Square-off on Syria with Jillian Becker

Noted British conservative Derek Turner invited me to contribute a foreign policy piece to the newly relaunched UK conservative journal Quarterly Review in the Autumn issue. We decided to have a pair of dueling articles:
  • Me arguing for the diplomatic engagement of Syria and pushing for peace with Israel in order to enhance America's credibility and create positive regional momentum
  • Author Jillian Becker advancing the preferred neoconservative position of isolating Syria
I will place my piece first, followed by Jillian's.
The Road to Damascus

GEORGE AJJAN says that George Bush could have helped cool the temperature in the Middle East – and made himself a positive legacy – by brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement

America's mid-term congressional elections of last November proved a disastrous defeat for the Republican Party, and one heavily influenced by the White House's approach to Iraq and the Middle East. President Bush Quarterly Review, the British conservative journalnonetheless moved into 2007 with an unfazed foreign policy platform, as evidenced by his State of the Union address and the unveiling of his "surge" plan for Iraq. All of his actions and statements suggested a continued effort to foster the "new Middle East" fantasized in the neoconservative world-view so beloved by his closest advisors. The President clearly decided to stick to his guns, despite the region's less than cheerful reception of his lofty concepts and a Congress now run by his liberal foes.

Given those unfavourable conditions both at home and abroad, the President at that point should have reconsidered his foreign policy strategy, principally by downplaying his ideological vision and instead focusing on delivering tangible diplomatic results. Looking toward his last two years in the White House, during the window before the 2008 presidential contest began to really heat up, the President still had the time and resources to score a substantial victory in the Middle East for the sake of America's regional credibility – not to mention the Republican Party's short-term viability and of course, his own legacy. (continued...)

How might he have done that? Well, consider America's diplomatic activities in the Middle East during the last two decades. First, we have George HW Bush's Madrid Peace Conference – the brainchild of former Secretary of State and longtime Bush family confidant James Baker, who skillfully brought Israel alongside Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine to execute a comprehensive peace less than a year after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Thanks to a big-eared Texan named Ross Perot who earned about 20% of the vote as a 3rd party candidate in the 1992 election, the original Madrid plan was never realized, and instead the Baker approach was replaced by Bill Clinton's amateurish divide-and-conquer efforts. The idea that Clinton was a valiant and responsible peacemaker – it is mind-boggling to think that the man who accomplished nothing in the Middle East other than an Israel-Jordan peace treaty executed in 1994 still enjoys such a heroic reputation even amongst Arabs – is just another media-generated hoax.

Anyone familiar with recent American diplomacy concerning Israel and its neighbours knows that the quickest and surest way to achieve results, especially considering the political, economic, and moral meltdown in the West Bank and Gaza over the past few years – a result of American neglect, Israeli retribution and Palestinian incompetence – is to deal directly with the Syrian Arab Republic. Unlike Palestine, Syria, however belligerent at times, is a sovereign and stable republic with a qualified track record of sustainable diplomacy. The land in question, the Golan Heights, has fewer religious implications than the other territories occupied by Israel, as well as far less settlers. Thus an Israel/Syria peace deal represents the lowest hanging presidential legacy fruit in the whole orchard.

Unfortunately, Bush and his advisors failed to see the benefit, in their adamancy to punish those who obstructed the spread of "democracy" in the Middle East, and Syria was at the top of their list. By contrast, the White House should have realized that the key to peace in the region is to offer Israel's Arab neighbours sufficient incentive to disarm militant groups like Hezbollah themselves. Last summer's Lebanon invasion demonstrated that very clearly. Despite having the strongest military in the region by far, Israel has found it logistically and politically impossible to completely wipe out terrorists operating from beyond its northern borders. Only the Arabs themselves can clean their own houses. For that reason, the best solution remains a "land for peace" treaty between Israel and Syria brokered by the United States.

While voicing such an opinion in America invites irrational criticisms and rebuke, the idea has ironically received a spirited airing in Israel itself. Since last summer's war, "land for peace" has perhaps been the single hottest topic of debate in the Israeli press, especially following reports of secret negotiations between agents of Tel Aviv and Damascus and the visit of a Syrian operative close to the Assad family to testify before the Knesset. Israeli pundits recognize that, if successful, such an agreement would offer the lasting peace of mind that Israeli citizens rightfully require by "outsourcing" crackdowns against terrorists to the Syrian government, which would include cutting off vital Iranian weapon supplies. Of course the Syrians have never done anything for free - the price for their cooperation in helping disarm Hezbollah would be the return of the Golan Heights, sought for over three decades.

