Blogger Fight: Syria! (Updated)

Blogger Fight: Syria! (Updated)

Update appended at the bottom.

Saturday finds the young guns of Foreign Policy Watch duking it out with Syria Today founder Andrew Tabler, who published an article on the Web site of Foreign Policy (the magazine) on Friday blaming Syria for holding up positive developments in negotiations with the United States.

Tabler argued that in the roughly seven months since Obama took office, Syria has received six high-level visits from U.S. officials and has enjoyed a renewed American policy of engagement, yet has shown little or no progress on the few issues that matter most to the U.S.: Iraqi security, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and Lebanese stability.

As Exhibit A, Tabler cited the Aug. 19 attacks in Baghdad, the bloodiest in many months, that coincided with Nuri Al-Maliki’s return from Syria after finishing tripartite discussions with the U.S. over Iraqi border security. By our count, the attacks left 82 dead and 1,203 wounded. Iraq blamed Damascus for the violence and tied the attacks to “Iraqi Ba’athists and jihadi militants” who are receiving safe harbor in Syria, according to Tabler.

In a post early this morning, Jeb Koogler took issue with Tabler’s analysis, citing an Asia Times article by Sami Moubayed as support. Iraq’s rage at Syria is misplaced, Moubayed and Koogler say; the country’s leaders would serve themselves and their constituents better if they looked inward at the ineffectiveness of their own government, which allows attacks such as those of Aug. 19 to occur.

From Moubayed:


Nothing in the world would have better served Syria’s interest than uncovering the operation before it happened, then handing its culprits over to the Iraqi government, or the Americans. The fact that it did not simply means that it had no clue that such an operation was being hatched. If it did, it would surely have acted accordingly.

This being a blog debate, Tabler responded ten hours later with a comment on Koogler’s post. Koogler and Moubayed’s “cui bono arguments” – that is, trying to exculpate Syria by questioning what benefit Bashar Al-Assad gains from the attacks – simply fail in light of all we know about Syria’s support for militants, Tabler writes.

“These fighters have been crossing from Syria to Iraq for six years – that’s a fact,” he says. “But then the Awakening and surge helped the US Army…uncover the scale of this activity.”

But Tabler admits that asking Syria to halt foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq might be too thorny to function as a quid pro quo in negotiations with the U.S. and Iraq. Assad and his ilk are Alawites, infidels in the eyes of hardcore Islamist Sunnis such as those allied with Al-Qaeda. If Damascus were to crack down on them, Tabler’s theory goes, the fighters would have no problem turning their fury on Syria.

He suggests focusing on Lebanese stability, an issue that while not as immediately pressing as Iraqi security might be more easily measured and achieved. Syria needs to throw its assistance into three specific efforts, Tabler says: forming a Lebanese government, delineating the border with Lebanon and shutting down “Syria-dominated” bases run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Koogler hasn’t yet responded to Tabler, but for the moment I’d say it’s Tabler – 1, Koogler – 0. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who blogs at Across the Bay, seems to agree.

“Caution: this is what happens to not-so-bright kiddies with high self-regard who go to Syria. They sound like this,” Badran tweeted, linking to Koogler’s post.

I don’t want to jump all over Koogler and Foreign Policy Watch. Like us here at The Majlis, they’re young guys who are still figuring out the lay of the land. But Koogler’s post looks like argument for the sake of argument, and Tabler warns Koogler, in his comment, to avoid buying into Syrian propaganda.

“You can end up with egg on your face, even years later. I got tired of wiping it off mine,” he writes.

And on a more philosophical level, I side with Tabler’s reasoning over Koogler’s simply because Koogler’s does rest primarily on what Tabler identifies as a cui bono argument. As a journalist, I think it’s always smart to ask who benefits from any given scenario. Follow the money, the saying goes. But above all I favor pragmatic realism, and the idea that Syria doesn’t have the will (or ability) to shut down foreign fighters appeals to that kind of logic.

America’s dealings with Pakistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s teach us, when analyzing the behavior of certain Middle Eastern governments, that such governments are likelier to act out of regional self interests, namely survival, than according to a textbook “who benefits” analysis.

Would it not have seemed to benefit Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban’s activity in Afghanistan, in order to gain American good will and a stable government to their West? Instead, forces within Pakistan’s government and military found it more useful to to support the rigid Sunnism of the Taliban, the better to keep Iran at bay, and to allow the Taliban to harbor foreign fighters, the better to use as pawns in regional power struggles with India.

Surely, Iraq’s own government could be doing much better. But the idea that top-level officials in Syria are controlling or even directly aware of all the fighters sneaking in and out of their country, or would give them up to please America and Iraq, is too simplistic. One of the the long, long-term goals of the Obama foreign policy is, I hope, to create a regional security arrangement in the Middle East that marginalizes the power of proxies, like Al-Qaeda or Hizballah. It’s a delicate game, fraught with human-rights problems, but enabling regimes such as Syria’s to feel secure enough to divest themselves of proxies would be a big positive step.

Update: As predicted, Koogler was quick to respond, and his latest missive makes me think he and I see more eye-to-eye than I thought. In essence, he says that Assad and his officials bear responsibility for the militants infiltrating Iraq, but it’s wrong to think they have total knowledge of them or can shut them down. It’s worth reading Koogler’s latest post for some analysis from his friend, Noah Bonsey, about what motivates Syrian policymakers.