Steven Simon & Jonathan Stevenson. Foreign Affairs. Volume 83, Issue 3. May/June 2004.
On May 3, 2003, less than a month after Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The visit drove home the tough choices faced by Assad in the wake of Saddam’s fall. On the one hand, Powell solicited Assad’s support for the Bush administration’s road map for Israeli-Palestinian talks; on the other, he demanded that Assad withdraw Syria’s 20,000-strong “occupying force” from Lebanon and made thinly veiled threats about what might happen if Syria continued its support for Palestinian terrorists.
Six months later, the administration’s pressure appeared to be paying off. In a surprising interview in The New York Times in early December, Assad disavowed past Syrian intransigence and implored Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return to the negotiating table. This was the first time Syria had ever independently proposed talks with Israel over the Golan Heights.
Yet in contrast to its recent handling of Libya—where Washington persuaded Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up Libya’s unconventional weapons programs in return for better relations—the Bush administration has done little to explore whether fresh negotiations with Syria might bear fruit. In January 2004, for example, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns voiced general support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations but lodged no official U.S. response to Assad’s overtures.
The administration’s reticence stems from several factors. U.S. presidents are always reluctant to launch major foreign-policy initiatives during election years, especially in high-risk areas such as the Middle East. The history of previous negotiations on the Syrian track of the peace process, moreover, does not inspire confidence. It is hardly certain that either Syria or Israel will be truly prepared to make the concessions necessary for a quick, successful result this time around. And finally, the administration may believe that Assad’s overture is in fact the initial dividend of its own hard-line approach, an approach that might produce even more movement on the Syrian side in the months and years to come.
All of these reasons make dramatic change in Washington’s Syria policy unlikely in the immediate future. But it would be a shame—and a mistake—to ignore the possibility that Assad’s moves represent a significant shift and to underestimate the current opportunity for engaging Syria. Given the importance of the issues at stake, and given the limited prospects that anything short of military intervention could change the Syrian regime, the question should be not whether threats of punitive action have already begun to nudge Syria toward conciliation, but whether adding some positive inducements to the mix could lead to even further movement down the road. If Washington is prepared to invest some diplomatic capital, the answer might well be yes.
Critics argue that Assad’s recent gestures reflect merely a temporary tactical adjustment rather than a genuine change of heart. Even if they are right, they underestimate the extent to which pragmatism guides Assad’s policies and the tightness of the strategic vise in which Damascus finds itself. So long as the Syrian leader recognizes that backsliding to a confrontational position would leave him worse off than continuing to move forward, his precise motivations do not matter. What counts is that he has concluded that engaging the United States and Israel in negotiations, rather than conflict, is in his best interest.
Stuck In a Rut
To understand why Syria is ripe for engagement it is necessary to trace the steady deterioration of the country’s strategic position in recent years. Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the political and financial protection it offered, Damascus has experienced growing international isolation. Hoping to improve relations with the West, Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, supported the Persian Gulf War and authorized Syrian participation in the Madrid regional peace conference that followed. He also engaged in extended U.S.-sponsored negotiations with successive Israeli governments during the 1990s. But although the parties came near to signing a full peace agreement, they were never able to close the deal. And throughout this period, Assad pre preserved links with Iran, transferring Iranian weapons to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia for use against Israel and aiding Tehran in fomenting terrorism against the United States. Syria was the planning venue, for example, for the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. soldiers.
A flicker of hope accompanied the death of Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000. His ostensibly pro-Western son and successor, Bashar, was widely perceived as an economic modernizer, a potential political reformer, and a possible peacemaker. But these expectations were quickly dashed. Part bolstered, part hemmed in by an authoritarian “old guard,” Assad fils pursued policies of repression at home and of provocation toward Israel abroad that were even less restrained than those of his father.
In November 2000, after the collapse of Israeli-Syrian negotiations had foreclosed the possibility of better relations with the United States, Assad turned to neighboring Iraq for strategic rent. In many respects it was a logical choice. Saddam Hussein needed any friends he could get, and Damascus needed the revenues it could extract from illegal oil trans-shipments and preferential trade deals. Such benefits helped insulate the Syrian government from the domestic criticism that would otherwise have resulted from its dysfunctional economic policies. Political alignment with Iraq, meanwhile, helped reinforce Syria’s standing as a symbol of embattled Arab nationalism.
At the same time, Damascus was squeezing what it could out of its indirect rule of Lebanon, which constituted a dumping ground for Syrian labor, a vital link to the West, and a useful staging ground for proxy attacks on Israel. Syria allowed Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to maintain administrative offices in Damascus and provided them with support and land for training camps. It did little to rein in Hezbollah’s harassing attacks on Israeli soldiers around the disputed Shebaa Farms area and elsewhere. And it encouraged the terrorist group to smuggle funds, weapons, and operatives into the West Bank and Gaza in order to help keep the al-Aqsa intifada simmering.