Though Syria has more accountability than non-state entities like Hamas or Hezbollah, mutual mistrust still underlies its dealings with Israel. That is why the United States must play a facilitating role. Israelis will certainly not be satisfied with the cocktail-party talk of their former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who once said, "The Syrians keep their commitments". To give Israelis the insurance they demand, the Americans could guarantee that Syria would stick to its word by discreetly getting all of its major trade partners, including Russia, China, and other Asian nations, to agree to blacklist Syria's Central Bank if any shenanigans continued after the territories were returned. Such restrictions would destroy Syria's ability to import and would quickly lead the country to ruin, and the regime to collapse. The regime would never take such a risk.

Inside the Beltway, however, swaggering Congressional Democrats are surely delighted that Bush has rejected the possibility of any such deal. They watch happily as Bush finishes his eight years bogged down in Iraq, with Palestine in a shambles, plus horribly strained relations with Syria. With their eyes on the White House in 2008, the Democrats hearken back to President Clinton and the so-called progress he made with the Oslo Accords of 1993 and his near success at reaching an agreement between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat in 2000, most obviously indicated by Hillary Clinton's invocation of the words "my husband…" every time her credentials appear thin. Of course, the Democrats will conveniently forget to mention the shadiness of that Camp David proposal and Clinton's audacious irresponsibility in trying to end a decades-long conflict in a horribly rushed manner practically minutes before he left office. But still, the Democrats are savouring the opportunity to sell the American public in 2008 the image of an ineffectual GOP Middle East effort fumbled along by Bush, contrasted with their description of a Democrat Party that is tough on terrorism but proven effective at facilitating the peace process.

Bush, on the other hand, shortsightedly decided that rewarding the uncooperative behaviour of Syria did not even warrant consideration. But if he had even reluctantly accepted the logic of pushing the Israel-Syria track, his gains would have been clear: in addition to weakening the regional influence of Iran, and bolstering next year's GOP presidential nominee by providing the Republican Party with solid peacemaking credentials, he would have secured an enviable presidential legacy as a formidable Middle East negotiator, exceeding that of his father or Clinton by far. Whatever red marks history will give him for his Mesopotamian misadventure, a peace treaty between Syria and Israel, ending a substantial 60 year struggle and taming the most vociferous Arab nation, would have preserved George W. Bush's place one of the most accomplished foreign policy presidents in modern American history.

But it was not to be. Those recognizing the wisdom of a peace deal, therefore, can only hope that when the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue change hands in January 2009, the new tenant turns his/her attention to Israel and Syria, if only for the sake of a presidential legacy.

What sort of behaviour, though, might we expect from the various contenders for the White House? Well, judging by campaign rhetoric, the Republicans almost to a man (Ron Paul) will uphold the status quo of pouting about Syria's behaviour and endlessly harping on the trickle of two or three foreign fighters per day whose incursion from Syria into Iraq will match the current number of US troops in about 75 years or so, according to their current rate.

The GOP field continues to advance the terrorism=Iran=Syria argument and makes no real distinction between Sunni, Shiite, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran. The simplistic nature of their argument should come as no surprise, because the major candidates' neoconservative credentials need little introduction. Rudy Giuliani's foreign policy team includes pundit Norman Podhoretz, a decades-long fixture in the neoconservative movement who recently called the Iraq War "an amazing success" and added:

"This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It couldn't have gone better."
John McCain has long rested firmly in the neocon camp, and Mitt Romney submitted a lengthy foreign policy outline to Foreign Affairs magazine with barely a mention of the Middle East peace process – although he does deserve credit for recognizing the benefits of regional free trade, he believes it possible without first solving the geopolitical issues. Fred Thompson, who will probably be a declared candidate in the Republican Primary by the time you read this, has signed on none other than the Liz Cheney (the daughter of the current Vice President Dick Cheney, who was given plum appointments in the State Department presumably to run interference for her father's agenda,) as his foreign policy adviser.

But in cynical 21st century American politics, diplomacy is yet another political football, so the Democrats conveniently take the opposite tact of embracing the idea of dialogue with Syria. Barack Obama best summarized the sentiments of the liberal base when he stated in the CNN/YouTube debate:

"[T]he notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous…One of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses."
Of course, Mrs. Clinton took the opportunity to burnish her hawkish credentials by disparaging Obama in the aftermath of the debate as "naïve" for his talk-and-see approach.

