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Walid Phares on Robert Rabil's new book  

 

Syria, the United States, And the War on Terror in the Middle East


Praeger Security International General Interest, March 2006. From the publishers introduction of Dr Robert Rabil's book
 
Recent events have put the spotlight on Syria's policies and actions. After the assassination of a Lebanese politician, protests in Lebanon led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. While the withdrawal averted an immediate threat of bloodshed, the Bush administration accused Syria of being a source of instability in the Middle East, with Secretary of State Rice charging that Syria was still active in Lebanon and was supporting foreign terrorists fueling the insurgency in Iraq. The U.S.-Syrian relationship is of critical importance to the United States' efforts to promote democracy throughout the Middle East. At the same time, the United States has been pressuring Syria to clamp down on terrorism within its own borders. Rabil provides a history of the modern U.S.-Syrian relationship, putting the latest events in the context of this contemporary history, and placing the relationship in the context of Middle Eastern politics.
 
Professor Walid Phares wrote the following introduction

 

                     THE AMERICAN-SYRIAN COLD WAR

 

Walid Phares

 

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, US-Syrian relations went through different stages and underwent sharply edged changes, in an amazing race between cold but stable relations and rapidly deteriorating ties. The Washington-Damascus web of diplomacy, public policy, and intelligence challenges crossed deserts and jungles: At times, American Foreign policy and Syria's strategies overlapped, at other times, especially since 9/11, they diverged radically. Since September 2004, the day a US-French sponsored UN Security Council resolution was voted as UNSCR 1559, calling for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of its local allies in its neighbor, a new cold war started between the two parties: Washington is tightening the pressures on Syria's Baath, while Damascus is playing its powerful cards on all available battlefields, from Iraq to Lebanon. The questions at hand in 2006 are these: Are we witnessing a renewal of a cold war between a US-led coalition and a Syrian-led axis in the region? How far can the US go in pressuring the Syrian regime and its allies into submitting to a reform in its policies and domestic institutions? And on the other hand, how far can the Syrian regime go in its regional and international involvements, putting itself in the face of US-led policies towards democracy and political change? Which capital will let go of its ongoing agendas and policies first? Is there any chance for a return to the years of accommodations? These and other questions are and will be affecting the present and futures of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also America's foreign policy in the region, let alone the Arab world.

 
hafez assad.jpg                        Bashar Assad The evil moron who's  ...                  Syrian President Hafez Assad dies  ...                  
 
To address these challenging issues, the Middle East studies community in America and the West should muster its resources in a serious effort to accurately describe, project and prescribe the various parameters of this complex relationship. For it has been established in the past two decades that the expert community in Syrian-American ties, and particularly in the field of Baathist strategic thinking has unfortunately failed in providing an accurate analyze on the subject both in the classroom and to Government over the past few decades. This is why I believe that a new generation of academics and researchers is needed, or to be fairer, new paradigms are warranted, regardless of their mode of adoption. This new school of Middle East studies in general and Levantine politics in particular is surging with the works of solid scholars in the field Robert Rabil is one of them, and one of the few academics that has been successful in approaching the subject thoroughly and producing a powerful study of its complex and multi-dimensional aspects. As an American scholar, trained in prestigious universities, he dispensed endless energies to meet the challenge of academic accuracy. But as an immigrant citizen who was born and raised in the geographical and cultural areas of this subject, he brings along with him the field component. The combination of the two assets native knowledge and balanced scholarship enabled Rabil to be a peculiar contributor to the field and a unique student of Syrian and Levantine affairs.
beirut-edge-and-airport-jul13th-nyt. ...         Monica Getzova's Beirut Journal
 
 
Robert Rabil is a native of Lebanon where he received his schooling and practiced as a member of the Red Cross emergency units. Throughout the difficult years of the War, between 1979 and 1985, he served his civil society despite the dangers surrounding his neighborhood. There, he witnessed first hand the violence of a long war, involving Lebanese factions, Palestinian organizations since 1975 and as of 1976 the Syrian army. On April 13, 1975, the Lebanese war begun between Palestinian fighters and Lebanese militiamen. Lebanon fractured in enclaves and areas. In June 1976, Syrian President Hafez Assad ordered his army to invade Lebanon. In July of the same year, he delivered a speech in Damascus, outlining the objectives of the Baath regime in Lebanon: confrontation with Israel, support to the Palestinian resistance, obstructing the partition of the country and protecting the Arab identity of Lebanon. Syrian forces, which benefited later from an Arab League short-lived mandate for deterrence, clashed with the various military players in the country, containing one after the other. By 1978, Syria's forces have dominated large parts of Lebanon.
 
