Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 10th, 2006
Murhaf Jouejati is one of the smartest Syria analysts in Washington. I think he is right that Syria's role in Iraq can only be minimal. Iraqis will have to agree on a solution first. Nevertheless, US engagement with Syria is crucial to fixing the Golan border dispute, which lies at the heart of troubled relations between Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Coming to an agreement on the Golan will also help to find a solution to Palestinian issue, which is much more difficult to solve. I will publish my Brookings talk above, in which I made a very similar argument to Jouejati.
Concentrate on the Syrian-Israeli issue
By Murhaf Jouejati
December 07, 2006
Bitter Lemons International.com
There is not much Syria can do to stabilize Iraq. Iran has far more influence in Iraq than Syria ever will.
What are the implications for the Middle East if the Bush administration were to engage in a dialogue with Damascus? Would US-Syria talks contribute to the stabilization of Iraq?
At first glance, the proposition according to which Syria along with Iraq's other regional neighbors ought to be involved in the stabilization of Iraq sounds good. A dissection of the evidence, however, suggests that Syria is in a weak position to substantially improve the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
On the one hand, Iraq's problems are for the most part homegrown. On the other hand, Syria does not have much influence over any of the warring Iraqi factions. The once exiled Shi'ite leaders that Syria hosted during the Saddam era are influenced more by Iran. The network of Sunni tribal chiefs Syria painstakingly put together in recent years is now next to marginal in terms of political influence. Iraq's Sunni insurgents take their marching orders not from Damascus but from al-Qaeda (and its local affiliates).
Remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party continue to view their Syrian counterparts with much hostility. Furthermore, although Syria could potentially exert greater effort to seal its side of the Iraqi border, bribes from jihadist elements and fortune-seeking smugglers to underpaid Syrian border guards go a long way in trumping any such effort. In short, there is not much Syria can do to stabilize Iraq. Iran has far more influence in Iraq than Syria ever will.
This is not to say that Washington should continue ignoring Damascus. Syria wields much influence in the other trouble spots of the Middle East, Lebanon and Palestine. Syria exerts its influence in both areas in large part through its local clients Hizballah and Hamas, respectively. It is therein that Syria can affect events decisively.
That said, for Syria to change its jingoistic behavior as Washington demands, Damascus would need a good enough reason. This is especially so in view of the fact that America's anti-Syrian pressures, including the imposition of unilateral sanctions and the not-so-subtle hints at forced regime change in Damascus, have failed.
Instead of feeling vulnerable, the Assad regime now feels emboldened: Syria's Hamas protege won an electoral victory against the softer Fateh; its Hizballah protege won a military victory against Israel over the past summer; its Iranian patron, which at any rate proved to be a far better protector of the Assad regime's security than either Saudi Arabia or Egypt, continues to defy the US and its western allies; and the American electorate bloodied the nose of George W. Bush's Republican Party. Thus, in the absence of rock-solid benefits–like the return of the Golan Heights or, at a minimum, the resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks–Syria sees no real justification in either rethinking its regional strategy or in reshuffling its regional cards.
It is precisely on the Syrian-Israeli issue that a US-Syria dialogue can alter the political landscape of the Middle East. Should Washington pursue this route, a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks leading to the Israeli return of the Syrian Golan Heights will have a hugely positive impact on the entire region. Peace between Syria and Israel weakens Hizballah, isolates Hamas, and neutralizes Iran. Peace between Syria and Israel allows Lebanon to breathe again. Finally, peace between Syria and Israel strips the Assad regime of its ability to justify the prolongation of emergency laws, in effect since 1963.
– Published 7/12/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org
Murhaf Jouejati is director of the Middle East Studies Program at The George Washington University, where he is also professor of international affairs and political science.