But what do these proposals, postures, and promises really mean in the heat of contentious partisan primaries? It is hard to say for certain because we cannot truly assess the extent to which ideology or stubbornness will affect actual presidential behaviour. After all, George W. Bush campaigned on a modest foreign policy of no overseas nation-building and protecting the civil rights of Arab-Americans. Real objectives can be hidden during a campaign, or altered by the fast-moving realities of international affairs once the candidate takes office.

Additionally, cabinet appointments can temper ideology. A respected realist like Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, an prominent war critic within the Republican Party might score a prominent and influential position even if one of the more neoconservative members of his party ascends to the White House. The State Department is also staffed with career diplomats whose background and knowledge of negotiating techniques and positions predates the neoconservative grip fully that took hold of Washington under W. Bush. We have witnessed over the past eight years the tensions that exist between the recently appointed ideologues and the career diplomats; some stories recount Liz Cheney engaging in sensitive meetings with key heads of state in the absence of the US Ambassador to the nation in question, not to mention the frustrations of Secretary of State Colin Powell and recently even his successor Condoleezza Rice.

These variables suggest that even the likes of Mitt Romney, if victorious, could change his tune once January 2009 rolls around, wishing to quickly establish for himself a blockbuster legacy. The ability to execute that, however, does depend upon the ground conditions in both Israel and Syria. First and foremost, the region would have to avoid another military flare-up even close to what it experienced in the summer of 2006. Writing mid-summer, I cannot be certain that ever-fragile Lebanon will not dissolve into chaos before you read this article. But given that a mere handful of incidents have transpired directly between Israel and Syria over the Golan border itself since the cessation of hostilities in 1973, we can hope that at least that status quo holds.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's so-called re-election in 2007, in which he faced no opponents by design, as well as the re-election of a meaningless rubber-stamp parliament, have solidified his hold on power. His confidence is obvious, as indicated by his inauguration speech that quite remarkably focused almost exclusively on domestic issues like economic growth, nearly bereft of the pan-Arab rhetoric and hawkish posturing that observers have come to expect.

Furthermore, the political opposition in Syria is a complete joke that the regime need not even bother to discredit, because their blundering incompetence accomplishes that task brilliantly. The most prominent example of their incapacity was the invitation to Israel by Likud Party Parliamentarian Yuval Steinitz and subsequent visit of a Lebanese operative named Farid Ghadry who camps out in Washington posing as the head of the "Reform Party of Syria", a phantom organization with more supporters on the Wall Street Journal editorial board than in all of Syria.

One must mention the investigation under the auspices of UN Chapter 7 into the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a longtime Syrian/Saudi protégé whose increasingly tense relationship with Damascus culminated in a devastating car bomb on Valentine's Day, 2005. The inquiry, which despite being highly politicized, could still lead to devastating sanctions should it prove explicit involvement on the part of the Syrian regime, although the odds of direct proof incriminating the Syrian President himself seem long.

The next US president must also correct Bush's folly in focusing America's democracy effort on Lebanon, a tiny country with a peculiar sectarian electoral system and a horribly weak central government that has never failed to invite foreign powers to manipulate its sects as regional proxies. The idea that a functioning democracy in Lebanon will inspire grassroots reform in the region is ludicrous. Wealthy Arabs from the Gulf countries are not likely to return from Beirut more inspired by its "democracy" than by the drinking, gambling, and prostitution binges Lebanon infamously affords them. Expending whatever remains of America's regional credibility on behalf of the unproven Saudi stooges currently governing Lebanon must come to a halt, because it is simply not in the interests of the United States.

The last piece, of course, is the political disposition of the Israeli public. They are governed by the most democratically evolved political system in the region, which is therefore the least predictable. With a strong prime minister and a mandate directly from the White House to make peace, however, I do believe the majority would accept a "land for peace" proposal. A calculated yet dramatic move, much like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1978, could be envisioned on Assad's part so long as he receives full political cover from the US as well as the Arab League. History has shown that the Israeli public, even in its hawkish sectors, can be wooed successfully by a genuine extension of the olive branch.

All in all, the road to Damascus is a compelling path that not every leader has had the heart to take. But circumstances will change dramatically in January of 2009. Should the region avoid another pointless war between now and the US presidential election, and should the next president see the value and relative ease of facilitating an Israel/Syria "land for peace" deal, America could take a major step towards rehabilitating its regional image in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims, while simultaneously cropping the tentacles of Iran, remaining a trusted benefactor of the Jewish state, and protecting its traditional alliances in the Middle East. Quite simply, no other course of action can achieve more for America' regional interests than brokering a long-awaited peace between Israel and Syria.