Syrian Terrorism on Lebanese Syrian forces have been in Lebanon  ...                                                                     
Syrian invasion of Lebanon
 
These events were taking place at the peak of the second stage of the cold war. The Assad regime was substantially supported by the Soviet Union and positioned itself as an unwavering ally of Moscow in the region, especially after the signing of the Camp David agreement and the pull out of Egypt from the Arab front against Israel. Syria's Arab nationalists, under Assad's leadership, were socialists and staunchly anti-Israeli. This dual doctrine put them face to face with the United States, world foe of the Soviet Union and strategic ally of the Jewish state. The Baath leadership since its inception in the 1950s, its coming to power in the 1960s and the coup d'Etat of Assad in 1970 was poised to be on a collision with Washington's policies in the region. The East-West cold war was merciless: regimes and Governments had to be with either with one or with the other bloc. Despite several attempts by world leaders to form a non-aligned bloc, a majority of the Third World practically ended in the arms of pro-Soviet or anti-American regimes: Castro of Cuba, Nasser of Egypt and Tito of Yugoslavia are the most notorious examples.
 
Hafez Assad
 
But the shrewd Hafiz Assad, coined by many observers as the most intelligent Arab leader of modern times always kept back channels to the United States. At the peak of the cold war, and while his military machine was fed, structured and trained by Moscow, the Alawite President established secret and sometimes open ties with US intelligence, officials and diplomats. Syria was the only pro-Soviet ally in the Arab world that maintained “common grounds with American foreign policy till the end of the Cold War. From the very important backyard of Syria's power, Lebanon, analysts of Syrian politics followed closely Assad's web making. Lebanese politicians, those against the Syrians and those supporting their occupation, emerged as the best connoisseurs of Damascus world views. Phalangist politician Karim Pakradouni, an Armenian, foreign minister Fouad Boutros, a Greek Orthodox and intelligence official Johnny Abdo, a Maronite, are examples of personalities that knew more about Assad's than many in his own regime. Muslim politicians in Lebanon had a good grasp on Damascus goals: Nabih Berri, leader of Shiite Amal, Rachid and Omar Karame, Sunni Prime Ministers and Walid Jumblat, Druze leader, were among the closest allies of Assad, thus knew his mind very well.
 
Cedars Revolution's students

 

It was from this political and psychological context that a number of Lebanon-originated researchers developed a unique expertise on Syrian politics in general and on the Assad regime in particular. Robert Rabil pursued his high school studies in Beirut's suburbs, sensitive basis for the Syrian military and intelligence presence, but perceived by many as occupation. For years, (especially the 1980s) the inner world of Lebanese and Syrian politics was a daily bread of this young student just before he immigrated to the United States. The understanding of how Syrian power perceives the world has become a second instinct to Rabil as well as to many other students of politics. But it was in America where he completed the circle of his research since the 1990s, that he built the highest credentials to produce this book. First Under the cold war and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rabil was studying Middle East politics and cultures while analyzing US policy towards that region. While his younger years were soaked with a deep understanding of Syro-Lebanese politics, his American academic life provided him with the US foreign policy component towards the Levant. With a degree from Harvard and a PhD from Brandeis University, Robert Rabil went on to publish his first book, Embattled Neighbors--Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2004). In this research, Rabil showed Syria's strategies in the triangular equation between the three neighbors. He follows it with a number of articles in various publications. In addition, in the years before 9/11 Robert is appointed as chief researcher in the US Congress funded, Iraq Project. He and his team excavate and review thousands of documents left by Baath authorities in Kurdish and Shiite areas during the first uprising of 1991 in Iraq. And as the Iraq invasion neared, Dr Rabil was further solicited by media and Government to investigate the various possibilities for a post Saddam Iraq. Most of his assertions regarding the regime change and the necessary policies were right on target, from the issue of the Army, the De-baathification and Shiia influence in Government. Since April 2003, Robert published a number of pieces analyzing Iraq, but also the potential growth of a Syrian involvement, hence a collision course with the US. I published with Robert few pieces, including one in the Wall Street Journal, in an attempt to foresee the Baathist future in the region, as well as the implications of the Saddam regime change in the region. Dr Rabil, who meanwhile was invited to serve as an adjunct scholar with the prestigious Washington Institute for Near East Policy as of early 2005, has begun the gigantic task of revisiting US-Syrian relations. By mid 2003, Rabil and some of his colleagues noted that Damascus under the young Assad was intertwined between the past decades under Hafez, and the years since September 11.

