--about the flow of arms through Syria to Iraq--has rapidly evolved into a full-blown diplomatic assault on the Syrian government. President George W. Bush himself, as well as Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Colin Powell have each stepped up the pressure on Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad.

Last week, the administration began their assault by talking about the possibility that Saddam Hussein and his senior Iraqi leadership had escaped to Syria. But what is now on the table is the whole range of Syrian bad behavior--from anti-Israeli terrorism to weapons of mass destruction. Call it the iron fist in a velvet glove: an attempt to force Damascus into line without the use of force. Or as Powell put it on Tuesday, with a nod towards the victorious U.S. military in neighboring Iraq: "We hope that Syria understands now there is a new environment in the region."

The focus on Syria takes the United States one step closer to the world title-holder among rogue states and terrorist sponsors: Iran. If the early chest-thumping toward Damascus is any guide, we can expect similarly veiled threats sometime soon against Tehran. After all, Iran was one of the founding members of the axis of evil and has a far worse record as a threat to the western world. Not only has Iran actively supported terrorism against the United States and its allies, but its nuclear weapons program is far more advanced than Iraq's or Syria's.

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However, there is a small problem with diplomacy backed by the threat of force: You must be prepared to follow through with the threats. Of course, nobody at the most senior level inside the Bush administration has actually offered to order the Third Infantry Division into Syria. But the half-threats that have emerged so far have unsettled even the president's closest ally: the British government of Tony Blair.

The Brits have taken a far softer line than the Bush administration on both Syria and Iran. Blair has followed the European mainstream by trying to engage in dialogues with both autocratic Arab governments as a way of increasing the power of the self-styled reformers in Tehran and Damascus. "You won't find us saying anything that threatens Syria," says one anxious senior British diplomat.

Why are the Brits showing such sensitivity toward two nations that are widely acknowledged to support and harbor terrorists? Partly because they accept the assurances of Syrian and Iranian moderates, who insist they are gaining the upper hand inside their own governments. One senior Syrian official assured me this week that the old Baath party loyalists and generals that had once ruled his country were now just looking for a comfy retirement.

Yet there is another explanation for the softer British approach towards Syria and Iran. That is Israel. To a large degree, Europe's more compromising approach to both countries is based on Europe's radically different view of terrorism against Israel. For many in Europe, the groups that target Israel--Hizbollah and Hamas-- are freedom fighters, not terrorists, battling against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. How can the West punish Syria and Iran for supporting attacks on Israel that many European officials consider at least understandable?

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It's easy to dismiss such European qualms, even if it comes from London. After all, the doubters were wrong about war in Iraq and its fearful impact on the Arab world, and they could easily be wrong now. But it's not so easy to forge ahead against Syria when you're also trying to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the same time.

That's because the long-delayed roadmap towards a Palestinian state is the creation of the so-called Quartet--the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States. And the roadmap gives a special position to the Quartet in the middle of the peace process: assessing both sides' performance and acting as the international judge of whether a new state of Palestine can emerge.

There is one more fundamental problem with all the tough-talk against Syria. While the war in Iraq has moved with breath-taking success, the job of regime change in Iraq is only half done. Until a new regime is created in Baghdad, U.S. policy in the region remains only half-tested. How can Washington set about changing the Syrian regime when we don't yet know what a new Iraqi regime will look like?

In fact the first attempts to shape the new government in Baghdad have run into the quicksand with alarming speed. U.S. officials staged the first regional conference of potentially new Iraqi leaders near Nasiriya on Tuesday, but the meeting was scaled back sharply in the face of Iraqi skepticism and mistrust.

Shiite leaders boycotted the session, even though it was held in their backyard. Meanwhile exiled leaders--such as Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress--were told by the U.S. not to attend because it might look as if they were being anointed. That's not an unreasonable suspicion. After all, Chalabi was flown to Nasiriya, along with several hundred of his own fighters, by U.S. transport planes.

"It's just not time to crown anybody or choose the next government of Iraq," says one senior State department official, explaining why the regional conference was being downgraded. If it's not yet time to anoint the next Iraqi leader, it might not be the best time to de-throne the Syrian leader either.

Diplomatic Diary: Target Syria? | News