GEORGE AJJAN is a Republican activist and member of the Arab American Institute’s National Policy Council.

    The Road from Damascus

    JILLIAN BECKER says that the present Syrian government is too aggressive and untrustworthy for substantive Israeli or American overtures
    George Ajjan (in his article "The Road to Damascus") argues that the President of the United States could and should broker a "land for peace" deal between Syria and Israel, that it could be done with "relative ease" and would achieve a number of desirable ends: It would be good for the President's legacy, and good for the image of America in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims; it would weaken Iran; it would be supportive of Israel, and at the same time reinforce traditional US alliances in the Middle East; and it would boost the chances of a Republican victory in the 2008 presidential elections.

    With so much good to be achieved, and with no serious practical or political impediments in his way, it would seem deliberately perverse on President Bush's part not to have done it. What could have stopped him? "After all", Mr. Ajjan writes:
    "George W. Bush campaigned on a modest foreign policy of no overseas nation-building." But, he concedes, "objectives can be ... altered by the fast-moving realities of international affairs once the candidate takes office."
    So what happened that changed George Bush's foreign policy? Nowhere in his article does Mr. Ajjan mention what it was. Yet it was nothing less than the invasion of the United States on the 11th of September 2001 in the name of Islam. That was the historical event that necessarily re-shaped America's foreign policy. The invasion, the destruction of part of New York and the Pentagon, the killing of some 3,000 people brought about the change, not "neoconservatives" getting the President in their "grip", nor blind idealism driving him to drag his country into wild foreign adventures. George Bush's hope and wish that dictatorships such as those of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran could become democracies is indeed idealistic - though hardly ignoble - but it was 9/11 that unleashed the dogs of war, not his hopes and wishes.

    True, after the defeat of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, his aim was and remains to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq. His enemies in his own country hope he will not achieve it, more because they want George Bush and the Republican Party humiliated than because they have any alternative policy. Even many of his supporters doubt that he can achieve it, because they are not convinced that Afghans and Arabs are capable of the responsible citizenship essential for democracy. They were perhaps surprised at the high turn-out of voters when elections were held in Iraq, but if they now maintain that one election does not a democracy make, there are no developments to prove them wrong.

    More than anything else, what prevents development towards democracy is a vicious insurgency, promoted and assisted by Syria in alliance with Iran. The US has reacted to Syria's aggression-by-proxy (carried out not only in Iraq, but also through Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel) with a change of the policy that had been tried patiently for 30 years by successive US administrations without success. It was called "constructive engagement" and had in fact amounted to precisely what Mr. Ajjan calls "rewarding uncooperative behaviour" by allowing Syria to occupy Lebanon and illegally import Iraqi oil. President George W. Bush made the change and in May 2004 he imposed economic sanctions on Syria.

    A few months later, in September, Syria began holding secret talks with Israel. For the first time since official but fruitless negotiations had broken down in 2000, meetings took place between agents of the two governments. These unofficial discussions stretched over a period of nearly two years and certain "understandings" were reached that could have become the basis for a peace agreement. A document was drafted covering questions of security, borders, normalization of relations, and water rights.

    Israel would withdraw slowly - over five to 15 years - from the Golan Heights, from which Syrian forces had rained death and destruction on part of northern Israel until the Israelis captured them in 1967. Until the withdrawal was complete, a demilitarized buffer zone would be established in the form of a "park" which both Syrians and Israelis could freely enjoy. An ultimate border would be negotiated and guaranteed by the UN and the US. Hostile actions between the two countries would cease - a clause that presumably required the complete cessation of Syrian-backed terrorism against Israel, by Hezbollah in particular. A peace treaty would be signed and normal bilateral relations established.

    The issue of water, vital to Israel and a main reason why peaceful relations with Syria are desirable to the Israelis, was to be settled by Syria undertaking not to obstruct the flow of the Upper Jordan River into Israel as it had done in the past. Israel in its turn had pumped water from springs in the Golan that would have flowed to Syria to replenish the shrinking Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias). Both countries badly needed a workable agreement on this issue. The establishment of the imaginative Park would, among other pleasant and practical functions, help to safeguard the water resources for both of them.

    The draft document made good reading, but like a recipe for a dish that is never cooked, it remained on the shelf. Neither government even acknowledged that talks had taken place, let alone that agreement had been reached. Why? A fairly compelling reason may have been the fact that the US refused to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem. If there was a moment when President Bush might have successfully brokered a deal between Syria and Israel, it was then, when they had all but shaken hands on their "understandings". But he made it clear that while he had no objection to talks between Israel and Syria taking place, he would not be involved in them.