 

Breaking the old paradigm in Washington and other Western capitals, Rabil's analysis focused on Syria's very narrow options since the fall of Saddam, but observed its vast fields of maneuver. In a series of articles, including in the Daily Star of Beirut, the History Network and the National Interest, Robert bypassed the old academic arguments of œrealism imputed to Assad, and demonstrated that something was going inherently wrong in Damascus. Going against the mainstream Middle East studies establishment, particularly the other experts on Syrian politics, Rabil saw the clouds gathering over Syrian-American relations. At a time I was focusing on the discussions in the Security Council of the UN, preceding the voting of resolution 1559 in September 2004, a matter Rabil was appraised of continuously, Robert warned from a Syrian miscalculating reaction: It was few months before the attempt to assassinate former minister Marwan Hamade in Lebanon (fall 2004) and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. In our discussions and analysis, Robert and myself, projected multiple scenarios of Syrian reactions. We were right on target: Syria chose to play hardball with Washington. Since then, Dr Rabil, who has been hired by Florida Atlantic University as a professor of Middle East studies and the graduate director of the Department of Political Science, concentrated his efforts to produce what became a needed piece of research in the US: an explanation of Syria's new strategies regarding US policies in the region.

 

It became evident to the new school of Middle East studies, to which Robert and I belong, a school that intended to provide a better understanding of the region to the American and international public that a new cold war was brewing. In the post September 11 era, terrorism became the continental divide in international relations. Regimes and organizations has to chose sides: either rejecting it totally as a tool and philosophy or accepting it, legitimizing it or even considering its root causes as legitimate. The choice is about a concept in international relations, not about a US Administration's doctrine or regime ideologies in the Middle East. In this context, Rabil and the new school of Middle East studies put Syria's regime in the camp of those who have chosen their strategic options. To many other scholars and diplomats, Assad’s regime can be recuperated. To some, it will be co-opted if the Bush Administration is removed from power in the next elections. In Rabil's research, it is about American compliance with Syrian claims in the region not the other way around.

 

In his series of pieces and talks leading to the book, Robert Rabil measures the Syrian involvement in Iraq, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace process and in the Lebanese arena. His conclusions are clear: Damascus is in a counter current with the US. It has opposed the political process following Saddam's fall, without describing clearly its own wishes for its neighbor's future. Damascus has maintained its guidelines of support to the radicals among the Palestinians, after the Oslo agreements, under Arafat and after his death. Hence it is a permanent policy. Finally, Assad's regime opposed UNSCR 1559 at its birth, attempted to break its implementation and is said to have been involved in violence, including in political assassinations in Lebanon, at least since the UN, US sponsored resolution. In Rabil's analysis these are all ingredients of a policy heading to a full fledged collision with US agenda in the region.

 

Robert was invited to address Government and think tank audiences in Washington on this critical issue: Is Syria, and behind it its strategic allies in Iran and Hizbollah, determined to play the role of a Soviet Union in the region at the peak of a new cold war? Or is the Syrian dictator playing brinkmanship with Washington? US analysts are divided: a majority of traditional œreaders of the Assad regime still contend that it is the US fault. According to their thesis, Syria has demonstrated plenty of good resolve: it provided with information about terrorists, including al Qaida; it adopted a constructive role in the Arab league; it showed readiness for political reform. Etc. But other readers of Syrian politics, including Professor Rabil argued otherwise: Syria's regime wants to project that image while keeping all options open. In fact, the decision-makers in the Syrian capital wishes an American collapse in Iraq, a collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and a collapse of the UNSCR 1559 and the Cedars Revolution in Lebanon.

