The Mideastwire Blog

Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Gary Gambill’s Syria problem

Gary Gambill has two pieces out on the Syria issue. One is here and commented on below – the other piece follows.

I have always admired Gary’s ability to synthesize information. The core problem is that he has never visited Syria or Lebanon and his analysis therefore suffers – especially when getting down to an almost anthropological level about Allawi-Sunni matters. To talk credibly at this level of detail, you need to have a feeling, a touch, with the subject matter and you certainly need to be competent in Arabic (note Gary’s utter lack of Arabic sources save for one or two which are translations, likely by

Some comments on the first piece (my main problems are on his National Interest op-ed which is commented on secondarily)

He writes:

“Paradoxically, however, early confidence in the IIIC undermined the entente’s willingness to apply other forms of pressure on Syria.  The French were reluctant to push for European Union (EU) sanctions before the IIIC completed its investigation, in part because they assumed that the findings would make the imposition of sanctions either unnecessary (if Asad cut a deal) or unavoidable (if he did not).  The Saudis (and the Egyptians) concluded that the seemingly marginal benefits of adding further to Syria’s diplomatic isolation were outweighed by the reputational costs of appearing to collaborate with the occupier of Iraq in subduing another Arab regime. During a critical window of opportunity when anti-Syrian sentiment in the region and Asad’s fear of the IIIC investigation were both at a peak, Damascus faced no multilateral economic sanctions or stifling regional diplomatic isolation, and this was partly because so many people believed that such measures would not be needed to bring Asad to heel.

— This is Gambill’s main thesis of interest… It essentially boils down to this: Syria was really pressed in 2005-2006 and their opponents did not bring the pain which could have tipped the game. Sadly, Gary succumbs to the neo-con reading which has always been just under the surface of most of his otherwise careful writing and synthesizing – ENEMIES NEED THE HARD STICK… and if that doesn’t work at first YOU JUST NEED MORE STICK!

He is wrong in making this his point. He seems to have forgotten that, rather than “going soft” on syria 2005-2006, the Bush folks and others marked UP the pressure on Syria continuously – INDEED THAT IS ONE MAIN REASON FOR THE US and Israel bringing FORCE to bear in the July 2006 war! Gary leaves this over-determinitive dynamic out however, and suggests that if the UNSC had pushed for sanctions and the French, Egytpians and Saudis had been TOTALLY cold rather than sort of cold in their diplo moves, then Syria would have been properly dealt with.

To ignore the hard power/coercive aspect of the July 2006 war is a major fault in this thesis. I have argued counter to this, that the 2005-2006 period was precisely the moment when MORE efforts should have been made in Lebanon and Syria to address underlying grievances and thereby obliquely undermine the ability and desire of actors like Syria and Hibzullah to use and accrue violence capabilities. When both actors were indeed pressed against the wall, the neo cons largely succeeded in arguing for a TOTAL VICTORY however. This was a stupid, maximalist move, when the opposite movement at the height of US-Israeli-Arab regime power would have radically contained the situation on multiple fronts.

He adds:

“Confidence in the investigation also led Washington and Paris to push the parliamentary majority into a politically costly effort to ratify the establishment of a “robust” international tribunal to try Hariri’s assassins. When the majority passed a cabinet resolution asking the UN to establish a tribunal in December 2005, the Shi’i bloc began a two-month boycott of the cabinet.”

–I am confused now… does Gary want the “robust” hard stick or not? Is a hard, inflexible approach good or not…he has me confused…

A good para:

“While this “constructive instability” stratagem may have been based on a sound reading of Asad’s anxieties, the logic of threatening his regime’s vital interests in Lebanon as a means of encouraging its disengagement from the country was flawed by an implicit assumption of risk-averse Syrian decision-making (strangely, many in Washington viewed the Syrian leader as both fundamentally incorrigible and likely to throw in the towel if pushed hard enough) and underestimation of Asad’s ability to manage internal dissent.  Rather than spooking the Syrians, turmoil in Lebanon mainly served to undermine Saudi and French resolve.”

“…However discomforting this turn of events may have been to Asad, the failed Saudi (and Egyptian) mediation efforts palpably relieved Syria’s regional isolation at its moment of greatest peril. In March 2006, the Arab League unanimously expressed “solidarity with Syria in the face of international pressure,”[40] a vote of confidence that would have been unthinkable had Saudi King Abdallah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not held a cordial summit with Asad weeks earlier with the declared purpose of forestalling “inappropriate foreign intervention in the region.”[41] With overt ostracism of Asad by his regional peers failing to materialize, pro-democracy forces in Syria began to lose momentum and Syria felt free to deepen its alliance with Iran.[42]

— Gary should NOT make broad, sweeping comments on the arabic media… indeed at this time there were MANY hard pieces on SYRIA!!! even some translated into english!

