Friday, August 25, 2006 | return to: opinions


Negotiations are not the way to go this time

by barry rubin

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There have probably been more articles and interviews in recent days advocating negotiations with Syria than Hezbollah has gunmen. And each of these statements does as much damage as a terrorist. They make the West less able to respond to the current crisis while inspiring the radicals to be more intransigent.

Talks may be good in principle, but in this context they are harmful. The problem is not that Syrian President Bashar Assad or the leaders of Hezbollah and Iran are bad guys or fanatics. The problem, in fact, is the exact opposite: they are acting rationally in pursuit of their interests. To paraphrase Bashar's cinematic equivalent, Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," "It's not personal, it's politics."

There are several reasons not to believe that negotiations with the Fabulously Extremist Four (Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran) are going to solve anything.

• They have far-reaching goals. They want a Middle East without Israel, a world without America and a chador in every closet. These are not agrarian reformers but consistent totalitarians on a level with fascism and communism.

• They think they are winning. Even defeats are interpreted as victories, with some help from large portions of the Western media and intelligentsia. Especially now, they believe that the tide of history is running in their direction. Why should they be willing to make deals with those thought soon to be their victims?

• They believe their enemies are weak and cowardly. Can you blame them? The calls for concessions, the demands for detente, the nattering for negotiations are all taken by them as signs of weakness. Compromise, at least right now, is not in their vocabulary.

• All the assumptions made by the negotiate-now crowd (part of which is an appeasement-now crowd) are wrong.

This is the point upon which I want to focus. The interests of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria are in line with extremism and aggression, not moderation. These people are not deluded or merely aggrieved — they have a pretty good strategy going. Why shouldn't they sing, "The future belongs to me!"

If the appeasers win out, it will.

It is vital to understand that this strategy serves two purposes. One is to try to achieve their ends — defeating the West, destroying Israel, and taking over the Middle East.

But even if they know they will never succeed in these goals, they have a very good set of reasons for acting as they do: it either keeps them governing (Iran, Syria) or moves them closer to taking power (Hamas, Hezbollah).

• They reap praise, money, and glory. To cite one example: Syria has helped devastate Lebanon, has a bad economy, no freedom and a high level of oppression. Yet the regime is wildly popular at home and abroad. And it has intimidated most of the world. Similarly, there is a lot of talk about Iran's nuclear drive but who is really going to stand up to Tehran?

Let's try a simple test. Answer the following questions "yes" or "no." Does the Syrian regime:

Want peace in the Middle East and will they benefit from it?

Want a calm Lebanon-Israel border?

Want a stable Lebanon in which political factions obey the government there?

Want Hezbollah to be respectful of Lebanese sovereignty?

Want a Palestinian-Israeli agreement?

Want the United States to be respected or liked in the Arab world because it has succeeded diplomatically and brokered peace agreements?

Want a stop put to Iran's nuclear program?

Want a stable Iraq?

Want a world in which the sponsors of terrorism are quickly and effectively punished?

Want a Syria that is democratic and focuses on economic development rather than on war and subversion?

If you answer "no" to all these questions, you get the picture. But guess what? The United States, Canada, most of Europe and Israel would answer "yes" to all these questions.

So what is there to negotiate about given these divergent objectives? Why should Syria, Hezbollah et al. be persuaded that their interests lie in another direction if they really don't? Remember, we are not talking here about the average citizen but rulers and revolutionaries who find demagoguery more effective than providing good schools or hospitals.

And how can you give them things they want without helping them achieve their despicable aims? Syria refused a peace deal in 2000 that would have given it Golan Heights. Hezbollah is not going to be satisfied with the release of one convicted Lebanese terrorist held in Israel after being convicted of murdering a father and his child in cold blood. Nor will they go away and settle down to productive lives if given the barren little piece of Israeli-held Syria they claim and the United Nations says isn't theirs.

Is Hamas really aching for an independent Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel when they say they will fight for decades to wipe out Israel, and deride Israel's total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the sign that the end is near for the Jewish state? Appetite, as was said of the totalitarians of the 1930s, grows with the feeding.

The idea that dangerous extremists can be bought off by sympathy and slices of land is understandable in terms of wishful thinking but suicidal as a strategy. Just read what they are saying and watch what they are doing.

Barry Rubin
is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs and journal editor of Turkish Studies.


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