President Bush’s 2002 definition of the axis of evil included North Korea, Iraq and Iran—Syria didn’t make the list. Given Syria’s actions over the last decade, why not?
Why are now senior administration officials and policy makers ready to negotiate with a Syrian regime that overtly supported Saddam for years; continues to provide a vital conduit for terrorists, weapons and money to pro-Saddamist terror networks in Iraq; and provided a supply bridge for Iranian weapons and logistical support for Hezbollah, while at the same time, being implicated in the killings of past Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and many other Lebanese public figures, culminating in the murder of the anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel a couple days ago?
Suddenly, a new chorus of voices is heard asking us to forgive and forget, or, at least, to have a dialog with the Syrians as a way out of the Iraqi dilemma. After all, this received wisdom says, the Syrians are out of Lebanon as mandated by the UN Security Council. They have allegedly reduced their support for the terrorists in Iraq. The leader of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker had persuaded Syrian President’s Bashar Assad’s father back in 1991 to join the anti-Saddam coalition in the first Gulf war. To paraphrase Baker, the master negotiator and recently dusted off in the role of the new Moses who will lead us out of the sands of Iraq, who are you going to talk to if not your enemies?
In the meantime, the Europeans, including Tony Blair’s government, are claiming that they see signs of change for the better in Assad’s Damascus. Look, they say, the Syrians are talking about peace with Israel and are willing to negotiate everything on the table. The Syrian foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, after meeting with James Baker in New York, visited Baghdad in an unprecedented gesture to show that his government is serious about pursuing a new anti-terrorist policy. Soon thereafter, diplomatic ties between Syria and neighboring Iraq, broken since 1982, were restored.
So what are we to make of all of this? Should the Bush administration, under siege by Democrats, erstwhile conservative supporters, and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, bow to these pressures and talk to the Syrians?
In principle, talking is better than shooting. And talking to the Syrians specifically can, under the right conditions, be useful. But not just any talking. If we are to enter into another era of interminable shuttle diplomacy a-la-Baker, let’s at least be clear about our objectives and about the cards we hold in these negotiations.
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