Monday, May 23, 2011

AIPAC PANEL: Syria's Destructive Behavior

This afternoon's breakout sessions at the AIPAC conference featured a panel entitled "Syria's Destructive Behavior." The panel featured Andrew Taylor from WINEP, Dr. Shai Feldman from Brandeis University's Crown Center, and Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval.

The panel was introduced by Jonathan Harris, Assistant Director for Policy and Government affairs for AIPAC. Harris contended that the idea Syria can be broken away from Iran is a "unicorn." The panel reflected a similar anti-reform tone throughout the session.

Ambassador Shoval argued that "the attitude of the US and the West must be reassessed with regard to Syria." He argued that there are no "good devils or bad devils" in terms of Syrian leadership. While he said policymakers should not be quick to rush to judgement about Syria's future, he argued that engagement would not be a good strategy moving forward.

Andrew Tabler from WINEP argued that Assad would ultimately not pursue reform because it would undermine those elements in Syria who bolster the regime. he recommended US policymakers think about what would happen if minority rule in Syria were to end.

Dr. Shai Feldman argued that the debate over engagement with Syria was reasonable given that Syria had abided by previous commitments and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a rational actor. He argued that given the US is the world's only remaining superpower, it must enforce the threats it makes, constraining its options on Syria.

The anti-reform take-away message was made clear in the discussion. While all panelists addressed the failure of Syrian reform, none of them spoke about other confounding developments in the region, such as the invasion of Iraq, which compounded the Bush administration's efforts for reform.

In a larger sense, however, this consideration is irrelevant. Even if Bashar Assad is able to put down the protests which have continued now for nine weeks, the relationship between Syria, Israel, the US, and the entire international community has changed. A discussion on the future of Syria with regards to the US and Israel should focus on US and Israeli interests moving forward. A discussion of whether reform is a means or an end is also warranted by the current extremely complex situation.

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