Posted by Joshua on Monday, July 23rd, 2007
Anthony Cordesman, Thomas Sanderson, and Jon Alterman of CSIS visited Syria on the 4th of July weekend to meet with the president and foreign minister. I had a nice chat with them at the 4th of July party given by the embassy. This is the report that Cordesman wrote up on his return to Washington.
Improving US and Syrian Relations: Some Possible Beginnings
Anthony H. Cordesman
Washington, DC, July 19, 2007
Center for Strategic and International Studies
I recently traveled to Syria with two of my colleagues at CSIS, Jon Alterman and Thomas Sanderson. We did so at the invitation of the Orient Center in Damascus to discuss US and Syrian relations and met with a range of Syrians concerned with the distance and tensions between our countries. We also met with President Asad and the Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
As might be expected, we heard a great deal about the Syrian view of US mistakes in the region and in its relations with the Syria. The Syrians heard a great deal about the US view of Syrian mistakes in the region and its relations with the US. There were no breakthroughs, dramatic messages, or promises of sudden success in US and Syrian relations.
If anything, the Syrian perspective was that the Bush Administration had no serious interest in talking to Syria, and that any progress would have to come after it left office. I will not attempt to speak for my colleagues, but my perspective was that we faced serious problems in our relations over Syria's polices towards Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iran.
At the same time, I was again struck by the fact that Syria remains one of the more secular and modern societies in the Middle East. Its people are often well educated, almost always friendly, and are not anti-American in the broad sense of the term. The people we spoke to showed considerable pragmatism and flexibility in their views, and Syrians are an easy people to talk with. Unlike some of the region's ideologues, it is possible to have a real dialogue.
It also struck me that there are many areas where the US and Syria do have common interests and might be able to move forward without some kind of formal improvement in relations It is not necessary to have "breakthroughs" to make progress or to wait on the next Administration. In fact, waiting nearly two years for a new Administration to fully take office is in neither nation's interest. There is too much instability in the region; there are too many areas where leaving things unintended can only make things worse.
Accordingly, I would make the following suggestions. In doing so, I should stress that I speak only for myself although I have drawn on some of the ideas of both my colleagues and the Syrians we met with. In broad terms, the good ideas will normally be theirs; the bad ones mine.
Forget About Formal Breakthroughs and Concentrate on Practical Steps
The Middle East is a region where remembering the past almost always means repeating it, and all past mistakes in the process. US and Syrian relations are difficult and reflect real differences. The problems are not simply the result of miscommunication, and neither state is going to suddenly change its current policies and views of its national interest. Moreover, both sides have made enough mistakes in their relations with the other, and in their actions in the region, so that focusing on mistakes can simply end in mutual recrimination.
Neither nation is going to make serious concessions to the other, or sacrifice its priorities and views of its national interest. The current pressures on the US and Syria will not push them to either find some dramatic new approach to structuring their relations or to make concessions to the other. Moreover, building mutual trust in the idea it is possible to improve relations and there are viable ways of pursuing common interests will take time.
In short, rather than pursue the impractical, explore areas where both countries can act in parallel and in ways that serve their interest without concessions to the other. Act unilaterally, explore options through second track diplomacy, and talk one issue at a time. Accept the fact that both states will also act in ways the other opposes and do not set preconditions that require impossible change in policy.
The Golan Heights
One key area would not require any formal action on the US side, and would simply reinforce steps that President Asad has already taken. A clear and consistent Syrian expression of a desire for a true peace with Israel in exchange for return of the Golan Heights does not require concessions on anyone's part. What it really does require is patience, persistence, transparency, and flexibility.
Syria and Israel have far greater differences than Syria and the US. Israel sees Syria as a continuing threat and as key factor in its war with Hezbollah last summer. Syria sees Israel as an occupier with a weak and divided government, somehow unwilling to talk because of pressure from the Bush Administration. It is going to take time for Israel to respond to any Syrian initiatives in this area, and to test their sincerity. At the same time, Syria has no prospects of winning the Golan back by war, and good reasons to steadily reinforce its willingness to reach an agreement.
Whatever may or may not have been the case in the past, Syria needs economic progress and stability far more than it needs to have a foreign threat. It is taking important first steps toward economic liberalization and development, but it cannot succeed with its current level of military expenditures, and as a half-militarized society. It also can provoke Israel but not intimidate it, and nothing could be worse for both countries than a clash that escalated into unintended, but serious fighting.
