March 4, 2009 | New York Times

Here We Go Again

For decades, Democratic and Republican administrations have attempted to cajole the terrorist-supporting Alawite regime in Damascus away from its anti-Israeli and anti-American positions. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Washington has also lived with the hope that the Alawite clan headed by the Assad family would sever its extensive ties with Iran’s mullahs and their revolutionary offspring, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and join the “moderate” Arabs, led by the staunchly anti-Iranian/anti-Shiite governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

With the death in 2000 of President Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s most brutal modern dictator, the State Department and many Middle Eastern experts saw Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s hip, Westernized son, as the possible harbinger of a new Levant, where Syria would abandon its radicalism in favor of greater openness and trade. This was the same Bashar al-Assad whose government later gave the order to car-bomb Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, who had the audacity to question — rather timidly — Syria’s right to dictate Lebanon’s politics and steal from its economy.

President Bashar al-Assad did open Syria’s economy a bit — the elite can live “trendier” lives now — as he increased the regime’s ties to Tehran and allowed the Revolutionary Guard Corps to arm the Hezbollah heavily. An extremely good bet: Iran’s mullahs backed the construction of the North Korean-built uranium processing plant in Dayr az-Zawr — the one Israel blew up — because they had absolute confidence that a nuclear-armed Syrian regime would remain their close ally.

So here we are again with a new United States administration seeing the possibility of converting the Alawites of Damascus into men of peace. They will remain incorrigible, of course. They are a minority, heretical Shiite dictatorship surrounded by Sunni Syrians who loathe them. For the Alawites, joining the anti-Iranian Arab (Sunni) mainstream is not an appealing proposition. Much better to trade (clandestinely if need be) with the Europeans, assassinate haughty Lebanese, support anti-Israeli terrorists (which helps with street cred throughout the Arab world), feed Hezbollah and keep the Iranians, who have been steadfastly loyal and generous, close.

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Issues:

Syria