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by Jonathan S. Tobin


Encouraged by the revolts taking place throughout the Arab world many Syrians have taken to the streets hoping to get rid of their own tyrants. Given the history of the Assad regime, it was hardly surprising that the government would crack down hard, killing dozens of protesters. But the reaction among our chattering classes to the latest evidence that the leadership of Bashar Assad was every bit as brutal as that of his father, Hafez, has been a little different from their response to events in Libya. To Washington's foreign policy "realists" and the professional peace processers in the State Department and think tanks, the spread of the so-called Arab Spring to Damascus has provoked something akin to panic. As a "news analysis"[1] published on the front page of Sunday's New York Times that was peppered with anonymous quotes from administration officials put it: "the deepening chaos in Syria, in particular, could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement."

The belief that a Syria run by one of the Assads would ever make peace with Israel was always a myth. Though the Syrian leadership was as corrupt and bloody as any on the planet, members of the Washington foreign policy establishment have always kept the late Hafez Assad and his son and successor Bashar close to their hearts. They dreamed that somehow the Syrians could be tempted to accept a trade of land for peace with Israel. Since, as today's Times again states, Syria is key to a comprehensive regional peace, it was vital for the United States to keep trying to appease the Assads and to pressure Israel to do the same. Punctuated by only brief interludes of sanity, such as George W. Bush's efforts to help Lebanon free itself of Syrian occupation, the impulse to think well of the Assads was part of Washington's peace process obsession for decades. From President Jimmy Carter's proclamation that Hafez Assad was a "moderate" to the Obama administration's wooing of Bashar with envoys like George Mitchell and Senator John Kerry (who succeeded the recently defeated Arlen Specter in the role of Syria's best friend in the Senate), the illusion of a Syrian desire for peace dominated our attitude towards the country.

The fact that every such effort failed miserably never penetrated into the consciousness of the peace processers. It never seemed to occur to them that the Assads needed a foreign foe to distract their people from their own tyrannical leaders. The last thing Bashar Assad wanted or needs is peace with Israel — no matter what the Israelis were prepared to give him. Nor was there the least incentive for him to relax his renewed grip on Lebanon or to distance himself from his Iranian ally at a time when Tehran's foes were in disarray. Though the Assads have always been a primary obstacle to peace, America's foreign policy establishment worries that the violence in the streets there threatens a process that never had a chance of success.

Indeed, instead of leading an international chorus demanding that Assad step down or contemplating a humanitarian intervention to prevent him from killing more of his people, the best Washington seems capable of with regard to Syria are mild calls for him to stop shooting his people and anonymous quotes lamenting the dictator's loss of "credibility."

But there is some hope. At least one veteran peace process advocate is pointing out the possible upside of events in Syria. Martin Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and usually the purveyor of the least helpful sort of conventional-wisdom thinking on the region noted to the Times that the end of the Assad regime was very much in America's interests. Their demise would deprive Iran of a vital ally as well as open up the possibility for reform or at least less repression in Syria — "an unusual confluence of our values and interests." He's right, though it would be even more unusual for his fellow foreign policy gurus in the administration and out of it to recognize the truth of this statement.  


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qJonathan S. Tobin is the executive editor of Commentary Magazine; he was previously executive editor of The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

This article appeared March 287, 2011 in Commentary Magazine. It is archived at establishment-worry-syrian-unrest-threatens-mythical-peace-process/


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