Syrians at many levels also made it clear that they felt that the peace plans developed under the Clinton Administration were at least 90% of the solution. They blamed Israel and Prime Minister Barak for the failure of that initiative just as Americans and Israelis would blame Syria. This, however, is scarcely the point. If an existing plan comes that close to serving Syria's and Israel's national interest, Syria has everything to gain from publicly pursuing it, and not simply in the form of Presidential signals or covert talks between private individuals.
Syria could also gain a great deal by explaining precisely what aspects of the previous agreement it does not accept, and by being flexible in its terms. Here, Syrian scholars might take on the task in ways that did not commit the government, but showed Israelis and the US exactly what Syrian concerns and views are. It also would make sense to be flexible in the process. With all do respect to both sides, Shaba Farms is ultimately a non-issue of virtually no historical or strategic value; water rights remain important, but the reality is that Israel now has the water, Syria would find serious problems in using it, and desalination is becoming commercial enough in Israel to reduce some of the past pressure. Peace should not be a trivia contest conducted in the name of past slights and incidents.
Syria could also unilaterally, or quietly bilaterally, negotiate low-level confidence building measures with Israel. It is deeply disturbing to hear war talk from serious experts and journalists in both countries. Syrian's, however, talk about Israeli exercises and build-ups on the Golan and the threat Israel will strike this summer. Israeli's talk about Syrian exercises and arms purchases for the Golan and that it is Syria that will strike. Israel has ample reason to know it cannot benefit from having more of Syrian territory; Syria has equal reason to know that even the most sophisticated attempt to suddenly grab back part of the Golan would almost certainly fail on the land and open up Syria to attack by vastly superior Israeli air and missile forces. Adventures, provocations, major arms buys, and military games on the Golan can only make things worse for Syria, and even if Syria can make things worse for Israel in the progress, this kind of "spoiler" victory serves no strategic purpose.
Syrian and/or Israel could accomplish a great deal simply by publicly announcing in detail every exercise and change in arms and forces near the Golan. Both could benefit by talking about the defensive nature of their actions. Major arms buys are no longer a secret, and announcing and explaining them could help. Independent efforts to reinforce the barriers to extremists acting out in the region could help. So could quiet Syrian efforts to restrain the Hezbollah from operating anywhere near the Syrian-Israeli-Lebanese border, if not elsewhere as well. Like other "spoiler" operations in this region, the ability to irritate the hell out of one's opponent almost always ends in making thing worse for the provoker as well as the provoked.
Concentrating on Secular Economic Development
The US cannot take any practical steps toward regime change in Syria, and Syria will make no concessions in this area. There are, however, areas where Syria can send important signals to the US and show that regime evolution is taking place and the government is taking important steps to help its people.
Syria has every possible reason to keep pursuing economic reform and modernization. Economic security and growth aid the regime, as does sending signals about reducing corruption. As China and other Asian states have shown, it is far easier to wait for political evolution when the people benefit from economic reforms, and when the government shows it can make major progress in this area. There also is no better way of checking the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremist activity than raising living standards, employment, and offering opportunity rather than stasis.
Moreover, the more economically modern and secure Syria is, the more Israel will have reason to feel it may be able to deal with a stable state, the easier Syria will find it to deal with withdrawing from Lebanon, and the more incentive it will offer Iraq in terms of trade, pipelines, and joint ventures. The stronger and more liberal the Syrian economy becomes, the greater the future incentive for outside investment from the EU, US, and other states, and the better the tourist infrastructure and income.
As for alternative investment in arms and military forces, it does not take much time or calculation to see that Syria simply cannot compete in a new arms race. Syria does need to modernize some aspects of its forces, but Israel can outspend it by at least 4:1, has access to far more advanced military technology, and begins with far better forces and a more advanced technological base. Triggering an arms race you cannot win is a miserable substitute for economic progress where you cannot lose.
Fighting Terrorism in Syria's National Interest
The US and Syria are not going to agree on the definition of a terrorist in the near term, particularly in regard to the actions of Hamas and the Hezbollah. Several Syrians made it clear, however, that they saw Sunni Islamist extremists as a major threat to Syria, whether in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon. Several mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, and elements within the Iraqi refugee population as serious problems.
