The Times has reprinted and translated an excellent interview with Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by Der Spiegel. Assad has interesting things to say about the future of Iraq and the consequences of American foreign policy in the region:
SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?
Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn’t help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.
SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences of partition into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni region in central Iraq?
Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it’ll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union — only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.
SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?
Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic — but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America’s tanks are not credible in Iraq.
I’ve often wondered what would be so bad about splitting up Iraq, which since its inception after the First World War. Bashar’s pearl necklace metaphor is not unconvincing. It’s hard to say how the sectarian division of such a split would be felt in countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain.
Suprisingly enough, he thinks that the US has a unique role to play in bringing a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict:
SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a “critical stage of the history of Syria and the region.” Wherein lies the opportunity?
Assad: First of all, it’s clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It’s being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe’s foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.
SPIEGEL: What is Syria’s role?
Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn’t achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians’ hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.
The rest of the interview is well worth reading, not only because it is important for the US to hear what its enemies in the region have to say (instead of just talking to its friends), but because Asad has a very reasonable analysis about some of the most important issues facing the Middle East.
The Times also has an op-ed by Fromkin, whose excellent book A Peace to end all Peace I’ve just finished, on the anniversary of the Suez Canal fiasco.