The panel discussion "The Escalating Conflict Between Syria, Iran and the U.S." took place at the 59th annual conference in November, 2005.
Michael Collins Dunn, Seymour Hersh, Hisham Melhem, Theodore Kattouf
Escalating rhetoric from the international community targeting Iran and Syria has put both nations on the proverbial “hot seat.” This panel analyzed the circumstances motivating each nation’s foreign policy, as well as the approaches the world should take with each nation.
Seymour Hersh criticized western perceptions and rhetoric toward Syria, particularly the notion that Syria is directly involved in an underground support network for Iraqi insurgents. He mentioned that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage noted the difficulty of patrolling the vast border, as well as the lack of evidence to implicate Syria in such a ploy. Instead, the vast number of Iraqis who fled to Syria after the US invasion in 2003 — estimated to be as many as 700,000 — provides the means for a support system to exist without the involvement or even endorsement of President Bashar al-Assad.
Hersh severely criticized the press for being manipulated in its reporting of the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. He commended the report of United Nations Special Investigator Dhetlev Mehlis, but argued that it does not implicate Syrian and Lebanese security officials, as the western press reported. It provides only circumstantial evidence that could not convict someone in a courtroom. He noted that this report does not provide the basis to consider regime change — a choice that would be very costly, if not impossible, whether by force or coercion. Therefore, Hersh called for a change in US tactics towards Syria, stressing the need for dialogue and understanding.
Even if the US policy were the change, Hisham Melhem questioned the ability of Bashar al-Assad to conduct useful and productive negotiations with the world. He said that Syrian prestige in the region has declined considerably since the death of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Melhem argued that Hafez was a master of brinkmanship, replacing the complacent Syria of post-French colonization with one that was the strategic center of the Middle East. He criticized Bashar’s failure to apply his father’s tact; specifically his support of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and his near worship of Hizbullah’s political leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Melhem added that Bashar’s reckless support of unpopular organizations and leaders might have caught up with him after the Mehlis report. In stark contrast to Hersh, Melhem felt assured of Syria’s direct involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Melhem said that Hariri’s support in France and abroad posed a threat to the dominant relationship Syria had cultivated with Lebanon after intervening in 1976. Nevertheless, Melhem went on to say that even if Bashar were held responsible, it would not be clear whether he actually exercises enough power to have made such a decision. Whatever the case, Melhem said that the situation still proved that the ruling Ba’ath party is strong and will be able to resist a great deal of western pressure, especially pressure applied by the Bush administration, which views Syria only in terms of its potential for regional destabilization, further marginalizing the existence of actors within the country that are neither hardliners or Islamists.
Theodore Kattouf addressed this gap in American foreign policy by describing a wall of 1,000 bricks representing the Syrian intelligence community, adding that the US can only identify 175 of the bricks. Kattouf said that this lack of information means the US cannot fully comprehend the dynamics of Syrian rule — specifically how much power Bashar yields. The one certain truth, according to Kattouf, is the ability of the Syrian government to keep secrets within the Ba’ath party. In that respect, it is hard to ascertain if Syria’s foreign policy reflects a long-term political assessment or whether the consequences of calling for Hariri’s assassination would change the debate. Kattouf remarked that a long-term vision would not have supported Syria’s overt support of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to the point of sending school buses of Syrians to join the Iraqi insurgency.
Alec Worsnop, an intern at MEI and junior at Colby College, prepared this brief.
Disclaimer: Assertions and opinions in this Summary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.