 

President George W. Bush       President George W. Bush

 

From reading Robert's book, without anticipating the conclusions, one can see the historical roots of Syria's policy towards the US. And from that reading on, one can project the collision: Damascus is struggling to maintain the old order in the region, even by force if needed, while Washington is determined to encourage civil society in the region to produce its own new order based on democracy. Criticism is fusing from all quarters against both the US and Syria for what is perceived as an unwarranted change. They could have coexisted lashes out the older brand of realists in the US foreign policy establishment. They may have responds Rabil's analysis, but the region has changed, so are its parameters. Damascus was given more than what it deserves by all realist standards, but it refused to mutate. By the new school parameters, Washington was somewhat late to engage in democracy campaigning. It allowed Assad the father to extend the cold war in the region one decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its protector. Washington's realists throughout the 1990s led Damascus to believe that nothing has really change: Syria's invasion of Lebanon was permitted by the first Bush Administration in 1990; its challenge of the Oslo peace process tolerated by the Clinton Administration; and its suppression of the Lebanese opposition and support of Hizbollah was not opposed by the West in general.

 

     

Clinton and Assad                                                Bush and Assad

 

Robert Rabil's understanding of both US policy and Syrian strategies made his new book a must in the understanding of the crucial moments to come. The new cold war between Syria's Baath and America's new doctrines has already begun on all fronts: Diplomatic at the UN, Arab League and worldwide media; military in Iraq, terrorism in Lebanon and the Palestinian arena. The conflict is raging, while the chronicles are staying behind. Unfortunately, little Arab and American scholarship has produced a fresh look at the new battlefields. While a number of authors, published by distinguished presses in America, are stuck in the past, embellishing Assad's stereotype of the new leadership, reality on the ground is developing at a rapid pace: Syrian reformers are now a real factor; the UNSCR 1559 is pounding Syria's vital interest in its past colony of Lebanon; the Hariri assassination may open a breach inside the regime; a general, Ghazi Kenaan, may have committed assisted suicide in Damascus; the new Iraqi government is providing evidence of Syrian involvement in Jihadi operations in the sunni triangle; Iran's new regime head, Mahmoud Ahmedi Nijad is challenging the US, Israel and the West head on, dragging Bachar into his trail; the Palestinians are able to pull deals with the Israelis without Damascus endorsement; and millions of demonstrators in Beirut have expulsed the Baathists army from the country, even though its intelligence services are said to be wrecking havoc among Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians. In short: Syria's world has definitely changed. So is the entire world with America's war on Terror.

... force in southern Lebanon.                                              Syrian Forces Leave Lebanon

Prime Minister Seniora and Secretary Rice   Cedars Revolution         Syrian withdrawal

 

Robert Rabil is a challenger of old paradigms. His new book will lead in what I expect will become a revolution in the study of US-Syrian relations. In this year of 2006, and throughout the decade, I expect his analysis of the new cold war in the region to enlighten decision makers and the public on the fate of a regime, Bashar's Baath and the fate of a number of countries: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians. The book is a must to understand and project a significant component of US Foreign policy in the ongoing War on terror.

 

Walid Phares

 

Washington DC, December 27, 2005

  

Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a professor of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America. November 2006

 

                                                     *******

 

                                        Professor Robert Rabil

 

                                                

Dr. Rabil received his master's degree in government from the Harvard University Extension School and his doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic studies from Brandeis University. Previously, Dr. Rabil taught at Suffolk University in Boston and served as manager of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project in Washington, a federally funded project affiliated with Harvard University . He also served as chief of emergency with the Red Cross in Lebanon 's Baabda district during its civil war. Currently, he is an academic advisor for the World Council of the Cedars Revolution, the World Lebanese Cultural Union, the American Lebanese Coalition, and the Florida Society of Middle East Studies, as well as a board member of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. Dr. Rabil's frequent speaking engagements include appearances at major universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. He participates in roundtable discussions and conferences sponsored by the U.S. State Department. He has also made numerous appearances on media outlets such as ABC, CBS, and BBC. Dr. Rabil's writings have appeared in major newspapers and academic journals, including the Wall Street Journal, Chicago-Sun Times, Daily Star (Beirut), History News Network, National Interest, Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, and Middle East Review of International Affairs. He is also author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, the United States,and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006).