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Updated: Will Tel Aviv and Washington play it safe Egypt and Syria?

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(Note to readers: See my latest on Syria and Egypt here and here, which shows that this original analysis I did in November is being overwritten by events at the UN, DC and of course, inside Syria and Egypt. I’ve made some edits here to reflect this.)

Lee Smith at Tablet wants Obama to throw Assad out and “choose a horse” to back in Syria. Amir Oren at Haaretz is milling over the possibility of another war in Gaza and suggests that Obama will not let the Egyptian military ride roughshod over Egypt’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, which begin November 28th (and he did not, to his credit).

Regime change in Syria? Doubt for Egypt’s future dealings with Israel. It’s a difficult new Middle East for Tel Aviv and Washington. What might the hegemons do, encourage a stalemate?

Possibly. As usual, this is not a policy I advocate. It is simply by bad habit of trying to put myself in the shoes of those making the policies – in this case, Likud and the Democratic Party’s leadership. Tension and indecision that restrain Arab hands have served the Israeli and American governments well in the Middle East. In particular, they will serve Netanyahu and Obama’s campaigns well as 2012 approaches.

The U.S. does not wish to be seen as responsible for “losing” Egypt to Islamists in the coming elections. Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about those charges because he has established that he wanted Mubarak to remain, but he’d still prefer it if the generals at SCAF kept running the country – as an Exter professors said, this arrangement would “combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.”

Neither government wants to risk enabling the rise of a more assertive Syrian regime that might continue Assad’s present foreign policy, which I think in part explains the slow push for intervention (in stark contrast to Libya, where in less than a week NATO went from saying it had no operational plan for the country to launching airstrikes). Bibi’s priority is, and always has been, Israel’s “Manifest Destiny.” Further changes in Egypt and Syria will only endanger that project. The U.S. supports this project, but has ancillary concerns about Syria and Egypt (it is not always about Israel – well, except when it is).

There are significant differences in the two countries interests for Egypt and Syria. Netanyahu has already decided that the “Arab Spring” is going “backwards,” while Obama maintains rhetorical support for it (when convenient).

Obama does not stumble into policy decisions, nor is he the Machiavelli that his admirers make him out to be – he is an opportunist; fallible, but canny. The abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would be a far greater disaster for him than any successes that Ramallah scores at the UN. He will have “lost” Egypt. And a regime change in Syria that emboldens pro-Iranian elements is also not in his interest (he will have “missed an opportunity,” rather than “lost” Syria).

Opportunism: to not press SCAF too hard over electoral transparency. The Muslim Brotherhood and other parties are nervous about how the first round of elections will go. Should the Egyptian generals prove to be less than committed to enforcing and recognizing their electoral commitments, the U.S. will likely not respond too forcefully.

Opportunism: to sanction, and perhaps even enforce a no-fly zone over part of Syria – but not take the steps we did in Libya and leave most of the talking (and not-doing) to the Arab League. There are clear precedents for this. Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy, for instance, and the more recent decision by Hilary Clinton to not tighten the Egyptian generals’ financial choke chain.

Unless Syria’s armed forces split apart, the aspirations of Syrian demonstrators will mean very little. 1989 in Europe was characterized by soldiers shirking away from the responsibility of firing on demonstrators (with the significant exception of Romania). Choices were made in Tunisia, Egypt and (to a degree) Libya by the military to stop firing on demonstrators. But choices were made in Bahrain and Yemen – and increasingly, once more in Egypt – to open fire, to the detriment of the opposition movements’ unity and momentum (so far, as of February 2012, this seems to be holding true).

This skullduggery, this shuffling of peoples’ rights of self-determination as though they were file folders (more on this after the break at the end) I’ve outlined is hardly a lasting solution. Or, again, one that I advocate. It would be an approach that seeks to uphold as much of the old status quo – the one where military leaders (or monarchs) contained sentiments that threatened the post-1979 U.S.-Egyptian-Israel power triangle – as possible.

No more rude surprises is the maxim. Smith, for instance, seems to be forgetting his own maxim that elected Islamists are far more dangerous than al Qaeda – and there is no guarantee he will get what he wants in Syria (a secular regime distanced from Iran and Hezbollah).

Why risk that surprise, some will argue from? Do nothing but sanction, and Syria will replay the crackdown in Hama a dozen times over nationwide, and Assad – or at least his cronies – will remain in power, cowed and perhaps less willing to depend on Iran. Better the devil you know, this line of thinking goes – a policy worthy of Nixon and Kissinger in its amorality. And for all the talk of a second Libya, it may be ours. Unless the U.S. is prepared to commit fully to action to unseat his regime, unrest is not in Washington’s interest. Unrest in the region never has been, unless it can be turned into a wedge among America and Israel’s rivals (and Syria does have the potential to do this because of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad).

