There's a fascinating piece in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription only) by Jay Solomon on US contact with Syrian opposition groups. The article discusses the US-Syria relationship, regime change options, and, perhaps most startling, that the Bush administration is working with the Muslim Brothers in Syria:
How Bush hard-liners and the Brotherhood's Syrian branch came together is a tale of desperation to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad, whose regime has weathered all attempts by the U.S. to cripple it in recent years. The unusual relationship is also a measure of the evolving strategies on both sides as they seek ways to counter the Syrian government.
And the US has not been limiting its Brotherly outreach to Syrians alone:
U.S. diplomats and politicians have also met with legislators from parties connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in recent months to hear their views on democratic reforms in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.
This obviously stands in stark contrast to the US policy regarding the PA and Hamas. It appears that only when the Muslim Brothers run in elections, and have the audacity to win and form a government, are they boycotted.
I understand the concern that, unlike the others, Hamas continues with armed resistance and has a record of terror. Another important difference is that, unlike in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, Hamas in the Palestinian Territory operates under military occupation, and it is increasingly clear that armed resistance is against the occupation, not an end in itself. Yes, I would like Hamas to be more explicit in accepting a two-state solution, but a more urgent first step would be to get a solid sustainable ceasefire with Hamas in order to stabilize the security situation.
Enough of the Palestinian comparative detour. The Syrian detail is fascinating, and here is more from Jay Solomon:
The White House views Syria -- along with its allies, Iran and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas -- as a main threat to stability in the Middle East. So it is exploring the potential benefits of engaging with the Brotherhood...
The U.S. has traditionally avoided contact with the Brotherhood across the Middle East. But now the State Department and National Security Council have begun to hold regular strategy sessions on Syria policy with the NSF [an exiled Syrian opposition group which "unites liberal democrats, Kurds, Marxists and former Syrian officials" with the Muslim Brothers] and is funding an organization linked to it. Senior officials from the State Department and the National Security Council confirm the meetings. The U.S. has also discussed with the NSF and linked groups ways to monitor elections and promote civil society in Syria.
But some of the Bush administration's old Syrian friends are queasy about this relationship:
At a January 2006 conference of Syrian-American activists in Washington, participants debated whether to align with the NSF. The Syrian Reform Party, a group of pro-democracy activists close to the Bush national security team, declined to attend. "We can't trust our future to Islamists," says its president, Farid Ghadry, a regular visitor at the White House. "The Brotherhood will never moderate itself."
Meanwhile, the WSJ quotes Ali Sadreddin Al Bayanouni, the president of the Syrian arm of the Muslim Brothers, and member of the NSF:
Mr. Bayanouni says the cooperation through the NSF is merely a good start. "In the absence of direct dialogue" between the U.S. and the Syrian Brothers, he says, "we believe the American image of the Brotherhood will always remain vague."
Indications are that Israel is far from enamored with the regime change policy. In fact, there has been a flurry of backchannel diplomatic activity between Israel and Syria over the past weeks. Israeli and Syrian sources have both confirmed Turkish mediation, and the Turks are not alone in playing this role. There has also been a conscious effort on both sides to ratchet down the confrontational rhetoric, and to take steps to avoid any accidental military escalation this summer. In fact, only yesterday, Israeli military intelligence confirmed that its assessment is that Syria is not planning any military strike or action against Israel.
As the backchannel messaging continues between Jerusalem and Damascus, the lack of an American willingness to engage is becoming a decisive negative factor. The Olmert government now seems serious in wanting to explore a Syrian option. The Syrian leadership is explaining to anyone willing to listen that it cannot be asked to move towards peace with Israel and the concomitant strategic realignment that this would require vis-a-vis Iran and Hizbollah, for instance, without receiving commitments from the US, that it will no longer be subject a regime change and sanctions policy. Syrian sources actually consider that the dialogue with Israel is beginning to move forward seriously, while that with the Bush administration remains blocked. Jay Solomon's WSJ piece is very helpful in understanding that dynamic.