by Hugh Fitzgerald
A well-pleased pleaser, mightily impressed with himself, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman — the World’s Greatest Authority — has just announced that he has had a Big Idea about Syria, one that should solve all kinds of problems for Israel and the U.S. Ira Stoll was not impressed. His critical analysis is here: “Tom Friedman’s Latest Stratagem Is Having US Taxpayers Subsidize Syria’s Assad,” Algemeiner, June 18, 2021:
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman floats an unconventional idea in his latest article: having the US pay the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to kick Iran out of Syria.
Here’s how Friedman frames it: “I have an idea: One way to defuse the tension between the US and Israel would be for Biden to attempt a radical new diplomatic initiative — a leveraged buyout of the Iranian presence in Syria.”…
Friedman’s column doesn’t give a dollar amount, but a May 2021 report from the Atlantic Council said, “Experts place the Islamic Republic’s annual support for Assad’s war at $15 billion per year.” Triple that would be $45 billion a year, or more than 11 times annual US aid to Israel. That would indeed be a “game changer,” though perhaps not exactly in the way Friedman means it.
Just how bad an idea is it to drop $45 billion a year on Bashar Assad’s Syria? Let us count the ways.
First, Syria has a history of breaking its promises. The US government says the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons such as sarin and chlorine 50 times since Damascus joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. There’s no reason to believe Syria would keep any promises it makes to kick Iran out.
Second, it contradicts the stated Biden policy of emphasizing human rights. As Elliott Abrams recently wrote in a different context, “Recall what Secretary of State Blinken said when he announced this year’s State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: ‘President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously. We will bring to bear all the tools of our diplomacy to defend human rights and hold accountable perpetrators of abuse.’”
Syria is a major human rights abuser. According to the State Department:
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prolonged arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflict, including aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including severe restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; violence and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
American policy should punish or change this sort of behavior, not reward it.
Whew. That’s quite a laundry list of Syrian violations of human rights. If Biden is serious about “putting human rights” at the center of his administration’s policymaking, handing over $45 billion to one of the greatest violators of human rights in the world, Assad’s Syria, will be unthinkable — even if it comes as a proposal from the World’s Greatest Authority, Tom Friedman.
Third, it’s legally difficult. Syria is designated under American law as a state sponsor of terrorism. Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as amended forbids the US government from providing foreign aid “to any country if the Secretary of State determines that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” There’s a provision for the president to waive that restriction if “national security interests” justify it, but it’s not at all clear that in this case such a waiver would be legally justified.
Fourth, tripling Iranian aid to Syria might create a bidding war. What’s to stop China from coming along and offering Syria four times what Iran was paying to achieve whatever its local goals are? It just sets up an auction.
A pledge of $45 billion sets a floor, not a ceiling, to those bidding to buy Syria’s favor. Stoll is right. There is no end to this.
Fifth, Syria would get rewarded yet another time for fulfilling obligations it or its proxies are already bound to under various previous agreements, such as the Taif Accords and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559.
Sixth, the key issue is less the Iranian forces in Syria than in Lebanon. They can be resupplied by other, non-Syrian means, or manufacture their own missiles….
A $45 billion payment to Assad, so that he will boot Iranian forces out of the country, does nothing to limit or end Iran’s presence, through its powerful proxy Hezbollah, in Lebanon. It does nothing about Iran resupplying by air or sea Hezbollah’s armory, nor does it deal with the 140,000 rockets that Hezbollah already has stockpiled in Lebanon for future use against Israel. It does nothing about Hezbollah’s own ability to produce, with help from Iranians in Lebanon, precision-guided missiles to threaten Israel.
Seventh, the Friedman-Bribe-Syria plan extends the logic of rewarding terrorist bad behavior from the Iran nuclear deal to Syria, again in exchange for minimal promises. Would Syria make peace with Israel? Cede its claim to the Golan Heights or to Shebaa Farms? Become a democracy? Cease harboring terrorists not only from Hezbollah but also from other terrorist groups such as the PKK, Al Qaeda, and ISIS? Stop using chemical weapons on its own population? Release US hostages such as Austin Tice? Or does Assad claim the $45 billion a year cash bonanza up front merely by promising to cut off the Iranian land bridge, and does the US only then begin negotiating on the “longer, stronger” front, on the model of the Iran nuclear deal, where the US front-loads all its concessions in exchange for imaginary future progress?