Aggressive Syrian action against such extremists is in Syria's interest, and directly parallels the interest of the US. Limited intelligence exchanges and cooperation may be possible, even if broader cooperation is not. Strong unilateral action by Syria in its own interests would lay the groundwork for easing US and Syrian relations.
Internal Security in the Broader Sense
Syrian efforts to fight terrorism do not need to be linked to broader security constraints and repression. One problem throughout the Arab world that goes directly against the interest of both regimes and their peoples is to enforce excessive and pointless security measures against figures and NGO's that speak out for reform, peaceful change, economic progress, and against nepotism and corruption. No nation in the region currently has struck the right balance between even the narrow interests of its rulers and over-enforcing security in ways that suppress the kind of evolutionary progress that is ultimately vital to maintaining support for the regime and stability.
Syria is no exception. It does face very real threats from Islamist extremists, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly from elements in its growing population of Iraqi refugees. What it does not face is a meaningful threat from its more secular and moderate Muslim voices for change, from added concern for human rights and the rule of law, and for criticism of the government that calls for change without threatening the regime. Syria needs strong moderate voices, even when they are critical. It cannot afford to silence or arrest a single such voice when the main impact of these moderates is to move the country forwards and act as a counterbalance to the Islamist extremists that are the only real-world internal threat to both the regime and the nation.
No one can credibly expect an instant shift to US and European practices and values, but the time for excessive internal security measures and constraints is over. Both Syria's regime and Syria's people will benefit from easing the current level of constraint and from a more liberal climate for all but extremist elements. The signal to the US and the world will also be one that could greatly improve future relations.
There did seem to be a growing understanding in Syria that playing a spoiler role in Iraq, and encouraging or tolerating insurgent operations in Syria, and transit to Iraq, threatened Syria with added support for Islamist extremism in Syria, an unstable Iraq on its border, further floods of refugees and being a potential front line in a Sunni vs., Shi'ite struggle for control of Iraq. Officials like Syria's foreign minister stressed Syria's interest in Iraqi unity, a strong central government, and effective military and police forces, although they also emphasized formal identification of Iraq as an Arab and Islamic state.
It is unclear how much Syria is prepared to act on these words, but it again has a clear interest in doing so. Syria cannot afford to become tied to the Shi'ite cause and does not have the same interests as Iran. It does not need instability and civil conflict on another border.
Stronger Syrian initiatives to support Iraq in political conciliation, crack down on insurgent operations inside Syria and crossing its border, and securing the Syrian border with Iraq are all directly in Syria's interest. The creation of a stronger Iraq border security force and forts also gives Syria something far more tangible to cooperate with, and such Syrian action would lay the groundwork for an improvement in US and Syrian relations.
Syrians downplayed the risks of Iran's nuclear efforts, but did recognize that Syrian and Iranian interests do differ significantly and that Iranian dominance of much of Iraq, adventures in Lebanon, or adventures with Hezbollah would not be in Syria's interest. Syrian restraint in dealing with Iran again serves Syrian interests, and exercising that restraint would again lay the ground work for improved relations.
Syria also has a clear national interest in a phased US withdrawal from a more secure and stable Iraq. A US departure, or phase down to obviously defensive levels, removes any lingering specter of US military intervention in Syria, while helping to create a more stable and unified Iraq.
The Palestinians and Hamas
Like Americans, and most of the world, Syrians expressed deep concern over the split within the Palestinians. One point several Syrians made was that some voices within Hamas had used the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries as a way of indirectly signaling that they could coexist with Israel.
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 help push Syria towards 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 Harriri's assassination. Moreover, Syrian and Iranian ties to Hezbollah were one of the few areas where it was hard to have a frank discussion.
President Asad 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 towards 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 Hezbollah 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 Qa'ida in Lebanon – Palestinian or Lebanese – that will be a positive message as well. If Syria quietly shows it is discouraging Hezbollah adventures on the Israeli-Lebanese border and is not sending in new long-range rockets and offensive weapons to Hezbollah, 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 towards 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 paper 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 nation's 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.
The Office of the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy: The Burke Chair in Strategy is held by Anthony H. Cordesman Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors. Web: http://www.csis.org/burke