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com/2007/05/us-diplomacy-in-middle-east.html With the previously dominant neoconservative hawks in Washington seeming to take the back seat in US foreign policy, America has finally started to embrace a more pragmatic approach to diplomacy in the Middle East — to an extent. Diplomatic relations with such a tumultuous region can be hard to maintain at times, but keeping the channels of communication open is essential in order to help fix the problems in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. In addition, discussion with states like Syria and Iran can resolve ongoing tensions. Unlike war, diplomacy is soft and does not always produce immediate effects. Some are dissatisfied with the outcome of diplomacy. However, also unlike war there are few instances where diplomacy actually hurts the problem one or both sides wish to resolve. On 3 May, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, in a much-needed discussion. At the top of the agenda was Iraq, and Syria's borders — which many extremists cross through to enter Iraq — were also an issue. Even though the meeting lasted a modest 30 minutes, just the fact that Rice spoke to Moallem illustrated a turning point in the Bush administration's foreign policy. This discussion came during a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on the Iraq issue. Iran and Syria are both in attendance, as America finally showed a more logical and less stubborn diplomatic policy in similar talks on Iraq in late March. One development of the summit comes as no surprise: Iran blames the US for Iraq's woes, which is only partially correct. Both Iran and America are to blame. Although the US started the war, and has made it worse, Iran and other external (and internal) actors have only inflamed it further. A while back, the influential, bipartisan Iraq Study Group, or Baker-Hamilton commission, recommended in its report that the United States work with Syria in the fight against Islamic extremism and to help stabilize and secure Iraq. This set off shockwaves in Washington, making some politicians, including President George W. Bush, show their cowboy international diplomacy mentality again — that is, they scoffed at and ignored the sensible recommendations. The ISG emphasized discussion and cooperation with all relevent Middle Eastern states, even the ones the White House had a particular distaste for. The report said: "Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively. In seeking to influence the behavior of both countries, the United States has disincentives and incentives available. Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation. The issue of Iran’s nuclear programs should continue to be dealt with by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq. The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability." The meeting between Condi Rice and Walid Moallem was the first direct, official, and high-level talks between Syria and the United States in years. Remember: Syria has been labeled an 'evil' state by Bush, and an honorary member of the infamous "axis of evil". Way to be diplomatic, Mr. President. While some — including a prominent Newsweek article and conservative American commentators like Michelle Malkin — call talks like this "talking with the enemy", Rice said her discussion
with the Syrian foreign minister was "professional", and that she "didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me." However positive this news might be, signs are yet to reveal themselves of direct talks between the US and Iran. America came close to talking to its Persian arch-nemesis, but an official diplomatic discussion never panned out. Neither American nor Iranian diplomats actually took the initiative of beginning the discussion, another reflection of the state of US diplomacy in the Middle East. Further, more broad discussions are also needed between the United States and Syria. The two-day summit on Iraq resulted in an International Compact for Iraq (ICI), a five-year plan for financial help and 'national reconciliation' for Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon placed the stated 'financial commitments' to Iraq at over $30 billion. The conference included delegations from the United States, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and the European Union. Such a summit brought together all the G8 and UN Security Council powers, several members of the Arab League, and then some, but was still seen as a relative failure. Nevertheless, it brought more attention to the Iraq humanitarian issue of international interest. The conference also brought out a less resistive foreign policy from the US. As this is the Middle East, surely not in its finest days, pessimism remains. Abdal-Bari Atwan wrote in the Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, translated by BBC Monitoring: "The Sharm al-Shaykh conference will conclude by issuing a communique. There will be a photo opportunity and smiles, but, after that, the region will return to its situation and the conditions in Iraq will be even more dangerous and turbulent." In these times it's hard to talk about Syria without bringing up Iran. They’re currently like two peas on a pod. But things didn’t used to be so peachy for Syrian-Iranian relations. Isolation by the United States and the fall of Saddam Hussein's Iraq are a couple of factors that have led to Syria getting closer to Iran — a predominantly Shia nation and wannabe nuclear power slated as the next regional power. In fact, Saddam's overthrow has led to a massive inbalence of power. The ruthless dictator, now dead, kept Iran, and many sectarian factions, in check. In early April, there was a row over the decision by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit to Syria. Syria is a Middle Eastern nation that had been isolated by the Bush administration in some misguided notion of hope that alienating an active power in a region that needs all the help it can get would help things. Of course Pelosi’s excursion revealed a wider hypocrisy: the fact that a Republican delegation had visited earlier left the White House and the media unfettered, as did the visit of representative, Darrell Issa (R-CA), on 5 April — a day after Pelosi’s much-debated trip. Like Pelosi, Issa met with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, a dictator, but one with the potential for more amiable feelings for the United States. The White House said that Pelosi's trip 'sent the wrong message', making Syria think it is a valid member of the international community. This level of logic is not the kind that should be resonating from the White House press room, nor any other branch of the government. Of course, as the Bush administration intends to alienate nations like Syria, it is doing a fine job, depending on how you look at it. While America and Syria are not very engaged, Syria is less likely to help the US on issues like, say, Iraq. Iraq is devastated as it is, and the militants and terrorists within its borders do not need any more additions. I supported Nancy Pelosi's recent (unofficial, non-policy related) diplomatic trip to Syria, whether a political stunt or not. By isolating Syria, this current