Would that $45 billion payment to Syria that Friedman proposes be renewed annually? Or is it to be a one-time payment? He doesn’t say. And would Syria be required to do more than just expelling Iranians, or would there be other requirements placed on Syria, such as giving up its claim to the Golan, that Israel annexed in 1981, or even making peace with Israel? What if Iranian forces refused to leave? Would Assad’s army be strong enough to forcibly evict them? Isn’t it more likely that the Iranians would not be dislodged, and that Tehran, now angry with Assad, might then put in place a puppet regime in Damascus that would be even more welcoming to an Iranian presence, making things worse for Israel, the U.S., and the Gulf, than before?
Eighth, Friedman’s unsubstantiated claim that “Israel’s military would back this deal” is an odd one. Israel’s military is under civilian democratic control. This is a foreign policy question. What matters is not whether Israel’s military would back the deal but whether the Israeli public would. Nowhere in the new Israeli coalition agreement is it written that the parties are going to support $45 billion in financial aid to the Assad regime.
Stoll makes the point that Israel’s military does not decide foreign policy. Such a radical notion – the U.S. and the Gulf Arabs giving $45 billion to Syria if it agrees to expel all Iranian forces – would require the approval of the broad Israeli public. And how does Friedman know that “the Israeli military would back the deal”? Has he been talking to Israeli generals? Has Friedman taken a poll? Or does he just “have a feeling in his gut” that they would approve? A high-ranking officer in the IDF, when told of Friedman’s proposal, only laughed and said it was “ridiculous ”and “would have zero support in the IDF.” Would the Israeli military, having watched with satisfaction the degrading of the Syrian military during a decade of ferocious civil war, now want to see Syria receive a gigantic infusion of cash that would be spent on planes, tanks, artillery, so as to once again make the Syrian military as powerful as it was just before the civil war began in 2011?
Finally, short of unleashing his full chemical weapons arsenal in a way that would make the “only children” of Gaza look like small potatoes in terms of collateral damage, it’s not even clear that Assad has the capacity to kick the Iranian forces out of Syria….
To sum up, among the many questions Tom Friedman has failed to consider are these:
1. Would that $45 billion consist of a one-time payment to Damascus, or would Syria expect to receive such an amount annually? Having once expelled the Iranians, if no more payments are to be made to it, would the Syrian government threaten to allow the Iranians back in? How would Friedman want this to be handled?
2. If Iranian troops refused to leave Syria when asked — Friedman apparently thinks their removal would be an easy task — and threatened in response to topple Assad and replace him with a local puppet more amenable to their wishes, what could the Syrians do? Wouldn’t such a scenario lead to the Iranians being even more deeply entrenched in Syria than before?
3. Based on what evidence does Friedman breezily conclude that “Israel’s military would back this deal”? The Iranian presence in Syria is a problem for the IDF, but a much more manageable one than the threat to Israel from Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s 25,000 active fighters have 140,000 rockets stored for future use against Israel. The IDF does not want the Syrian military to now be able to buy $45 billion worth – or even $5 billion worth – of advanced weaponry, with which to threaten Israel. An IDF officer told me that Friedman’s “big idea” would garner no support from Israel’s military, who regard it as “ridiculous.”
Here’s an alternative to Tom Friedman’s “Big Idea”:
Instead of giving $45 billion to Syria if it removes Iranian forces, let that gigantic sum be given to Israel, so that the IDF, now able to increase its defense expenditures 11-fold, can spend it on more Iron Dome batteries, more laser (“Iron Beam”) weapons, more military drones, more tanks, more German-built nuclear submarines that can launch missiles capable of hitting everywhere in Lebanon, more top-of-the-line F-35 Stealth fighter jets, so that the IDF will be able to bomb around-the-clock both Hamas targets in Gaza, and Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, grinding both terror groups into the dust. Some of that money could also go to hiring and training ever greater numbers of Israeli cyberwarriors capable of bringing chaos to Iranian and Syrian computer networks. Wouldn’t that prove a more effective use of that $45 billion, than giving it as a bribe to Assad so that he will remove Iranian forces from Syria?
Even the World’s Greatest Authority sometimes nods.
First published in Jihad Watch.