And, I think, that’s the main concern underlying U.S. and Israeli policy towards Cairo and Damascus, to those countries’ detriment – and ultimately, to our own.


WINEP item 1: I said I’d get to WINEP, which with Dennis Ross onboard is now perhaps the most important think tank in DC with respect to MENA affairs. Here’s one of their Syria recommendations, for example, on the Syrian Free Army. Nir Rosen, among others, contests claims that the Free Syrian Army has anything like a Turkish-based headquarters, a glut of “experienced military personnel,” or even an “order of battle.” Rosen told Al Jazeera that the name itself is misleading because most armed groups being counted as FSA are local militias that started forming over the summer to defend their communities. This does not diminish their legitimacy as opposition forces (if anything, it enhances such claims on their part) but it does raise questions about the coverage its been getting in the West that sometimes implies it can be built into a formal army.

WINEP item 2: Issandr El Amrani has done a compilation of WINEP’s dismissive and Israel-centric responses to the Egyptian revolution, demonstrating that the peace treaty truly trumps all else: “It’s not that there aren’t real foreign policy conundrums towards Egypt – there are plenty. But WINEP’s entire approach, focused mostly on bashing the Obama administration’s cautious engagement of Islamists who are sen by most Egyptians (despite the elections’ many flaws) as democratically elected and constant return to the question of Israel is neither helpful nor analytically interesting.”

Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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6 Responses

  1. Chaos4700 on November 28, 2011, 9:34 am

    I think it’s morbidly ironic that the last thing both Israel and the US seem to want, and their public statements bear this out, is free and open democracy.

    Israel I can understand, Zionists only like to have democracy after they’ve culled the non-Jewish population down to electorally insignificant margins by murder, ethnic cleansing, etc. I find it disturbing that the US government is thoroughly infected by corrupt Zionist ideology too. It’s like the black plague, only it kills democracy.

  2. Avi_G. on November 28, 2011, 1:35 pm

    Opportunism: to sanction, and perhaps even enforce a no-fly zone over part of Syria – but not take the steps we did in Libya and leave most of the talking (and not-doing) to the Arab League. There are clear precedents for this. Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy, for instance, and the more recent decision by Hilary Clinton to not tighten the Egyptian generals’ financial choke chain.

    1. Prior to the NATO/US bombing of Libya, the Arab League was instrumental in isolating Libya. But, the Arab League’s momentum was quickly taken over by Western powers who rode that wave all the way to Tripoli.

    The same is happening with Syria. The US clients at the Arab League start the process which Western powers then quickly commandeer and steer in a direction favorable to them. After all, who is the “Arab League”? They are the leaders of the same client regimes that the US has been propping and supporting for decades.

    2. Israel needs Syria to fall into chaos in order for it to bomb Iran. In addition, unlike Libya, Syria’s economy and military are in tatters. Any state-backed attack on Syria will subdue any existing opposing forces in a matter of days. But, Israel cannot risk bombing Iran without first neutralizing Syria.

    As a result, I disagree with your assessment of a stalemate. Expect a concerted effort against Syria to solidify in a matter of weeks.

    And even if these geopolitical analyses were misguided, current anti-Syrian propaganda raises quite a few red flags.

    • Keith on November 28, 2011, 7:05 pm

      AVI_G- I am inclined to agree with you. Two points: First, Middle East opposition to Syria, including Turkey, is significantly influenced by Sunni Muslim opposition to a potential increase in Shi’ite Muslim unity and power across much of the Middle East. Second, the empire is on a roll in implementing long planned objectives to remake the Middle East and is not about to slow down to let the opposition regroup.

  3. DICKERSON3870 on November 28, 2011, 3:25 pm

    RE: “Lee Smith (at Tablet) wants Obama to throw Assad out and ‘choose a horse’ to back in Syria… Why risk it?” ~ Paul Mutter

    FROM TED RALL, 07/22/10: . . .Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay Eternal Fascism describes the cult of action for its own sake under fascist regimes and movements: “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.” . . .
    SOURCE –

    P.S. Triumph of the Will

  4. Keith on November 28, 2011, 6:29 pm

    DICKERSON- “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

    I think I have seen this philosophy before. See the quote below.

    “If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war… our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” (Michael Ledeen, following 9/11/01 attacks)

  5. thetumta on November 28, 2011, 9:25 pm

    “The best laid plans of mice and men”! If you were an Egyptian would you accept the Brotherhood if you got this far? Just another version of what is on the way out? I may be a dreamer, but I’m impressed. Michael Ledeen is going to wage total war, oh yeah. First he has to show up for basic training, don’t you think? That’s a bit more than balancing a checkbook.

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