Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Landis: Syrian Relations with Iraq: Better than Ever

Josh Landis is one of the smart ones. Not everyone likes what he says, but he is respected well enough that newspapers and govenment big shots pay attention when he speaks. In this essay he introduces ideas new to me.

***Ever since King Faisal took the Iraqi throne in the early 1920s, Iraqi leaders have dreamed of unifying [Iraq and Syria]. Unity dreams only led to bad relations between Arab countries. (This seems to be a lesson of 20th century Arab politics.)

***Syria is developing good relations with almost every segment and political faction in Iraq...It is quite clear that America’s sudden shift toward the Sunnis and its anti-Jaafari policy has motivated [Iraqi] Shiites to look to Syria.

***There are over 500,000 [Sunni] Iraqis in Syria [who came there for safety].

***Syria is the one country in the region that is not hemorrhaging Christians, because it has been solicitous of its minorities.

***...Syria is not content to be merely a US spoiler. Instead it is developing a vision of a future Iraq tying Syria together with Iran. It wants stability in Iraq so that new oil and gas pipelines can be built linking the Kirkuk fields to Banyas. In February, Iran and Syria concluded wide-ranging economic and trade agreements, including one to establish energy and transportation links between the two countries via Iraq. Iran is hoping to link up to these lines so it can build both West and East, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf egress for its production. Egypt is building its gas line into Jordan, which will eventually extend up to Turkey and Europe. If the Iraq line joins this North-South route, Iraq and Iran can play a bigger role in selling to both Egypt and Turkey. This would build a seamless Middle East network of energy lines, giving Iran a greater role as producer, and Syria a greater role as transit nexus.

***China is the leading customer of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter. On the military front, the kingdom reportedly is interested buying modern Chinese-designed missiles, perhaps armed with Pakistani nuclear warheads, to counter-balance Iran.

Lots to think about here. I am struck by how pro-active the players appear in this analysis. Reading the popular press it is easy to conclude that all we have to do is pull the right strings and everything in the Middle East will work out alright. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there were easy solutions someone would have found them by now. The picture that is emerging for me is that of the US orchestrating as best it can a balance of power in the Levant with Iran's influence at one end and everybody else at the other. Problem is, everybody else can't seem to get along with each another.

My reading of Josh Landis was tempered by yesterday's post by Anton Efendi, pointing to Michael Young's WSJ piece. Impudent gadfly that he is, Efendi is also one of the smartest bloggers commenting on the Middle East. Young's vision ends with this fantastic vision...

If Mr. Assad were ousted, the shock to Iran would be serious while Hezbollah would be isolated in a Lebanese society largely fed up with the fact that it still retains its weapons. But Tehran would probably be able to absorb that blow. More difficult for the Iranian regime to parry, however, would be what it has managed only imperfectly to suffocate at home: democracy. Now, more than ever, the U.S. must use democratization both against the Islamic Republic and to reinvigorate its anemic Arab allies. The process will take time, U.S. foes will win in places, but it must be given priority. Only rug weavers need apply. [Wonderful reference to Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt's line about the Iranians, “Those who weave carpets are very patient.”] A U.S. allied with a democratic Syria, a democratic Lebanon, and a stabilized, pluralistic Iraq, would force the Saudis and Egyptians to change, or become superfluous.

Looks like a big stretch to me. But a fantastic vision is better than none at all, which is what now seems to be the case. If I remember right, this is not the first Bush to struggle with "the vision thing."

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