A man with nothing much to offer

David Ignatius reports on his interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Syria apparently has been engaged in indirect negotiations with Israel, and Assad tells Ignatius he hopes that Barack Obama will assist in the process.

Ignatius’ report confirms, however, that Assad is not prepared to offer Israel anything that would make it worthwhile to turn the commanding Golan Heights back to Syrian control:

Asked whether Syria was prepared to restrain Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, Assad said this was a matter the Israelis should sort out in separate negotiations with the Lebanese. Indeed, he promoted the idea of the other negotiating tracks — which would draw in, at least indirectly, Hezbollah and Hamas.

In other words, in exchange for making concessions to Syria, Assad is offering Israel the opportunity to make concessions to Hezbollah and Hamas. That might be Ehud Olmert’s idea of a good deal, but fortunately Olmert is no longer making the calls.

Given this negotiating posture, it’s pretty clear why Assad needs Obama to pressure Israel. But what does Assad have to offer Obama (and the United States) in return?

Ignatius’s report suggests that Assad is dangling the prospect of making himself useful with respect to Iraq and Iran. In the case of Iraq, he is offering to help “stablilize” that country as American troops leave. What he’s really saying, surely, is that in exchange for concessions, he will agree not to stir up too much trouble in Iraq. But it’s doubtful that Syria is in a position to stir up much trouble there. Syria is not influential with the Shiite militias, and it’s difficult to imagine Sunni tribesmen breaking the peace at Syria’s behest.

As to Iran, Ignatius said (in a radio interview) that he asked Assad how someone as secular and westward looking as he could consider remaining in the mullahs’ orbit. To this shockingly naive question, Assad gave the obvious answer — it’s not about cultural affinities, it’s about who “plays a role in the region” and “who supports my rights.” Assad is saying that if the U.S. will play a role supportive of Syria in his relations with Israel and Lebanon, Syria might tilt against Iran.

But even if Assad could be trusted to do so (a huge leap of faith), what does he have to offer when it comes to limiting Iran’s influence? It is Iran, not Syria, that influences/directs Hezbollah. More generally, Iran’s power and influence are a function of ithe inspiration supplied by its ideology, the wealth (now diminished) produced by its oil industry, and its military strength, soon to be bolstered in all likelihood by nuclear weapons. Syria doesn’t add (or potentially subtract) much from this equation.

Obama may be naive, but we can reasonably hope that he is not naive enough to enter into any sort of partnership with the likes of Bashar al-Assad. Making concessions to evil tyrants is bad enough. Making them to evil tyrants of no major importance is senseless.

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