Many of my colleagues tend to feel quite disheartened whenever a Syrian-American or a Syrian-European rapprochement seems to be looming, and with good cause. After all, their freedom and the quality of their lives, not to mention their very lives, seem to hang in the balance, their particular stands vis-à-vis US interventionism, the West in general and West-assisted efforts at democratization, notwithstanding.
Why? Because to me the battle to conserve the isolation of the Assads, the one that it unwittingly imposed upon itself to begin with, has always been a side issue really, or, at most, an important card that we can occasionally play, so long as we have it in our hands. But I have always been wary lest we end up confusing this one card for the entire deck. Our “game” should not be made to hinge solely upon this card, no matter how important or useful it seemed to be, or actually was, at one point. After all, there is so much here that is simply out of our control. The isolation of the Assad regime was due to its behavior and the policies of the US administration, not our lobbying.
Now, the regime may not have changed its behavior, but it has embarked on a different public relations strategy, in consultation with major companies and known experts in this regard. Meanwhile, the increasing problems that the current US administration is having in Iraq and at home has encouraged many voices to appear in all different quarters, including the administration itself, calling for a change in tactics and policies, if not in the basic strategic vision behind US involvement in the region. The recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report have helped crystallize this trend, and have made a major impact on the scene. The meeting between Mouallem and Rice could easily be traced to them, and the entire Rice strategy at this stage seem based on a desire to play Iran against Syria, and see if the Alliance can indeed be broken.
Like it or not, and regardless of what we think, this strategy is going to play out over the next few weeks, and months. Our main task here should not be to try and impede it, as this will lead us to being classified as being hawks, extremists and radicals (for while one American faction have hijacked the cause of reform and democratization to justify their invasion of Iraq, the other have just hijacked the cause of peace and moderation to justify their attempt at retreat). As such, the best thing we can do at this stage is to make sure that our concern for democratization and human rights is not forgotten, using the very discourse of moderation, realism and peace-building that have become in vogue again.
Meanwhile, we have our work cut out for us in the real battlefield: the hearts and minds of our people, not to mention the streets of our country – when the right moment comes, and it will. Hopefully, it will mark a peaceful turnaround, just like most of us want. And hopefully, the “outside,” will be more attentive to our presence and needs, when we make ourselves more relevant on the ground.
So, what if Bush met Bashar, and not simply Rice Mouallem? Will that denote the endgame for us? It will make things rather difficult, that’s for sure, but authoritarian regimes are most vulnerable when they pay too much attention outside, and when it’s attention inside is focused on the usual suspects.