The September 11, 2001, attacks required a change of course. Recognizing the danger of appearing to continue its tacit support of terrorism, Damascus extended some counterterrorism assistance to Washington. Syrian intelligence apparently helped thwart a spring 2002 attack on a U.S. military support facility in Bahrain, and Syrian authorities arrested at least one al Qaeda operative implicated in the September 11 attacks. Yet Assad soon appeared to revert to connivance. In early 2003, fragmentary intelligence indicated that the Syrian regime may have provided temporary safe haven for several key al Qaeda players, as well as helped arrange funding and transportation of recruits between Europe and training camps of the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq. (The reliability of this evidence, it should be noted, is still being debated within the U.S. government.
Assad’s New Neighbor
Last year’s Iraq war gave Syria’s strategic vise another sharp twist. Recognizing what it stood to lose from a U.S. victory, the Syrian government provided Saddam’s regime with military supplies, harbored Iraqi fugitives, and allowed radical Islamist jihadists in Syria to cross into Iraq to join the fight. When the Iraqi regime fell, Syria was deprived of cheap oil, a market for its exports, and its most important regional partner overnight. In return, it awoke to 130,000 troops from an angry superpower parked on its eastern border. As Syria’s vice president, Farouq al-Sharaa, noted, America was now Syria’s neighbor. Moreover, since the Iraqi regime was also a minority Baathist dictatorship, Damascus feared that Saddam’s fall would energize the Syrian government’s domestic opponents. Starkly illuminating the regime’s anxiety, Syria’s state television broadcast a four-hour special on Islamic architecture while satellite channels replayed footage of Saddam’s statue being ripped down by U.S. tanks in central Baghdad.
Over the past year, the pressure on Syria has increased rather than diminished. During his visit last May, Powell led off talks with a detailed description of the U.S. Army’s occupation of Baghdad, then demanded that Syria close the offices of the Palestinian terrorist groups it harbored. Assad promptly complied, at least formally (albeit not in such a way as to curtail the groups’ activities that significantly). A month later, after voicing perfunctory indignation over Syria’s exclusion from the Sharm al-Sheikh conference on the road map, Assad declared that Damascus would accept whatever fate the Palestinians chose for themselves. He also stated that Syria was prepared for better relations with the United States—something he repeated to a former Bush administration official in January 2004. Also in January, Assad became the first Syrian head of state to make an official visit to Turkey, its pro-U.S. northern neighbor.
Assad’s reluctant compliance reflects Syria’s increased strategic isolation. A slowly moderating level of violence in the Palestinian territories suggests that the current intifada may be ratcheting down. The prospect of lower tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, meanwhile, combined with Washington’s episodic focus on Syria and the country’s contracting influence over Hezbollah, makes Syria’s antagonizing Israel a riskier proposition than it has been.
To the north, Turkey remains an unreliable neighbor. Ankara is a key U.S. ally, has established an entente with Israel, and is aggressively advancing its relationship with the European Union. Its democracy appears increasingly robust, now that the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been defeated and the ruling Justice and Development Party seems to be confined to the secular Kemalist boundaries guarded by the military. And it has had fraught relations with Damascus in recent years over Syria’s erstwhile support for the PKK. All these developments have cast Assad’s regime in a bad light—and help explain his recent push to improve Syria-Turkey relations.
Sooner Rather Than Later
Arab commentators have generally read Assad’s conduct as signifying recognition that the United States is in the region to stay and that he desires a place in the new order. Washington, however, has remained aloof, and if anything, has tightened the screws. In December 2003, for example, Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which castigates Damascus for supporting terrorist organizations and Saddam’s regime and places hefty restrictions on the export of certain U.S. goods to Syria.
The Bush administration would be remiss to take this window of opportunity for granted, since its leverage will diminish if Syria’s strategic situation improves rather than worsens over time. Given the continued instability in Iraq and the planned drawdown of U.S. forces there, military intimidation is a rapidly wasting asset. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could re-ignite, reinforcing a convergence of interests among Syria, Hezbollah, and radical Palestinian groups and thereby multiplying opportunities for Damascus to misbehave. And Assad could simply change his mind. Although a reported 40 percent increase in Syria’s defense budget in 2003 is partially for regime security, recent military developments—such as new surface-to-air missiles, the upgrading of an armored brigade, the reported planned procurement of fighter aircraft, and the inaugural testing of the Scud D ballistic missile (with a range of 450 miles)—indicate that Damascus does not see peace and reconciliation with Israel and the United States as a foregone conclusion.
One major reason to test Syria’s intentions sooner rather than later is to give the moribund Middle East peace process a new lease on life. The Palestinian track is ultimately more important than the Syrian one. But there is no serious Palestinian interlocutor ready to talk at the moment, whereas there might well be a Syrian one.