–Again he ignores the fundamental dynamic pushing As’ad towards Iran and away from a TOTAL, humiliating “compromise”: HE WAS NOT STUPID…. he saw that US-Israeli-Sunni Arab regime power was bent on TOTAL VICTORY and was going towards that pole (with us or against us)…. Gary, unfortunately leaves this out in total!

“…The international entente belatedly rallied against Asad in the wake of Hizballah’s deadly July 2006 raid against Israel, but this burst of resolve was premised on erroneous expectations that Israel’s retaliatory campaign against Lebanon would critically weaken Hizballah politically.[43] It did not.”

— BUT GARY – they all thought it would work – how did this war cap off the march to total victory, how was it the touchstone for the overall approach 2005-2006??? – and how did this approach affect/limit Syria’s calculations? A critical gap in his thesis.

“…Washington’s failure to mitigate the consequences of a confrontation it helped instigate dealt an enormous blow to American influence in Lebanon and re-opened the floodgates of international and regional diplomatic engagement with Syria. Israel quickly announced that it was secretly negotiating with Syria through Turkish mediators, while Asad was warmly welcomed in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.  In July 2008, he was given a red carpet reception in Paris (which Chirac boycotted in protest).  Sarkozy arrived in Damascus a few months later.   As in 2006, the Syrians reaped a diplomatic windfall for not restraining Hizballah.

–Again confusing… Gary points out the hard power which the US was trying to bring to bear, but without the US really wanting to pay the full price again (as Israel had been forced to in July 2006)…. so what of this? How did this approach shape the syrian response BEFORE IT FELL APART?

— Gary’s next piece is here. This one is particularly disappointing because it goes full neo-con with little of the excellent (though sometimes hallow) synthesis for which Gary is to be read with interest:

“Engagers and disengagers differ sharply on how to catch this golden goose, but they are chasing the same imaginary bird. Assad can neither be bribed nor intimidated into making a “strategic realignment” until he first reconciles with the Syrian people…It is not difficult to imagine the kind of trouble that would arise if Assad were to abandon the protections afforded by his foreign policy choices. Even if Israel were willing to give up the Golan Heights, a Syrian peace treaty with the Jewish state would inevitably mean sacrificing the Assad regime’s anti-Zionist pedigree, obviating its primary justification for autocratic rule, and abandoning the rights of some 400,000 predominantly Sunni Palestinian refugees in Syria,[2] a combination of factors with great potential to synergize with sectarian resentments at home and abroad. Fully ending Syria’s logistical support for jihadist infiltration into Iraq would leave the regime vulnerable to subversion by al-Qaeda. For an Alawite-dominated regime that oppresses a majority Sunni constituency at home, facilitating the rule of an independent Sunni-led Lebanese political coalition a few hours drive from Damascus would be sheer madness (this is precisely what the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was designed to prevent).

This may well be true, but it is irrelevant to the Syrian regime’s sober calculation of political risk. Whatever its intentions, a governing elite whose claim to speak for the entirety of its people is so exceptionally weak (even by Middle East standards) cannot follow in the footsteps of Egypt and Jordan. If positive or negative external incentives could lead the Assad regime down this path, it would have happened in the 1990s (when American recognition of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and offers of economic and military aid were on the table) or in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination (when Syria’s diplomatic isolation reached its zenith)

— This is really unhelpful analysis especially at this incredible point in history. Gary makes the tired old argument that because As’ad is Allawi, their family CANNOT MAKE PEACE WITH Israel

This is of course a simplistic and empty analysis designed mainly to prevent momentum in the US for pressuring Israel to give back the Golan.The problem NOW is different however in light of Mubarak’s fall.

BUT – Gary is dead wrong to make this as a total argument coursing through the last 20 years. Remember what is generally acknowledged now, even by top Israeli’s (as I argued in the NY Times in January): in March 2000 As’ad was ready for peace but “clinton lied and barak got cold feet” at the last minute.

Remember, up until January 2011 Ass’ads could look around and see that unpopular regimes in Egypt and Jordan – that were minorities in their own countries class-wise (egypt) and literally (in Jordan, hashemite) – could make peace with ISRAEL AND MAINTAIN THEIR grip.

I agree that the situation now has changed in this regard and has made it less likely for As’ad to go to peace (certainly not one as good for the Israelis as that which was rejected in 2000 by Barak)…. BUT THIS WAS NOT THE DYNAMIC THAT EXISTED FOR THE PREVIOUS 20 YEARS!

Gary ignores this and much of the scholarship on the subject however… and his thesis and synthetic abilities suffer accordingly.

Written by nickbiddlenoe

February 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Posted in ANALYSIS


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