    It is more than likely that Basher Assad, the Ba'athist dictator of Syria, had permitted the talks chiefly because he saw them as an indirect way to get concessions from the United States after President Bush had imposed sanctions on his country. While it is possible that he wanted peaceful relations with Israel for their own sake or for the safety of Syria's water supply, and while he certainly wanted the return of the Golan Heights, he also, and it seems most strongly, desired to be relieved of the embargo. Consequently, when he was made to understand that there was to be no trading off an agreement with Israel for a lifting of sanctions by the United States, he disowned the discussions and nullified their result.

    Was this a disappointment to the Israelis? Would Israel like the draft document to be dusted off now and made use of in renewed official talks? I think not. I do not agree with Mr. Ajjan that a majority of Israelis would support more 'land for peace' conferences now. The government may want them, but it is the most unpopular government in Israel's history, and too many of its diplomatic initiatives go against public opinion. Especially where Syria is concerned there is unlikely to be much public enthusiasm for conceding land. Israelis have been given no reason to trust Assad. Nothing indicates that he seriously desires peace with Israel in the determined way that President Sadat of Egypt did when he flew to Jerusalem in 1978. On the contrary, there are ample indications that Assad is no less deeply and immovably committed to the ultimate destruction of Israel than is every other Arab leader. The chances are he would again use the Golan Heights to attack Israel if he got control of them regardless of consequences; and even if he were sincere in his promises, what guarantee is there that his successor would abide by them? A dictator cannot impose a continuity of compliance as democratic governments do being bound by law.

    As for guarantees by the UN - that corrupt body packed with more clowns than a global circus convention - they have been proved over many decades to be worse than worthless. What use were such guarantees to Israel in 1967 when Egypt ordered the United Nations Emergency Force out of Sinai where it had been posted to "guarantee" peace, and it promptly did as it was told so that Egypt could go ahead and close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping? What use is UNIFIL now when it cannot or will not stop Iranian arms flooding over the border from Syria into Lebanon to replenish the arsenals of Hezbollah? Indeed, UNIFIL has existed for nearly 30 years with the purpose of bringing peace and security to southern Lebanon and has spectacularly and consistently failed in its mission.

    In any case, "land for peace" is a poor bargain. Peace can be broken so easily that promises of it are worth very little, while on the other hand if land is given up it can only be regained at a heavy cost of soldiers' lives and in the teeth of world opinion. The Israelis, if not their present government, cannot but be weary of diplomatic moves in the name of "land for peace". Israel has given land time and again - the whole of Sinai, its security zone in Lebanon, settlements in Gaza - and time and again it has got little or nothing, or worse than nothing, intensified violence, in return. For all the land it has given and the prisoners it has released, it is still the same beleaguered, terrorist-attacked, rocket-shelled little island of democracy in an ocean of inimical and bellicose Arab tyranny.

    The US does of course remain Israel's best friend. But the US has interests of its own which are not at present best served by lifting sanctions against Syria. From Syria into Iraq, weaponry, matériel and terrorists continue to pour, and however many they are, and whatever their Islamic or political affiliations may be, they help al-Qaeda to kill US soldiers and Iraqis, and hamper efforts to establish peace and democracy. They do not merely pass through Syria. Assad harbours them and supports them with money, arms and training. Some of them, Islamic Jihad for one, have headquarters in Damascus and meet there with leaders of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

    It is probable that Assad feels unable to stop doing this even if he wants to because he is under irresistible pressure by the jihadists, especially those of Iran. If so, he has landed himself in a fearful predicament, for at the same time as the jihadists' dependence on him has become so compelling, he is in greater need than ever of Western indulgence, as the international investigation into the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon narrows in on him.

    Hariri's violent death in a car-bombing distinctly served Syrian interests, his opposition having been a main obstacle to Syria's re-occupation of Lebanon. There is little doubt that the deed was carried out by Syrians or on Syrian orders, and could Syrians have plotted to assassinate a prime minister of Lebanon without the knowledge or against the wishes of their absolute ruler? Surely not. But did Assad directly order the murder? Mr. Ajjan thinks that the "odds of direct proof incriminating the Syrian president himself seem long", and no doubt the Syrian president has covered his back. But is he so secure in his position that a charge against him could not bring about his downfall, and with him the downfall of his minority Alawite regime? Basher Assad must be well nigh desperate, seeking ways and means, loopholes and advocates wherever he thinks he might find them.

