Foreign Policy Blogs

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Last April, amid the Scud missile kerfuffle, Blake Hounshell called Syria “The dumbest country in the Middle East” on the Foreign Policy magazine blog. (He didn’t even have the common decency to capitalize Dumbest and Country.) I’ll be curious to see if Blake repeats the claim after the Russian Foreign Minister confirmed this month that his country would supply Syria with anti-ship Yakhont P-800 cruise missiles, following through on an agreement originally signed in 2007.

Dumb or Dumber? Syria said to be Dumbest

Dumb or Dumber? Syria said to be the Dumbest

Mr. Hounshell was particularly baffled as to why Syria wouldn’t want to immediately join forces with the “pro-western camp”, going so far as to call the potential (and still unproven) transfer of Scud missiles to Lebanon as “insane”. (emphasis mine) Specifically, by aligning it’s policies with the west Syria could;

“…get the Golan Heights back, get the sanctions lifted, and attract foreign assistance and investment — while fending off pressure to open its deeply authoritarian system, just as Egypt has. It could reap billions in tourism revenue, thanks to its incredible archaeological and cultural riches. And it could finally bury the hatchet with other Arab states, which have long been frustrated by Syria’s close ties to Iran, its support for militant groups, its meddling in Lebanon, and its intransigence on all things Israel. But dictatorships are strange animals (emphasis again mine); they often make poor decisions for reasons that are inscrutable to all but the most informed observers.”

Ok. So for those keeping score Syria solves EVERY problem confronting it, both internally and externally, by forgoing it’s one trump card and abandoning, what, 40 years of foreign policy?

Not only is this argument about Syria’s stupidity completely asinine on it’s face, but recent events are proving the Assad regime to be perfectly sane and, in fact, to be executing quite successful foreign policy. Lets now talk about why, and what it means, like grown ups.

The problem is that many of the assumptions and ideas that pervade Mr. Hounshell’s article are fairly common and really confound constructive analysis. The main one I want to address is the idea that all Syria’s problems would be solved by re-aligning it’s policies westward. Ask Abu Mazen, and Sa’ad Hariri how that “Western Camp” is feeling right now. Something tells me that the Palestinian president feels pretty crappy about being in the Western Camp after the Israeli settlement freeze ended yesterday. And when the Lebanese Prime Minister can’t even control his own borders, it’s pretty clear how transparently weak the “western camp” truly is.

Settlement Construction in the Occupied West Bank Resumes Monday

Settlement Construction in the Occupied West Bank Resumes Monday

While western diplomats are making speeches about the peace process the Syrian regime is judging, correctly, that these speeches aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. As much as I hate to admit it, there is no way any lasting regional peace can be achieved under the current circumstances. Not between Israel and the PA, between Israel and Syria, Lebanese reconciliation, none of it. If the US and it’s allies can’t even maintain an Israeli settlement freeze then there is little hope.

So, if you’re sitting in Damascus what do you do?  Do you follow Blake Hounshell’s advice and put on the glass slipper of western allegiances? Well, probably not. What would you get? A return of the Golan, an end of sanctions, and economic goodies galore? Sanctions would most likely end, and some economic aid would certainly come, (how much is very unclear) but the Golan? You could kiss that goodbye. The one card Syria has right now is it’s stance as one of the last bastions of resistance. Thats why everyone cares about Syria, and giving up that stance is the only thing that could possibly bring Israel to the negotiating table.

The fact that the Syrian regime has correctly judged western promises to be lacking credibility is what brings us back to the Russian missiles. President Assad has continually preached patience in regards to Syria’s relations with the US, and potential peace accords with Israel. He has made clear that Syria is willing to wait in order to get what it wants. (see his interview with Charlie Rose from this past may here)

If you’re willing to wait you might as well strengthen your position while you do. I’d say gaining an improved capability to blow up your enemy’s ships is a pretty solid move in that direction, especially when the Israeli navy has been using the eastern mediterranean as their own personal rumpus room. When you’ve been cementing your military and diplomatic relationship with the nation that is selling you those weapons it starts to look more and more like advanced strategic thinking. I think it’s fair to say that Syria might have climbed out of the intelligence cellar.

Syria-1     Hounshell-0

Evidence of Syria's Strategic thinking; the Russian Yakhount P-800 cruise missile

More evidence of Syria's strategic thinking; the Russian Yakhount P-800 cruise missile



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.