During the last round of negotiations in 2000, Assad pre established his willingness to cut a deal based on the pre-June 4, 1967, Golan borders. Restarting talks on that basis should not be too much of a problem. Admittedly, the substantive obstacle to an agreement last time—a sliver of land on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee that Israel occupied in 1967—remains. But both sides have since understood that any solution will require finessing the sovereignty issue so as to indulge Syria’s territorial claims while satisfying Israel’s security concerns. Any new negotiations, in other words, could start with no formal preconditions yet still expect to make some progress.
Of course, to get Israel to bargain in good faith, Assad will have to do more than just talk: he will also have to take concrete steps to draw down Syrian support for terrorism. But this too is not as formidable a prerequisite as it seems. Hezbollah’s operations have been on the wane of late, with active operations limited to the disputed Shebaa Farms area in recent months. This, in turn, suggests that the outlines of a deal over Hezbollah are already in place, whereby Israel tolerates Hezbollah activity around the Shebaa Farms—acquiescing to the group’s political need to maintain its revolutionary credentials—provided the group shows restraint elsewhere. Furthermore, Israel’s military intelligence chief, citing the “cracking” of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah nexus, informed the Knesset in early January that Assad had both told terrorist organizations operating out of Damascus to lower their profile and ordered Syrian officials to temper their rhetoric.
Assad’s tentative proposal for negotiations indicates that the anti-Israeli and anti-American Syrian old guard would not block a deal on the Golan. Rather, the main problem will be persuading Damascus to stifle its support of Palestinian terrorist groups. Here, domestic pressure stemming from the loss of Syria’s economic relationship with Iraq makes Damascus susceptible to incentives. Although Assad is clearly resistant to serious political reform, he appears to regard economic growth as a means of holding would-be political reformers in check and has conveyed to U.S. interlocutors that economic reform is his top priority. This is where U.S. diplomacy could come in: Assad may well be prepared to restrain Palestinian terrorists in exchange for direct and constructive U.S. engagement.
A promising U.S. overture need not include something as dramatic and politically infeasible as a repeal of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. Even if Congress agreed to it, such an inducement would be premature. Most important, Washington must be sensitive to the Syrian regime’s domestic security requirements, recognizing that the old guard is less concerned with Assad’s foreign policy than with retaining the financial rewards that flow from Syria’s de facto control of Lebanon. In other words, although the old guard would not stand in the way of a deal on the Golan, it could block the loss of Syria’s domination of Lebanon.
Given this limited room for maneuver, the United States should exercise restraint in imposing the sanctions authorized by the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. This quiet approach could be coupled with a tacit, but credible, promise that Syrian cooperation would get Syria off the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and garner Washington’s support for Syrian appeals to international financial institutions. The key player for getting a fruitful relationship between the United States and Syria off the ground would be the CIA—the only agency capable of monitoring Damascus’ compliance with American requirements. Fortunately, a promising link between the CIA and Syrian intelligence organizations is already being built on bilateral cooperation against al Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
A Door Ajar
The biggest obstacle to restarting talks between Syria and Israel currently lies on the Israeli side. The Israeli military, justifiably, does not consider Syria a serious military threat. And any agreement on the Golan would entail giving up Israeli settlements there, a move that would be particularly sensitive given recent announcements by Sharon’s government that it plans to withdraw from Gaza and remove some settlements in the West Bank. In any case, these steps have not been well thought out: planning has been wrested from the Israel Defense Forces to an understaffed National Security Council. Nor would it be easy for a Sharon government to put forward a negotiating position regarding the Sea of Galilee that is more flexible than its predecessor’s.
But comments by various Israeli officials do indicate some openness to restarting the Syrian track, or at least anxiety about foreclosing that option. Sharon might well be persuaded that exploiting this new opportunity to engage Assad could make the Palestinians wary of their own strategic isolation and could thus spur movement on the Palestinian track. Indeed, the Israeli press has generally urged Sharon not to dismiss Assad’s remarks and to test the waters—albeit cautiously. In mid-January, Israeli President Moshe Katsav even invited Assad to Israel to start peace negotiations. Several days later, Sharon stated to the Knesset, “No one should have any illusions. The price of peace with Syria is leaving the Golan Heights.” Syria construed Katsav’s invitation as disingenuous, and Sharon’s remark was intended to sound a note of caution, perhaps even defiance, rather than resignation. Nevertheless, these developments reveal that the Israeli government is trying on a possible deal for size. They also suggest that some Israeli officials understand that holding on to territory that ultimately must be returned helps justify Syrian misbehavior.
The bottom line is that present circumstances offer the United States what might be a perishable chance to lock Syria into a political process that would make it harder for Assad’s government to destabilize the Middle East and could bring an Israeli-Syrian peace settlement within reach. Engaging Syria could also make it easier to manage Iran by curtailing the latter’s freedom of action in Lebanon. The ultimate prizes for Washington—an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and Syria’s renunciation of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs—would remain in the distance. But a Golan deal would bring both objectives closer. With Libya, Washington seems to have understood that for coercive diplomacy to be effective, both the phrase’s terms must bear weight. If it can get past its stubbornness, it might find that the same insight applies to Syria too.