Posted by Joshua on Friday, July 27th, 2007
Dialogue is in Syria's and America's interests
Anthony H. Cordesman
THE DAILY STAR, July 27, 2007
Editor's Note: The following is the third and last part of a series of articles on Cordesman's recent visit to Syria with colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS].
One clear message from the Syrians we spoke to was that Syria had no intention to attempting to send troops back into Lebanon or in attempting to reoccupy the country. Several Syrians felt that leaving Lebanon had helped push Syria toward economic liberalization and development, while staying in Lebanon had bred corruption and economic indifference. At the same time, there was an almost exaggerated fear of having a "hostile" Lebanon on Syria's border and the outcome of the UN investigation into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. Moreover, Syrian and Iranian ties to Hizbullah were one of the few areas where it was hard to have a frank discussion.
President Bashar Assad also stated that Syria did recognize Lebanon's independence, that he had been to Lebanon and saluted the Lebanese flag, and that it would be possible to exchange embassies if Lebanon no longer had a hostile regime.
The US and Syria cannot agree on policy toward Lebanon at this point in time; there will not be sudden changes in US proclamations on the issue or the Accountability Act, and the UN investigation will play out its course. Lebanese politics will remain a divided, sectarian and ethnic mess, and Hizbullah will not suddenly go away or become another political party.
At the same time, the key issue is not the past but the future. If Syria repeatedly makes it clear that it does recognize Lebanon and has no intention of sending troops back that is a message well worth sending. If Syria quietly makes it clear it is not supporting Sunni Islamist extremists with links to Al-Qaeda in Lebanon – Palestinian or Lebanese – that will be a positive message as well. If Syria quietly shows it is discouraging Hizbullah adventures on the Israeli-Lebanese border and is not sending in new long-range rockets and offensive weapons to Hizbullah, that message will be a major step in improving the possibility of progress on the Golan Heights.
No one can criticize Syria for wanting a friendly regime in Lebanon, or strong economic ties. These are vital Syrian national interests. At the same time, "spoiler" operations and marginal adventures in trying to shape Lebanese politics by force, do not serve Syria's national interests and are doing much to alienate Europe and the United States. A positive, peacefully proactive Syrian policy toward Lebanon could do far more to help create the kind of regime Syria wants, avoid dragging Syria into Lebanon's endless confessional quarrels and morass, and greatly improve Syria's relations with the US and outside world.
This series of articles has focused on Syrian actions in Syria's national interest that could lay the groundwork for improved relations with the US. It has not suggested a single concession by either side, but it is clear that the US should respond by acting in its own interest as well. Each step above would be a new reason for the US to increase its dialogue with Syria, and pursue other areas of mutual cooperation.
More tangibly, there are several other steps the US should take. Not having an ambassador in Syria and not actively engaging with the Syrian mission in the US is pointless. If the US wants to encourage change in Syria, the best possible way is to have the strongest US country team in Syria. Similarly, the US does not have to send a Secretary of State or Deputy Security on a new round of visits to Damascus, but shunting Syria aside or not taking the time to listen is counterproductive and dangerous. It encourages precisely the Syrian actions the US objects to.
There is no country in the world where the US should focus its diplomacy and policy solely around punitive measures or "sticks." The US should not make any more concessions in pursuing its own national interests than it can expect Syria to make – which to all practical purposes is none. The US does, however, have strong national interest in many incremental actions by Syria of the kind just listed. It should be prepared to provide carefully limited incremental incentives or cooperation. All or nothing diplomacy inevitably tends to be nothing diplomacy.
The US, like Syria, should make its objections to the other states conduct and policy clear. It should not, however, demonize Syria and should make it clear that it has no interest in regime change in the sense of trying to force a new government on Syria. The US has nothing better than the present regime to offer, and the risk of Syrian internal instability or a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is serious enough to indicate that any near-term alternative is likely to be far, far worse. Encouraging evolutionary reform and change is one thing, and something many Syrians would encourage, but Iraq is the last experiment the US should ever make in neoconservative fantasies about the merits of violent change and instant "democracy."
There are also many practical aspects of US and Syrian relations where improvements might be made in ways that serve both nations' interests. There is no reason not to book educational and cultural exchanges and relations, despite bureaucratic neglect, delays and pointless time consuming procedures. Exports of medical goods and services, legitimate visas, and similar low-level actions that benefit both the Syrian people and US interests in Syria are all areas where careful review might improve the current situation. Carefully reviewing the details of the Accountability Act and various US regulations to see where the US can encourage economic reform and modernization in productive ways is another area for progress. Selective cooperation in counterterrorism and intelligence, with tight security to prevent embarrassment to either side is still another area where common interest may lead to an improvement in relations.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.