administration has forced it nearer to Iran — by no means a positive influence. Lucky for the US, Syria is open to working with America and has an interest in the outcome of the current civil conflict in Iraq as well as the spread radical Islamic terrorism. The Syrians have even more to worry about political stability against terrorists than the US does: they are situated in the Middle East hotbed of terror, America is not. Along with many experts and foreign governments, the Iraq Study Group and many members of Congress have urged the White House to talk to Syria before relations deteriorate further and Iraq gets even worse. Syria’s foreign policy remained fairly moderate — that is, until they were shunned by the United States. Syria also fights against terrorist groups and ideologies like jihad and al-Qaeda, and has an interest in the wider Middle East conflicts. Pelosi has met with the Syrian foreign minister and is expected to talk with President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian press has been very friendly to Pelosi, slapping labels such as 'brave lady' to the first ever female speaker and highest ranking Congressional Democrat; Syrian — mostly state-run — media pointed to her visit as 'positive'. Not only does the transnational flow of terrorists and their radical movements need to be halted, but a helpful combination of good PR, economic agreements, and open-channel diplomacy should be kept with states suspected of harboring — or even directly or indirectly supporting — terrorism. Countries like Syria, which is a major hub for insurgents entering Iraq, could help in the fight against terrorism if they were not shunned by the US. In Syria's case, good relations with America could even bring the state further from more devious states like Iran. Lest we forget, terrorism is a problem for other governments too, even 'evil' ones. Most every state in the Middle East and North Africa fears terrorism of the radical Islamic persuasion. Channels of diplomacy need to be kept open. US-Syria relations are needed and welcomed by Syria. Syria isn’t as seemingly sinister or incessantly meddling as Iran, and its close relations to Iran deal largely with the United States. Unlike Iran, Syria is not interested in a so-called Shia crescent across the Mid-East. Syria may be authoritarian, but so is Egypt, an American ally, which shares the Syrian policy against Islamic extremism. Iran has been a (mostly) bad influence on Syria, but there is still hope. The common misconception is that the US talking to Syria is like talking to the enemy, whomever the enemy actually is. In reality, neither Syria nor Iran are real enemies. Al-Qaeda — or what’s left of it — is an enemy; Nazi Germany was the enemy in World War II, of course that was easier to define because it was a nationstate, not a movement or ideology. It is hard to make the case that diplomatic relations with Syria would hurt. There is also the tolerance issue. While we shouldn’t tolerate Syria’s mass human rights abuses, for instance, how was Nancy Pelosi a terrorist when she put on a frankly western-looking headdress? Just because others are different doesn’t make them wrong, yet another issue both the extremist fringe in Washington and in Tehran and Damascus need to recognize. There’s one thing the US has in common with Iran, Syria, and certainly others. The US and other powers should work with Syria while working with Israel in order to stifle Syria's terrorist group support. Just because Syria has a deplorable human rights record shouldn’t keep the US from talking to it. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan also commit unjustified acts, and America remains close diplomatic relations with those three countries. On the human rights front, the US should try to nudge Syria in the right direction and work on its own human rights situation. This will cover the fronts of Syria-terrorist, Syria-Iran, and Syria-Israel relations, and, by working with Syria and other Middle Eastern states, America and the international community can better Iraq as well as the states they are working
with. Win for US, win for Syria, win for Iraq, and win for Middle East and international political stability; both good and bad for Israel; not too good for Iran (but they are in control of much of their fate in these matters). The US cannot fight its war — in Iraq or against the ever-ambigious 'terror' — alone. It needs to be willing to reach out to friends and foes alike, observing the greater good while still keeping on the ethical side of things. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two American 'allies' and key political players, have hosted recent Middle East diplomatic initiatives on topics ranging from a new Palestinian unity government to the aforementioned multi-national solution for Iraq's woes. Be sure to keep an eye on these not-too-radical nations as diplomacy in the Mid-East progresses, hopefully in a forward direction. May 2007 has seen a shift in White House policy on discourse with states like Syria. While it is good that the world’s powers are meeting — hopefully on equal grounds — on a topic as important as Iraq, one must wonder what has really been accomplished by meetings like the one in early May. Keeping up efforts to work alongside the United Nations, by any means a bastion of global diplomacy, is a best bet if the State Department really has modified its policy for the better. It's time for all parties with a vested interest in the outcome of the Iraqi civil war to open their minds and look at the sensible options. At the moment US popularity is very low. That should only encourage and give warrant to a flexible diplomatic campaign, an emphasis on multilateralism, and the need for a massive rethink of the Bush administration's "Global War on Terrorism". A diplomatic, multilateral foreign policy campaign has been dismissed time and time again for a militant, unilateral 'us against them', 'with us or against us' policy. We've seen the disastrous effects of such a policy. It's time for change.
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