Tom Friedman’s Latest Stratagem Is Having US Taxpayers Subsidize Syria’s Assad
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman floats an unconventional idea in his latest article: having the US pay the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to kick Iran out of Syria.
Here’s how Friedman frames it: “I have an idea: One way to defuse the tension between the US and Israel would be for Biden to attempt a radical new diplomatic initiative — a leveraged buyout of the Iranian presence in Syria.”
The Times columnist writes that “Biden and the gulf Arab states could go to the Russians and Assad with this offer: Kick out the Iranian forces from Syria and we will triple whatever financial aid Iran was giving Syria, and we’ll tacitly agree that Assad (though a war criminal) can stay in power for the near term.”
Friedman acknowledges that the idea would be “cynical,” but contends, “Israel’s military would back this deal, because breaking the Syrian land bridge that Iran uses to keep Hezbollah supplied with rockets would be a game-changer.”
Friedman’s column doesn’t give a dollar amount, but a May 2021 report from the Atlantic Council said, “Experts place the Islamic Republic’s annual support for Assad’s war at $15 billion per year.” Triple that would be $45 billion a year, or more than 11 times annual US aid to Israel. That would indeed be a “game changer,” though perhaps not exactly in the way Friedman means it.
Just how bad an idea is it to drop $45 billion a year on Bashar Assad’s Syria? Let us count the ways.
First, Syria has a history of breaking its promises. The US government says the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons such as sarin and chlorine 50 times since Damascus joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. There’s no reason to believe Syria would keep any promises it makes to kick Iran out.
Second, it contradicts the stated Biden policy of emphasizing human rights. As Elliott Abrams recently wrote in a different context, “Recall what Secretary of State Blinken said when he announced this year’s State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: ‘President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously. We will bring to bear all the tools of our diplomacy to defend human rights and hold accountable perpetrators of abuse.’”
Syria is a major human rights abuser. According to the State Department:
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prolonged arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflict, including aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure including schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including severe restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; violence and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
American policy should punish or change this sort of behavior, not reward it.
Third, it’s legally difficult. Syria is designated under American law as a state sponsor of terrorism. Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as amended forbids the US government from providing foreign aid “to any country if the Secretary of State determines that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” There’s a provision for the president to waive that restriction if “national security interests” justify it, but it’s not at all clear that in this case such a waiver would be legally justified.
Fourth, tripling Iranian aid to Syria might create a bidding war. What’s to stop China from coming along and offering Syria four times what Iran was paying to achieve whatever its local goals are? It just sets up an auction.
Fifth, Syria would get rewarded yet another time for fulfilling obligations it or its proxies are already bound to under various previous agreements, such as the Taif Accords and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559.
Sixth, the key issue is less the Iranian forces in Syria than in Lebanon. They can be resupplied by other, non-Syrian means, or manufacture their own missiles. The recent Gaza example shows that an Iranian-backed terrorist force can rain rockets down on Israel without a land bridge. Remember, Gaza is “blockaded.” If not even Israel and Egypt can prevent Gaza terrorists from building missiles and rockets, why would Friedman expect that Syria can or would prevent terrorists in neighboring Lebanon from building rockets?
Seventh, the Friedman-Bribe-Syria plan extends the logic of rewarding terrorist bad behavior from the Iran nuclear deal to Syria, again in exchange for minimal promises. Would Syria make peace with Israel? Cede its claim to the Golan Heights or to Shebaa Farms? Become a democracy? Cease harboring terrorists not only from Hezbollah but also from other terrorist groups such as the PKK, Al Qaeda, and ISIS? Stop using chemical weapons on its own population? Release US hostages such as Austin Tice? Or does Assad claim the $45 billion a year cash bonanza up front merely by promising to cut off Iranian land bridge, and does the US only then begin negotiating on the “longer, stronger” front, on the model of the Iran nuclear deal, where the US front-loads all its concessions in exchange for imaginary future progress?
Eighth, Friedman’s unsubstantiated claim that “Israel’s military would back this deal” is an odd one. Israel’s military is under civilian democratic control. This is a foreign policy question. What matters is not whether Israel’s military would back the deal but whether the Israeli public would. Nowhere in the new Israeli coalition agreement is it written that the parties are going to support $45 billion in financial aid to the Assad regime.
Finally, short of unleashing his full chemical weapons arsenal in a way that would make the “only children” of Gaza look like small potatoes in terms of collateral damage, it’s not even clear that Assad has the capacity to kick the Iranian forces out of Syria. Maybe with $45 billion of US taxpayer dollars he would. More likely, though, he’d use the ammunition and weapons purchased with those funds not on fighting or deterring Iran but rather on attacking Israel or his own internal political rivals. For the US and Israel, the Friedman-Bribe-Syria plan would be a bad risk.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.