By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A new article in The New Yorker by David Remnick has revealed that John Kerry was taken in by an Assad “peace” deal fantasy in 2010, just a year before the rebellion broke out in Syria and the true face of Assad was revealed. This issue is interesting because I have revealed before the long-term policy of Kerry to encourage warmer relations with Iran, and have also examined the various naive and fantasy-laden American plans for “peace” in the Golan.
The current US administration, in particular John Kerry and US President Barack Obama, are very sensitive to criticism. You can sense this in the off-the-record stories that officials tell of the President and Kerry being often offended and feeling disrespected by either the media or foreign leaders.
The soft skin is related to fears that the administration has been so often wrong about its rose-colored vision of things. Whether it is the Arab Spring the ‘reset’ with Russia or, in the latest story, Syria. The new article notes that “Kerry met several times with Assad in Damascus, at Obama’s request. The Administration wanted Kerry to see what kind of Syrian-Israeli agreement he could help forge. Assad expressed concern that the economic isolation of Syria, and its crippling unemployment, was building up enormous strain and that the regime could fall to a fundamentalist-led revolt.” Prescient of Assad to warn, as he does today, that only he can defeat “extremism” and “terrorism” and the West must support him against “common enemies,” rather than realizing that in fact his regime’s longevity contributed to the rise of extremists who saw no progress towards political reform. Assad is a keen power player, he knows the long he stays, the more extreme are the enemies, the more legitimacy he has to fight them.
According to the article Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister told Kerry: “If we don’t succeed in opening up our economy, you’ll come back here in ten years and you’ll meet with Mullah Assad.” The message: Make peace or our country will fall to bad people who won’t want peace. And oddly the US saw this as a real proposal, rather than a last minute plea by Syria’s regime to be propped up.
What did Assad want? What Syria has always wanted, the Golan. A 2009 confidential US diplomatic cable noted that Assad had been pushing this story the year before as well. “The Jordanians said the most important regional contribution Syria could make would be to pressure Hamas on reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). ‘They can absolutely do this,’ said [Royal curt chief Nasser] Lozi. [Royal court advisor Jaffar] Hassan believes the Syrians will only do this if it is part of a renewed offer of negotiations with Israel. FM Nasser Judeh said that Syrian President Assad told King Abdullah that he would cease his support for Hamas if the Golan Heights were returned and there was comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.” So here was Assad saying he would help with Hamas if he could get the Golan. It sounds like Richard III, “my kingdom for the Golan, my kingdom for the Golan.”
Kerry pressured the Syrians to stop the “transit of arms through Syria to Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and to Hamas, in Gaza.” The article notes that Kerry said “You better stop this or else.” Assad was serious, say the American diplomats, he even gave them a signed letter. “He wrote and signed proposing a structure by which he was willing to recognize Israel, have an embassy there, make peace, deal with the Golan, et cetera.” What did Syria want? Economic support, an oil pipeline and some hi-tech and health care.
Remnick’s article notes that Netanyahu was not keen on it. So once again we hear how the Israelis scuppered a chance for peace. We’ve heard this before. Israel Foreign Ministry honcho Alon Liel has written about his work on “peace” with Syria in the 1990s.
But why did all these people trust Assad? Why was this dictator from a minority group whose country was on the brink of rebellion and collapse, always able to weave a web of naive fantasies for others. Why did the Americans bring this “deal” to Netanyahu? Why didn’t anyone say “maybe we shouldn’t be working with a fragile dictator, perhaps Syria is unstable and this deal won’t be worth anything.” But no one thought about how it would be to have a deal and then have the Golan plunged into chaos by the rebellion that broke out in Syria.
No one ever admits they were wrong. In the years before the rebellion in Syria, Assad was wining and dining, just like Qadafi. These were “modern” and “secular” leaders. FoxNews used to boast about the film industry in Syria. Thousands of American students passed through Damascus to study Arabic. The government minders didn’t bother them. Assad was a “reformer”, remember. Did that include democracy and rights for other groups, rather than a country run as a family bank account? No.
The story of the “spurned” Golan deal is yet another example of how the US administration has constantly lost touch with reality in the Middle East. Of course they believed Assad, of course they sent the “deal” on to Netanyahu. Netanyahu may be many things, he may be a leader with short term vision, but one thing he got right was not believing in nonsensical stories about “peace” from Damascus.