    One might suppose that he would play it safe for a while, not stick his neck out any further. But he is on the contrary doing things that seem designed to provoke the West. At the time of this writing, the Syrian army is encamped in Lebanon to a depth of three or four kilometres over the common border. Forced by international pressure to withdraw totally in 2005, Syrian troops are back again, occupying close on 200 square miles of Lebanese territory. (It is an invasion, and should be a matter for international condemnation, but is not. The reason why it is not is that the West too often chooses to disregard, or preserve an ignorance of the bad faith in which Arab leaders generally conduct relations; a tactic or custom of bad faith that, met with Western indulgence, renders the long weary rounds of diplomacy, decade after decade, almost invariably futile.)

    Assad has also recently stepped up the rearmament of his forces, accelerated the training of troops, forbidden reservists to leave the country, and encouraged army officers to settle on the Syrian side of the disputed Golan region. His troops are stationed along the entire length of the border with Israel. He has been acquiring missiles from Iran and Russia, and sophisticated Russian-supplied anti-aircraft arrays. The new rockets in his arsenal can carry hundreds of kilos of explosive and could be fired on Israeli cities by the hundred per hour.

    These steps are not easy to interpret. Awake to the possibility that they indicate warlike intentions, the Israeli Defence Force saw fit to conduct a series of exercises on the Golan Heights as a warning to him. Yet the Israeli government says it "does not believe that Syria is interested in war" and has sent messages to Assad that Israel does not want or intend it.

    Syria too "does not want war". A recent, sudden (and unprecedented?) poll sponsored by an American bipartisan organization finds that 51% of Syrians would favour peace with Israel - if it returned the Golan Heights. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Mouallem, has stated that he would participate in an international conference for peace. The Syrian Vice President, Farouk Shara, said in a public speech that Syria did not want and would not start a war though it was ready if war were to break out.

    The tension mounts daily on the heights as the two countries eye each other suspiciously and each government insists that it intends no attack. So hair-trigger has the stand-off become that Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, is delaying the distribution of gas masks in case merely taking a precaution against chemical warfare would provoke the Syrians.

    What is being signalled by Syria? If it is a willingness to talk peace with Israel and the US, then what is the re-occupation of a part of Lebanon and the belligerent business on the Golan Heights all about? Is Assad making military gestures to reassure dangerous forces, domestic and foreign, who will not tolerate peace with Israel and capitulation to the US that he intends neither even if he needs both? Is he preparing to attack Israel if the US should attack Iran? Or is he trying to create bargaining chips to bring the US back to its old policy of talking and appeasing?

    He is not without friends in America. Among them, in effect at least, are James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group. Their report urged a return to the old failed policy. In April 2007 the Speaker of the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Assad in Damascus in defiance of her country's sanctions against him. Many suspected with good reason that her motive was to annoy President Bush rather than to achieve anything constructive since foreign policy is not her responsibility. But was there more to her visit than met even a cynical eye? Was she responding to a desperate waving from Assad himself? Rather oddly she delivered him a message of her own invention - that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria - which she claimed was entrusted to her by the Israeli government, but which the Israeli government promptly contradicted.

    If all or any of the advice, the polls, the statements or the visits were intended to aid Assad in his desperation, they have not worked. George Bush has not as yet been persuaded that appeasing Syria is the way to peace. Precisely because Assad is hard-pressed, this is not the moment for the US to concede anything to him.

    Still, it is a little disturbing that not long after the Speaker's visit to Damascus, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, met face to face with Walid Mouallem. What she said to him, according to the official account, was that Syria must stop sheltering and funding terrorists. Did she really need to meet him to deliver that standing message yet again? Was there not something else spoken of, we might wonder, such as the offer, or the hint of an offer from the State Department of a quid pro quo: 'Stop, and we might save your bacon over the Hariri affair, and perhaps lift sanctions'?

    I hope not. In no way is this a time for making concessions to any belligerent Arab state. The new tactics that President Bush launched in Iraq with 'the surge' seem to be working. He has no need to strive for a diplomatic victory in the Middle East by once again offering carrots to Syria, a policy that never worked and probably never will, though it remains forever the State Department's favourite way of dealing with the enemies of the United States. I do not think even a combination of stick and carrot will work with the likes of the Ba'athists of Syria and the mullahs of Iran. All stick might work, if it should ever be tried.

    JILLIAN BECKER is a security and counter-terrorism specialist who has written books on the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Baader-Meinhof Gang

    o --- This article first appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Quarterly Review.