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The Jerusalem Post does not have a "bizarre, but true" section, but if we had, the report yesterday about official Israeli concerns for the survival of Syria's regime might have belonged there. A senior diplomatic official told the Post that "considering the difficulty the US is having in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don't think [the US] can handle another regime change in the Middle East."
Israel's preference, the official made clear, is that the Syrian regime be coerced into abandoning its support for terrorism in Iraq and against Israel, rather than it toppling outright. Even a new relatively pro-Western regime in Syria, similar to Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, might be problematic for Israel as it would invite pressure to "prop him up" by entering into negotiations over the Golan Heights.
All this murmuring was provoked by reports that the United States had made Syria an offer the former hopes the latter cannot refuse: abandoning terrorism in exchange for better relations with the US. In essence, the US seems to be hoping that Syria will go the way of Libya, which abandoned a nascent nuclear program and generally pledged to become a good international citizen in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The fact that such an ultimatum could be credibly put forward is a measure of where things stand in the war against militant Islamism and the tempo of the transformation of the Middle East.
The Syrian regime has come under increasing pressure, not just by the demise of other radical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya's well-timed capitulation, but from the tightening investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the recent "suicide" of the Syrian interior minister, and from President George Bush's recent speech reviving his own doctrine of regime change.
In other words, what is significant is not so much the ultimatum itself, but that circumstances have been created that could make accepting it attractive.
Indeed, for all the talk about fighting and winning the current global war, little attention is paid to how progress is to be measured and what key tasks must be accomplished. It is not, of course, a conventional war with fronts where armies meet and battles are clearly won or lost. This war, by contrast, should be measured in the number of terror-supporting regimes that are either replaced or are forced out of the terror (and nuclear weapons) business.
By this metric, the outcome of America's ultimatum to Syria will tell us much about where the West stands in beating back the wider jihad against it. At this moment, only Iran represents a greater challenge than Syria within the Muslim world.
In this context, the Israeli reaction to the Syrian regime's predicament is strange, to say the least. Certainly, Israel's main interest is that Syria stops supporting terrorism. But is there any understanding in Jerusalem that the regional democratic transformation that the US is seeking is also in Israel's interest?
Israel is a primary target of this region's radical organizations and regimes, yet our governing elites, more or less regardless of party, seem to be living in a pre-9/11 world in which "stability" is a more cherished goal than the advance of freedom. Put more harshly, the cause of freedom and democracy beyond our immediate borders is seen negatively, as a source of "instability."
This "realpolitik" attitude should be reconsidered. It took 9/11 to bring the US government to the conclusion that stability built on dictatorships can literally blow up in one's face. Israel had a no less bitter experience with such an approach when it bet that Yasser Arafat, regardless of his brutal rule and past, was someone one could trust and deal with.
Yet, unlike the US, Israel seems to have drawn no conclusions regarding the need for regional transformation in order to fundamentally improve its strategic situation.
If Syria is forced into a Libya-style deal with the US, that will be a victory for the West, including Israel. But if Syria refuses, as could well happen, it should be obvious that Israel should encourage, not stand in the way of, increasing international pressure on Damascus as much as possible.
If that regime falls, it will once again prove that Arab radicalism does not pay.