Pipes: Syria Beyond the Peace Process

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VOL. 26


No. 1
P. 105
Recent Books
Pipes: Syria Beyond the Peace Process

    This monograph is classic Daniel Pipes: It updates his ongoing argument--that Syria is a "rogue state" which threatens Middle East peace--by taking account of developments which fit poorly with this view, notably Syria's entry into the peace process.
    Pipes begins with the unremarkable claim that Asad's motivation is to stay in power and the unprovable contention that, since his basic identity and loyalty is Alawi rather than nationalist or Ba`thist, his overriding objective is the survival of Alawi power and privilege in the face of Sunni hostility. His foreign policy goals directly reflect this imperative of domestic politics, not external threats or wider interests. Most experienced Syria-watchers would view this interpretation of Asad's objectives as an untenable oversimplification; certainly stronger cases have been made that policy-making is driven by other factors, such as Asad's nationalist reaction to the Israeli threat (Patrick Seale), class interests (Volker Perthes), or state interests (Hinnebusch). Equally important, Pipes's "Alawi interest" is evidently compatible with any kind of foreign policy behavior; while he used to argue it gave the regime an interest in conflict with Israel to divert attention from minority rule at home, in this volume he now claims that it produces "pragmatism"--i.e., Asad will do anything, if it keeps him in power, including making peace with Israel. Finally, Pipes contradicts his own domestic politics determinism in acknowledging that in fact Asad has made a number of decisions which have antagonized public opinion, such as entering the Gulf War coalition and the peace process. Pipes argues that the roots of Syrian policy are to be found in domestic politics, but his domestic politics model is simplistic, and because it explains everything, it really explains nothing.
    Pipes's sections on Syrian foreign policy chiefly argue that, while Asad has had to adapt to the loss of his Soviet patron and protector, his goals and much of his behavior remain unchanged. A section is devoted to showing that Syria is a "backlash" state which continues to engage in terrorism and other activities threatening to American interests, such as the drug trade. The credibility of Pipes's account is weakened by his uncritical reliance on anecdotal and often partisan claims (chiefly by Israeli and Turkish sources), while dismissing the more measured State Department conclusion that there is no evidence of direct Syrian involvement in terrorist activities since 1986 (p. 98). Syria's military buildup since the Gulf War and its biologically and chemically armed missile deterrent are adduced as evidence of its "rogue" character even though Pipes acknowledges that continued Israeli military advances and Syria's loss of Soviet backing have kept Syria in an "essentially defensive posture" (p. 44).
    A section on the Syrian-Turkish conflict adopts the Turkish viewpoint. Pipes tells us that Turkey has unilaterally reduced the flow of Euphrates water to Syria from 850 to 500 cubic meters/second (and in May 1995 to 200-300 cubic meters) but cites with approval Turkish claims that Euphrates water is Turkish just as Arab oil is Arab--as if there were no international norms on the sharing of international river waters. Syria s backing for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is attributed to its irredentist determination to recover Hatay (Alexandretta); in fact, support for the PKK is certainly Syria's only card in the struggle for a fair share of Euphrates water. Pipes is right in showing the dangerous escalation and widening implications of this conflict: It has sparked Turkey's alliance with Israel and a counter-Syrian alignment with Greece, Iran, and Armenia against Turkey.
    Much of Pipes's chapter on the peace process is measured and useful, in particular his reconstruction of the Israeli and Syrian peace proposals which were on the table when the election of Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly ended the process. The record, as he recounts it, clearly shows that the Syrian and Israeli positions were within striking distance of an agreement. But this is embedded in a largely incompatible interpretation of Syrian motivation. Ignoring Asad's long-standing interest in the peace process, which dates back to Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, Pipes claims Asad was forced to enter the peace process because of the loss of Soviet protection. And, he concludes, against much of the evidence of his own account, that Asad's only interest is to keep the peace process going without ever coming to closure.
    In the final chapter of this book, Pipes argues that because U.S. policymakers have exaggerated Syria's importance to the peace process, they have ignored unacceptable behavior, such as authoritarian rule at home and support for PKK terrorism abroad. Syria, he argues, needs the United States much more than the United States needs Syria. I would argue, however, that this is one case where the strategic vision of U.S. policymakers is right: Incorporating Syria into a peace settlement is almost certainly decisive to shifting the balance of power in the Middle East against regimes Washington considers hostile, namely Iran and Iraq. Pipes tells us that he has abandoned his former belief that the United States ought to work for Asad's overthrow: Asad's regime has become a bulwark against the main new threat to U.S. interests, namely Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, he urges the United States to abandon the use of "carrots" to coax Syria into acceptable international behavior and peace with Israel and to use "sticks" to force Asad into a pro-Western foreign policy and a peace settlement. Judging by his past behavior, the most likely result of such a policy would be to drive Asad into his bunker and Syria into a closer alignment with Iran and Iraq.
    With the election of Netanyahu, the campaign has begun to blame Syria for the failure of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations and put it in the same box with such U.S. enemies as Iran and Iraq. Pipes is likely to be a main player in this game.

Raymond A. Hinnebusch, professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland, is coauthor of Syria and the Middle East Peace Process, Council of Foreign Relations Press, 1992.