Civil Fights: Olmert's holiday gifts to Assad

Thanks to Olmert, Syria is now reaping Western benefits because it refuses to modify its behavior.

Assad 88 (photo credit: )
Assad 88
(photo credit: )
I hope Bashar Assad had the courtesy to send Ehud Olmert holiday greetings for Shavuot this week. After all, Shavuot is a harvest festival, and it is largely thanks to Olmert that Assad is now reaping success on every front. His first major victory was, of course, his reestablishment of de facto control over Lebanon, just three years after losing it to the Cedar Revolution. Under Lebanese law, major governmental decisions require a two-thirds majority, so last month's agreement awarding Hizbullah one-third of Lebanon's cabinet seats gives the organization, and hence its Syrian patron, veto power over government decisions. This victory stemmed directly from the Second Lebanon War in 2006: The IDF's failure to defeat a much smaller and more poorly equipped terrorist organization greatly boosted Hizbullah's prestige, and consequently its political power, while the loophole-ridden cease-fire that ended the war enabled Hizbullah to rearm so thoroughly that it could successfully mount the military putsch that produced May's agreement. This achievement, however, was swiftly followed by another no less significant: Syria's sudden emergence from the economic isolation that has been strangling its economy. This not only bolsters Assad's rule, but also deprives the West of its main lever over Damascus. Syria has recently reported a surge in investment and trade from the Gulf states, and European diplomats report that these states intend to boost their investments still further in an effort to woo Damascus from its alliance with Teheran. As evidence of these growing ties, Assad visited Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates last week, just days after hosting Qatar's emir in Damascus. Moreover, Syria's relations with Europe are also thawing, meaning aid and trade might soon flow from that direction as well. Last month, for instance, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos paid his first visit to Damascus in a year. A few days later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned Assad, after months in which Paris had frozen high-level contacts with Damascus due to Syria's interference in Lebanon. Significantly, this occurred just a week after Hizbullah's putsch secured it veto power - which should have increased French outrage at Hizbullah's patron rather than prompting reconciliation. Clearly, these developments bode well for Syria's economy. But equally important is what they portend for efforts to modify Syria's behavior. After all, the West had long promised to reward Syria with trade and investment if it stopped interfering in Lebanon and supporting terror. But now, not only is Syria securing these benefits without modifying its behavior, it is doing so precisely because of its refusal to modify its behavior: Assad's alliance with the region's biggest rogue state, Iran, is precisely what persuaded the Gulf States to offer their gifts unconditionally, in an effort to compete with Teheran. And Europe now seems poised to follow suit. One might wonder what Olmert had to do with all this. The answer is twofold. HIS FIRST contribution is reflected in a claim made to Haaretz by a Moratinos aide: that the Gulf states are linking their investment to progress in the recently announced Israeli-Syrian talks. That seems far-fetched, since Gulf officials themselves cite Iran as the impetus for their aid-and-trade initiative. Nevertheless, the Israeli-Syrian talks provided a useful fig leaf: They enabled the Gulf states to pretend that they are rewarding good behavior - efforts to resolve a major regional conflict - rather than appeasing bad behavior. This fig leaf is also what enabled Europe's rapprochement with Syria: Sarkozy, for instance, officially called Assad to express support for the talks with Israel. It seems clear that Europe wanted to mend its relationship with Syria anyway: Otherwise, it would not be rushing ahead so fast that, according to media reports, the Foreign Ministry has been reduced to begging European states to slow down until Assad proves he is serious about peace. But Olmert's initiative provided the necessary excuse. Olmert's second contribution, however, was even more significant: His bungling produced a string of Iranian victories around the region, and it was these victories that turned Iran into such a regional threat that Syria, its junior partner, is now being courted in the hope of reducing Teheran's power by splitting the alliance. First and foremost, of course, was his performance during the Second Lebanon War, since Hizbullah's victory was naturally perceived as a victory for its chief financiers, arms suppliers and trainers: Syria and Iran. The same goes for Olmert's performance in the south, where an even smaller and more poorly equipped terrorist organization has rained rockets on Israel with impunity for years. Just as with Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas's "victory" stems entirely from Olmert's decision to confine the IDF to aerial strikes and small-scale maneuvers rather than ordering a major ground operation of the type that virtually eradicated terror from the West Bank in recent years. But the Arab world's perception is that a small terrorist group has intimidated the mighty IDF. And that redounds to the credit of Hamas's chief backer, Iran. FINALLY, OLMERT has facilitated Iran's unimpeded drive to acquire nuclear weapons, which has also greatly bolstered its prestige. Clearly, the chief culprits here are those countries, like Russia, that have fecklessly prevented truly painful sanctions on Iran. Yet Olmert has encouraged this fecklessness by praising rather than decrying it. While in Moscow last fall, for instance, he publicly praised Russia's stance on Iran - whereupon Russia promptly resumed nuclear fuel shipments to Iran's Bushehr reactor and gutted yet another round of sanctions on Teheran. After all, Israel is the country Iran's president keeps threatening to destroy. So if even Israel publicly deems the current pathetic efforts sufficient, who are other countries to disagree? Olmert has thus made major contributions to all of Assad's recent successes: His bungled Lebanon war helped Syria reassert control over Lebanon; his peace initiative provided both Europe and the Gulf states with a fig leaf for ending Syria's economic isolation; and his multiple failures in dealing with Iran greatly bolstered the clout of its Syrian protégé. Altogether, it is an impressive record of prime ministerial achievement. It is just too bad the beneficiary was an enemy country rather than his own.