Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Just How Much Influence Does The US Have In The Middle East

According to The Daily Star, there is actually less to Iranian-Syrian ties than meets the eye:
Signs emanating from the Iranian-Syrian alliance this year have been increasingly bizarre - especially when Western and Arab isolation of Syria intensified over Damascus' reticence to help end the presidential gridlock in Lebanon. On February 12, the senior Hizbullah operative Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus - a mere stone's throw away from the headquarters of Syria's security services in a country that often claims to be the Arab world's safest. Surprisingly, Damascus branded as "baseless" Tehran's announcement a few days later of a joint Iranian-Syrian investigation, despite Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's visit to Damascus the day after the murder. Then a high-profile Iranian project to replace Damascus' aging public bus fleet with Iranian vehicles was mysteriously cancelled and awarded to a Chinese company.

Today, two high-profile Iranian-Syrian joint ventures to assemble automobiles in Syria - the first in the country's history - are barely scraping by due to Syrian government foot dragging on promises to cut tariffs on the plants' imported components. This is particularly odd as the Syrian state owns a 35 percent stake in one of the projects. Even more ambiguous are statistics recently released by Syria's State Investment office which put direct Iranian investment in Syria at $544 million, a mere 8 percent of Arab investment in Syria - a far cry from Iranian reports last year (also citing Syrian government statistics) that estimated Iranian investment at 66 percent of Arab investment in the country.
The weakness of these ties--due to a large extent widespread corruption--in conjunction with the economic sanctions that the US already has in place against Syria are supposed to offer the US an opening. The article optimistically concludes:
Understanding an Arab country's economic woes and their impact on policy should be old hat for Washington. A key reason why Egyptian President Anwar Sadat attacked Israel in 1973 and then sued for peace five years later was that decades of war and domestic authoritarian rule had put Egypt on its back economically. The US understood this and manipulated the situation to its advantage when it brought about a breakthrough in Middle East peacemaking at Camp David in 1979. The US and its allies should plan to do the same with Syria in the years to come.
This of course brings up a whole other issue. If the US is so adept at manipulating the economic problems of Middle East countries to their advantage, just what is happening between the US and the Palestinian Authority? If the economic problems of Egypt put the US in the driver's seat and allowed it to get Sadat to tow the line, why is it unable to do the same today with Abbas?

I cannot recall Begin being called upon to make 'painful concessions' in order to 'bolster' Sadat in the eyes of his people to make the agreement work. Of course, one could argue that the assassination of Sadat is evidence of the consequences of not bolstering Arab peace partners. Then again, it is not clear how bolstering Abbas has helped.

The point is why, following the logic of The Daily Star, the US was able to direct matters to a successful conclusion, while when it comes to the Palestinian Authority the US flounders.

An obvious answer is that The Daily Star is wrong about Egypt, or that Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are not comparable. Fair enough. But with all of the carrots being offered by the US, the EU and others to the PA, while do they constantly have to fall back to applying the stick to Israel?

The bottom line is that Sadat and Begin on their own knew what they wanted and had the wherewithal as leaders of their countries to make it happen--the US (and Carter) came in to close the deal. Olmert and Abbas are merely pale imitations of stronger and better leaders from a previous generation.

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