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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ted Kattouf and former CIA agent discuss Syria

Earlier this, year, the Middle East Policy Council held a symposium on Syria, featuring Theodore Kattouf, Martha Neff Kessler, Hisham Melhem, and Murhaf Jouejati. Watch the videos on the attached link. Below are some excerpts.

Former US Ambassador to Syria, Ted Kattouf, says:

"My belief is that Iran and Syria would like a situation analogous to what Lebanon was before Syrian troops were forced to withdraw; that is, a weak state, many factions, and Syria and Iran can play - can be the balancing wheel, and can play off one faction against another, control the violence, keep the state from breaking up, because you don't want Kurdish separatism - and there they'll have a lot of support from Turkey as well. And they can both probably do very well financially, as well, particularly Syria, if it has that kind of relationship with the various Iraqi factions.

So I think there is some reason to engage with Syria, I think, particularly, if we want to get out of Iraq with some dignity, with a semblance of order in the country. The Baker-Hamilton Commission is right; we're going to need to engage with Syria, we're going to need to engage with Iran, and there are issues upon which we can engage without offering Syria things that are unacceptable to virtually all of us in this room."

And former CIA agent Martha Kessler adds:
"I think it's important to underscore, however, the assertion in the Commission's study that Syria is simply a fact you cannot ignore in the region; it is a reality that Syria has considerable influence with regard to Iraq and the region generally, and to ignore it is to simply put yourself at a considerable disadvantage. I would also contend that the policy of isolation simply has been proved not to work. I also believe it didn't work in the late 1970s or throughout the '80s when we also tried it and it has been the source of considerable problems that have affected our interests, so I certainly would applaud any efforts in the direction of engaging Syria."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Syria and the Iraq insurgency

Earlier this week, US Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote an oped for the Wall Street Journal, linking Syria to the instability in Iraq. Among his points:

  • up to 80% of the Iraq-bound extremists transit through Syria
  • Syria refuses to tighten its visa regime for individuals transiting its territory
  • Coalition forces have spent considerable time and energy trying to tighten Syria's land border with Iraq against terrorist infiltration. But given the length and topography of that border, the success of these efforts is likely to remain uneven at best, particularly without the support of the Damascus regime
  • The notion that al Qaeda recruits are slipping into and through the Damascus airport unbeknownst to the local Mukhabarat is totally unbelievable...the Damascus airport is the point of entry into Iraq for most of the suicide bombers who are killing innocent Iraqi citizens and American soldiers, and trying to break America's will in this war.
  • Responsible air carriers should be asked to stop flights into Damascus International, as long as it remains the main terminal of international terror. Despite its use by al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists, the airport continues to be serviced by many major non-U.S. carriers, including Alitalia, Air France, and British Airways (BMED).
A child with a calculator could debunk Lieberman's argument.

Never mind the "length and topography" - Syria's border with Iraq is only 375 miles, thus deploying 15,000 US troops (which is less than 10% of the total US force currently in Iraq) across the border evenly in 2 12-hour shifts would equate to one soldier every 262 feet - a virtual human net to stop foreign fighters. Our military commanders have never recommended this quite simply because they know that these infiltrators are not the primary source of instability in Iraq.

As for Damascus Airport, Syria's longstanding policy is to allow admission to any Arab national with no visa, much like most Europeans can visit the United States. If Syria did not alter this principle when 1.5 million refugees of the Iraq War fled westward to its cities (proportionally equivalent to 30 million Mexicans crossing the US border over the next 4 years), the idea that it would do so under threat from the United States is just plain silly.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Syria's Top Blogger

Last week there was buzz about the blog of Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the US, which I discovered almost 2 years ago. At the time I informed Joshua Landis, who runs syriacomment.com, the foremost Syrian political blog, who then published the link. I happily told the Ambassador that at a reception honoring Hind Kabawat last year.

The AP piece from last week was a positive one for Moustapha, which showed the Syrian Ambassador to be a family man:

"Moustapha writes about Syrian artists, his favorite books and the diplomatic hobnobbing he does on the job.

The blog is full of pictures of vacations with his wife, Rafif al-Sayed, to Europe and Santa Fe, N.M. — and accounts of their new role as parents since the birth of their daughter, Sidra, in January. 'Rafif and I have made an agreement regarding Sidra: she was to be in charge for everything that goes into the baby, I will be responsible for every thing that comes out of her. Accordingly, I became fully responsible for changing her diapers and bathing her,' Moustapha wrote.

He tells of how he put a Web cam in Sidra's nursery so he can check in whenever he misses her. 'It is not out of the ordinary nowadays that, for example, while attending a meeting at the embassy with, say, the leaders of the American Jewish pro-peace organizations, I would excuse myself for a couple of minutes, rush to my adjacent office, check my Internet browser, assure myself that Sidra is blissfully asleep' and then return to work, he wrote recently."

Sad, though, that such a blog merits attention simply because it is "surprising for an official from Syria, where the government is among the most tightlipped in the Middle East," according to the article.

Times are changing, in Syria too, but the media is still listening to 8-tracks from Damascus.