August 21, 2006

August 21, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Dealing with Damascus: Isolate Assad

Notice anything different about the recent round of diplomatic efforts to resolve Lebanon's latest crisis? Strikingly, Syria was nowhere to be found.

Thankfully, for the first time in years, Damascus played no visible role in resolving a Lebanese predicament. Just like Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon last year after a 30-year occupation, this is good news.

In fact, it also gives the Bush administration a small victory, vindicating its policy of isolating the mischief-making dictatorship of Syrian strongman, Basher, er, Bashar Assad.

Assad was even forced to try to jack up his sinking stock, using a "rah-rah" speech last week in Damascus, where he scolded his weak Arab brethren and offered his laughable leadership to the Arab cause.

While Damascus attempts to make itself relevant again, taking advantage of the Syrian/Iranian-inspired destruction in Lebanon, now isn't the time to cave to "feel-good" efforts to engage the Assad regime.

On the contrary, now is the time to turn the international spotlight on Damascus' treachery in the recent Israel-Hezbollah war, and look to others to put the squeeze on Assad and his Baathist cronies.

Sure, isolating Syria further could drive it deeper into the Iranian camp, although many argue that it's already there. But Syria will never achieve leadership of the Arab world while riding a Persian carpet.

Ignoring Damascus could also encourage Syria - in concert with Iran - to throw more support behind Hezbollah, raising tensions and potentially enflaming Lebanon in another war.

But, Syria is actually more vulnerable now than at anytime in the recent past, despite the less-than-optimum outcome - to say the least - in Lebanon for the U.S. and Israel.

In fact, Assad's recent chest-beating in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon is more a cry for help than a credible call to "arms."

The Franco-American wisdom in pushing Syria's chair back from the Lebanon negotiating table has isolated Damascus, greatly undermining its already limited diplomatic leverage.

While administering a coup de grace to the Assad regime is probably not now in the cards, more pressure on Damascus could lead to a positive change in Syria's roguish behavior.

OK, so what can be reasonably done?

First, Syria is an extremely weak state, especially economically. Unlike its pal Iran, it has no oil or gas to keep its impotent, centralized economy afloat.

While the U.S. doesn't trade a lot with Syria, Europe does, especially Germany and Italy, who are by far its largest trading partners.

So, since we're of a like mind with the French on Lebanon/Syria at least for the moment, we should call upon Paris to lean on its European amis to cut trade with Damascus.

We can also implement additional elements of the Syrian Accountability Act, an American law which would restrict companies that trade with Syria from operating in the U.S. market.

Second, the United States should work to isolate Syria from other leading regional states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, reminding them of the cost of Syrian-instigated instability to regional peace, prosperity and security.

Third, Syria is much less influential without its terrorist toady, Hezbollah. On its own, Damascus has little - to no - political clout in the region and its Soviet-era military has no punch.

This means that separating Syria from Hezbollah would be akin to removing one of its limbs - further limiting its influence in achieving national objectives, such as regaining the Golan Heights from Israel.

That is why a robust international force is needed in southern Lebanon, at sea- and airports across the country - and along the Syrian border, especially at key crossing points - to prevent the wounded Hezbollah from being rearmed by Damascus and Tehran.

If measures like this are implemented against Syria, Damascus should see that pal-ing around with Tehran and supporting Hezbollah is counterproductive to the health - and wealth - of the regime.

Even then, unfortunately, there is no guarantee that Assad will have a sudden epiphany on the road to Damascus. But giving him statesman's stature, instead of that of a thug, will only encourage other "bad actors" to employ his tactics, rather than those of reform.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post