Last week when President Bush committed “America’s full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq” he excluded Syria from the list of potential interlocutors. The Minister for the Middle East seemed keen to distance himself from that decision during Foreign Office Questions on Tuesday when he said that “the Government are responsible for British foreign policy, not American foreign policy.”
Nevertheless, the Foreign Secretary did confirm that the Government has made a “deliberate decision” not to engage in talks with Syria at a Ministerial level. Even with the caveat that the decision is being kept under review, we must now ask whether it is justifiable.
The Prime Minister’s tour of the Middle East in the latter part of 2006 gave some cause for hope. His key-note address in Dubai affirmed that “we must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside of it to defeat the extremists. Nothing matters more. Nothing should stand in the way of it. Nothing should be more galvanising of our collective will.”
But we might be forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister’s ‘alliance of moderation’ is to be mobilised without any actual forward movement.
Of course, for the Prime Minister to have had a Damascene conversion on
dialogue with Syria would just be too good to be true. In November he
was quite clear that to think that the Government had changed its
policy on Syria would be a “fundamental misunderstanding.”
Instead he has used the language of evolution to counter the preachers
of revolution by claiming that “just as the situation is evolving, so
our strategy should evolve to meet it.” This is all well and good. But
as one of Britain’s more famous Arabists, T E Lawrence, wrote in the
1930s, “All the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft.”
The assassination of Pierre Gemayel barely a week after the Prime Minister denied the need for a reappraisal of policy towards Syria, underscores the need for renewed engagement with Syria. Unfortunately, there are those who are almost indecently quick to suggest an iron-clad connection between Syria and the destabilization of the Lebanon. From my meetings with senior Syrian officials last year I would be surprised if that were the case. As an explanation it smacks of oversimplification.
It is more reasonable to recognize that groups loosely affiliated to Syrian interests do exist within the Lebanon, instead of merely ascribing a modern day Führerprinzip to President Assad. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Syria must get a grip and must be seen to be doing so.
But the US still clings, in a way that I hope we do not, to the notion of a neat Manichean fault-line in the Middle East. The ‘Axis of Evil’ makes for a good sound bite but for dodgy diplomacy and it draws self-consciously on Cold War rhetoric. That being so, we are forced to pose the same question as one of President Bush’s detractors: “If Ronald Reagan could talk to the Evil Empire, surely United States Senators with a responsibility to American troops can visit Syria?”
The suspicion of belligerence is not, unfortunately, dispelled by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that “It is not an issue of whether you talk to somebody. I will talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime under the right circumstances if I think we can make progress. I’m not afraid to talk to anyone.”
Nevertheless, the refrain from the US is still that Syria has not met the preconditions for dialogue. As the former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard L. Armitage, has said about the need for engagement with Syria, “We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies.”
The message of the Iraq Study Group is that a commitment to talk is not a commitment to a particular outcome, it is the manifestation of a belief in the value of diplomacy. President Bush admitted that “we benefited from the thoughtful recommendations of the Iraq Study Group” but he has, to all intents and purposes, ignored them.
Meanwhile, the White House still reacts pugnaciously to the Syrian government, calling it “adventurous and meddlesome in Iraq and in Lebanon.” Unfortunately that accusation could equally well be levelled against the Bush Administration.
In the wake of Pierre Gemayel’s killing the President pledged to defend Lebanese democracy “against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability.” The best way to do this is not to stand idly by while Lebanon is torn apart, but to engage with Syria and other strategic partners before it is too late. Perhaps Mr. Bush has found his very own Inconvenient Truth.
In December the Prime Minister said that “we stand ready, willing and able to deal with anybody who is prepared to deal with us on proper constructive terms, and those don’t mean agreeing with everything we think and say.” If he stands by those words he should put them to the test by engaging with Syria at a Ministerial level. After all, the best way of avoiding accusations that he is hanging on to President Bush’s coat-tails in his policy towards the Middle East would be to take the lead on engagement with Syria.
Related link: Syria is key to Middle East strategising says Richard Spring MP