Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Let’s Be Friends with Syria - It would drive the Iranians crazy

From the [USA] National Review Online, July 24, 2006, 6:43 a.m, by James S. Robbins ...

... “The operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community.” If someone in the U.S. wrote that it would be dismissed as some kind of far-out pro-Israel propaganda. But since it was written by Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of the Arab Times, it is a bit harder to disregard. Mr. al-Jarallah is known for being a bit sensationalistic at times, but his editorial, entitled “No to Syria, Iran Agents,” is noteworthy for stating a usually unspoken truth — that there are limits to what can be justified under the banner of “resistance to Israeli aggression.” Hamas and Hezbollah may wave the bloody shirt, but they are simply tools in the hands of Damascus and Tehran, both working other agendas.

If Hamas and Hezbollah (not to mention their sponsors) believed they could count on the unquestioned and reflexive support of the Arab world in their recent clashes with Israel, they were clearly mistaken. The divisions began to emerge at the Cairo conference of Arab foreign ministers shortly after the start of the Israeli offensive. Arab unity — a difficult proposition at any time — began turning into open division.

The countries siding against Hezbollah included Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, and the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority.

On the other side, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Algeria. Hamas, not present, could also be put in this group, as could Iran, naturally.

What we see are the outlines of a new international alignment in the Middle East. The states critical of Hezbollah see the group as at best an uncontrollable menace to regional stability, and at worst the leading agent of Iranian influence. The opposition to what in the past would have been a pro-forma blanket condemnation of Israel took some countries by surprise, and a motion to hold another meeting to discuss the crisis was defeated by its original supporters for fear of exacerbating this disunity. Concern over the potential of Iranian regional hegemony is partly inspired by realist politics — would you want your crazy neighbor to get his hands on a nuclear weapon?

But it is also a function of fear of the spread of Shiite influence into traditionally Sunni-dominated areas. This was the point that King Abdallah II of Jordan made in December 2004 when he noted the emergence of a “Shiite crescent” ranging from Iran to Lebanon.

The antipathy between the two major Muslim sects should not be underestimated. In some ways it is a deeper division than between Muslims and Jews, because someone of another faith is simply deluded while a Muslim who is part of a rival sect is an apostate, someone who has no excuse and who should know better. Unbelievers should be converted, but apostates must be killed.

Thus while the Jewish state rains air strikes down on “the Party of God,” Saudi establishment cleric Shaykh Abdallah Bin-Jibrin has issued a fatwa addressing the question, "Is It Permissible to Support the So-Called Rafidi [Shiite] Hizballah?" His answer: a resounding no. One cannot join Hezbollah, lend support to Hezbollah, or even pray to God for Hezbollah’s success. “Our advice to Sunnis,” he writes, “is to disown [the Shiites] and disown anyone who might join them… Anyone who might support them is nothing but one of them. God has said 'They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you who turns to them (for friendship) is of them'."

Syria is the lynchpin of the equation. It is the main transit route for Hezbollah’s materiel support, and it serves the same role for insurgents and supplies headed for Iraq. Since February 2005 Syria and Iran have been openly allied. Though three-fourths Sunni and a Baathist dictatorship, the common interests and common enemies of these two countries more than make up for their religious and ideological differences.

I have long thought that the time was ripe for a diplomatic opening to Syria. Bashar Assad should be offered the same deal as Muamar Khadaffi — basically, stop doing things that annoy us, get rid of your WMD and missile programs, and you can be our friend. And it is good to be our friend, particularly if you are a dictator seeking to avoid regime change. This deal should have been pursued long ago, coincident with the same move by Libya. Alas, we went another way, and since Syria had few allies in the region, Damascus was forced towards Tehran. But it is never too late to sell out an ally, and unless the dictator gene skips a generation, Assad the younger will eventually realize that aligning with Iran only further isolates and weakens his regime.

The current crisis presents the United States with a great opportunity. This conflict is only partly about disarming Hezbollah according to the dictates of UNSCR 1559 or 1583. It is also only partly about Iran using the crisis to divert attention from their nuclear program. It is most significant for exposing the emerging order, the new lineup of states united in opposing Iranian regional hegemony. Splitting off Iran’s most important regional ally and rendering impotent its most dangerous terrorist surrogate group would constitute a major defeat for the Iranians in their drive to extend their influence across the Middle East.

Hopefully our diplomats will be clever enough to see the contest in those geopolitical terms and not enter the fray believing that they will have achieved final success if they broker some kind of ceasefire. For Hezbollah, “ceasefire” is just another word for “reload,” and Iran has plenty of ammunition.

— James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

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