A movie without a soundtrack


Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad made the rounds in Washington last week, the latest in a series of Assad regime functionaries hawking the quintessential Damascene product: snake oil.  Unfortunately, Washington’s confused priorities and its ill-advised investment in a shaky Middle East peace process are feeding an already self-important Syrian conceit and an arrogant sense of impunity.


Moqdad’s trip came on the heels of the meeting in New York between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem. In typical fashion, the Syrian Embassy in DC immediately reached out to the media in order to spin the visit, arranging an interview for Moqdad with Lebanese newspaper As-Safir.


Not surprisingly, Moqdad’s main talking points mentioned in As-Safir echoed those offered earlier by his boss, Mouallem, in The Wall Street Journal, where he brazenly rejected every item of concern raised by the US.  Like Mouallem, Moqdad attacked the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, threatening that if the court was not scrapped, there would be violence in Lebanon. Moqdad also reiterated Syria’s preconditions for entering into peace talks with Israel, dismissing US concerns (not to mention UN Security Council Resolution 1701) with regard to material support to Hizbullah. “Such disagreements must not be solved before peace [is reached],” said Moqdad.


On top of all that, he demanded concessions and rewards from the US. After all, Moqdad said Washington cannot be “an honest broker [if] sanctions and threats persist.”


Additionally, the deputy FM purportedly told his US interlocutors that Syria had “lifted its opposition to [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki” after he “apologized” to Syria.  In return for this Syrian magnanimity, Moqdad reportedly sought Washington’s recognition of Damascus’ constructive behavior in Iraq.  Of course, in reality, Syria had nothing to do with Maliki’s possible return. If anything, it would have come in spite of Syria.


Moqdad supposedly tried to hawk even more useless merchandise on the peace process front. Syria has been playing a very helpful role, he said, in trying to achieve a Palestinian reconciliation between the Hamas Movement and the Fatah Movement. However, not only has Damascus failed to bridge the serious gaps between the rivaling Palestinian factions, it is unclear how this “reconciliation” – especially in the Syrian definition of it – would serve US interests. The US position is that Hamas must accept the Quartet’s four conditions.  However, Syria sees the reconciliation as a tool to insulate Hamas from concessions and to undercut the interests of regional rivals like Egypt.  These Syrian terms of reconciliation are hardly beneficial to Washington or its friends.


From the standpoint of US interests, the notion that Damascus is playing a positive role on any of these fronts is laughable. But because Washington is so solicitous, the Syrians are being met with attitudes and statements that merely encourage their pretenses rather than deter their negative behavior.


On the one hand, US officials preemptively whitewashed Syrian rhetoric when one official claimed that “we do not hear negative statements from Syria,” which is supposedly in sharp contrast with Iran. This was a rather surreal assertion. Aside from the Mouallem and Moqdad interviews, Syrian rhetoric has been as rejectionist as ever, and during their Iran visit last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his FM, Mouallem, did not disappoint.


Assad proclaimed that “Iran and Syria are in the same foxhole and have common objectives,” adding that “this [benefits] the Resistance, peace and security in the region.” Commenting further on the joint Syrian-Iranian position on the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Mouallem said that “we had a common, Syrian-Iranian assessment that these negotiations are frivolous.”


Nevertheless, US officials added fuel to an already insufferable Syrian self-puffery by declaring Damascus'' participation “absolutely essential” for “comprehensive peace” and regional stability – all while remaining rather muted in the face of continuing Syrian arms transfers to Hizbullah.


Assad’s arrogant public dismissal of US concerns stems from the conclusion – which some of us reasoned was Assad’s calculation during the Scuds fiasco – that the US was trapped by its total investment in its signature regional initiative, the “peace process,” which, problematically, it views as its primary strategic task.


Predictably, the Syrians read the statements of US officials as a signal that Washington “needed” Syria to salvage its flagship policy and avoid the embarrassment of looking “silly” ahead of the November elections. That was evidently reflected in Assad’s comment in Tehran that the talks were a means “to support US President Barack Obama domestically.” As for Moqdad’s dismissive comments on the issue of material support to Hizbullah, they were practically identical to those of a US official who declared that “Syria’s relationship with Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.”


While an over-inflated sense of their importance is a chronic and structural Syrian feature, the peace process offers the perfect tool to propagate this conceit as well as the idea that the US administration is finally seeing the light and “acknowledging [Syria’s] regional role.”


Assad will pocket these freebies while dismissing everything else the US has to say. The Syrian daily Al-Watan provides a perfect example in a recent editorial. “It is meaningless for Washington to repeat the line about the existence of ‘big disagreements’ with Damascus. What is important is that it is acknowledging Damascus’ role and that it is seeking … to discuss security and peace in the Middle East, through the ‘Damascus Gate’,” the daily said.


Former US National Security Council official Elliott Abrams likens engagement with Syria to "a movie without a soundtrack;” the Syrians do not listen to or care about US concerns. "What they see is that [the US] keeps sending top officials," which Damascus interprets them as “coming to pay tribute." By seemingly confirming Syria''s self-inflation and by making the peace process its feature presentation, the US is screening a bad rerun.