Syria’s Influence Inflation

Lots of Syria news to digest at the moment, and not all of it terribly coherent. A good place to start, though, is this Brookings paper by Bilal Saab (via Friday Lunch Club). This, in particular, positively leaped off the page:

Syria’s pragmatic statecraft during this episode did not emerge in avacuum but is part of a larger tactical reorientation in foreignpolicy. That reorientation began with the 34-day war between Hizbullahand Israel in southern Lebanon in summer 2006. The duration of thatconflict and the extent of the damage Israel’s punitive air strikesinflicted on Lebanon impressed upon Syrian leaders just how far theUS-led international community would go to destroy Hizbullah.

If this is true, it’s another illustration of how problematic the metrics of contemporary warfare have become. Here, the deciding factor for Damscus was the intention to destroy Hizbullah, rather than the inability to do so. That parallels the impact of the invasion of Iraq on Libya, to whatever degree that entered into Muammar Qaddafi’s calculations. (I’ve read divergent accounts.)

While the Syrians dismiss the Libyan example as too servile, there is another parallel which I’d meant to draw yesterday — but ran out of waking hours to do so — regarding the news that Britain has reestablished intelligence contacts with Damscus. I’ve suggested before that France’s dialogue with Syria was an effort to get out in front of an eventual American reengagement, and this seems like a similar dynamic.

That, in turn, illustrates yet another weakness of isolation as an instrument of leverage, namely the way in which it inflates a previously shunned country’s influence once it is welcomed back into the fold. According to Saab, Syria is determined to reintegrate the regional framework on its own terms. It will be helped in driving that bargain by its recent isolation, which has done as much to make clear both Syria’s centrality to any durable solution and the limits of isolation as a means of influencing it, as the contrary.

It’s important to note that while Washington was a driving force in isolating Syria, it was far from the only one. Paris and London had their reasons, too. But there is something unseemly and counterproductive to the end of these blockades. Hopefully people will begin to consider that before imposing them in the first place.

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