Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, December 16th, 2009
Peter Harling has made an important contribution to our understanding of how Syria works and why it follows the foreign policy that it does in this two part report for the ICG.
I have copied Sami Moubayed’s assessment of Syria’s foreign policy at the bottom of this post because it provides a useful counter-point to Harling’s analysis. Sami is not perplexed by Syria’s “mountain of apparent contradictions.” For him, Syria has had a very good year and is on the right track. Rather than concern for Syria’s contradictions, he is concerned about America’s contradiction in supporting Israel’s continued conquest and settlement Syrian land – even though Washington says it stands for international law and has many interests in the Middle East that would be well served by taking a more even handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Read, “When Will It Be Our Time?” in today’s New York Times By MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI for an expression of how perplexing this contradiction appears to Arabs.
Reshuffling the Cards? (I): Syria’s Evolving Strategy
Here it is: Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria’s New Hand
MENA Report N°92
14 December 2009
This executive summary and recommendations is also available in Arabic.
Reshuffling the Cards? (I): Syria’s Evolving Strategy
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Syria’s foreign policy sits atop a mountain of apparent contradictions that have long bedevilled outsiders. Its self-proclaimed goal is peace with Israel, yet it has allied itself with partners vowed to Israel’s destruction. It takes pride in being a bastion of secularism even as it makes common cause with Islamist movements. It simultaneously has backed Iraqi Sunni insurgents and a Lebanese Shiite armed group. The U.S. has wavered between different approaches in unsuccessful attempts to persuade Damascus to clarify its stance, from a peace process focus in the 1990s to isolation and pressure under George W. Bush in the following decade. Barack Obama, having turned an old page without settling on a new one, seems intent on engagement on bilateral issues, albeit more cautious than ambitious. It might work, but not in the way it has been proceeding. Syria might amend its policies, but only if it is first reassured about the costs – in terms of domestic stability and regional standing. That will entail working with Damascus to demonstrate the broader payoffs of a necessarily unfamiliar, and risky, journey.
At the heart of the problem is a profound mismatch of expectations. The West wants to know whether Syria is ready to fundamentally alter its policies – loosen or cut ties to Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah; sign a peace deal with Israel – as a means of stabilising the region. Syria, before contemplating any fundamental strategic shift, wants to know where the region and its most volatile conflicts are headed, whether the West will do its part to stabilise them and whether its own interests will be secured.
From Syria’s vantage point, there is good reason to cling to the status quo. For almost four decades, it has served Damascus well. Despite a turbulent and often hostile neighbourhood, the regime has proved resilient. It has used ties to various groups and states to amass political and material assets, acquiring a regional role disproportionate to its actual size or resources. One does not readily forsake such allies or walk away from such a track record.
But satisfaction with the past does not necessarily mean complacency about the future. On virtually all fronts, Syria can see peril. Its economy is wobbly. The country lacks significant natural resources or human capital, most conspicuously a qualified workforce and entrepreneurial business class. Its infrastructure is obsolete. And unlike years past, when the Soviet Union and then Saudi Arabia offered support, Iran or Iraq provided cheap fuel and Lebanon was prey to its plunder, Syria no longer can count on a foreign rent. All this, coming amid an increasingly competitive global market and financial crisis, calls for structural reforms that the regime almost certainly cannot undertake without Western help and a more pacified regional environment.
In terms of societal dynamics, regime policies are fanning Islamist sympathies that, over time, could jeopardise its secular foundation. Cuts in subsidies and the collapse of the welfare system, as well as high unemployment and inflation rates, have chipped away at the regime’s ideological pillars. Its pan-Arab rhetoric gradually has been replaced by a “resistance” discourse that has more in common with Islamist movements than the Baathism of yore. Clashes between government forces and Islamist militants are not uncommon, their frequency ebbing when the regime more clearly espouses regional Islamist causes – which further harms its secular outlook. The posture of the past few years – close ties to Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, promotion of resistance against Israel and support for what was a Salafi-oriented Iraqi insurgency – encouraged trends that threaten longer-term social cohesion.
Recent gains in the region could prove short-lived. However vindicated leaders felt by events in Iraq (where they opposed the U.S. war), Lebanon (where the Western-backed coalition was unable to bring Damascus to its knees, and Hizbollah stood its ground against Israel) or Palestine (where its Islamist allies have gained influence), they remain preoccupied by lingering conflicts and persistent fault lines. The spread of sectarianism, uncertainty on its eastern and western borders, stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process and threat of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program cloud the horizon. The potential for domestic spillover of regional tensions haunts the regime and helps explain why, in addition to economic and social fears, it might be searching for a different way forward.
Syria’s ambivalence – its reliance on existing alliances and longing to break out of the current mould – is perhaps best embodied in its Iranian-Turkish balancing act. Syrian doubters argue that the regime will not cut its ties to Iran. They are right. Tehran remains a valued and indispensable partner, especially in a context of regional uncertainty. The long relationship provides military assets and security cooperation, as well as diplomatic leverage in dealing with Western and Arab countries.
But that is only half the picture. Budding ties with Ankara show a different side. For Damascus, they are an opportunity for economic stimulus through increased tourism, investment and the possibility of a more integrated region in which it could be central. More, they are of huge strategic value as a gateway to Europe and a means of bolstering regime legitimacy in the eyes of its own and the Arab world’s Sunni population.
Besides, not all is tranquil on the Iranian front. The relationship became increasingly unequal as Tehran’s fortunes soared. Excessive proximity harms Syria’s posture in Arab eyes and cannot mask deep disagreements. Syria warily watches Iran’s growing reach, from Iraq (which Syria believes must remain part of the Arab sphere and where it objects to Iran’s backing of sectarian Shiite parties) to Yemen (where Syria has sided with Riyadh in what appears as a proxy war against Tehran). As long as Syria’s environment remains unsettled, in short, it will maintain strong ties to Iran; at the same time, it will seek to complement that relationship with others (Turkey, France, and now Saudi Arabia) to broaden its strategic portfolio and to signal a possibly different future.
President Obama’s effort to re-engage was always going to be a painstaking and arduous task of overcoming a legacy of mutual mistrust. Syrian doubters have their counterparts in Damascus, who are convinced Washington never will truly accept that the Arab nation can play a central regional role. The administration’s slow and cautious moves are not necessarily a bad thing. There is need for patience and realism. The region is too unstable for Damascus to move abruptly; relaxation of U.S. sanctions is tied to Syrian policies toward Hamas and Hizbollah that are hostage to a breakthrough with Israel for which conditions do not seem ripe. Neither side is ready for a leap, and both have domestic and foreign skeptics with whom to contend.
But the pace is less worrying than the direction. The temptation in Washington seems to be to test Syrian goodwill – will it do more to harm the Iraqi insurgency, help President Abbas in Palestine or stabilise Lebanon? On its own, that almost certainly will not succeed. The U.S. is not the only one looking for evidence. So too is Syria – for proof that the risks it takes will be offset by the gains it makes. The region’s volatility drives it to caution and to hedge its bets pending greater clarity on where the region is heading and, in particular, what Washington will do.
A wiser approach would be for the U.S. and Syria to explore together whether some common ground could be found on regional issues. This could test both sides’ intentions, promote their interests and start shaping the Middle East in ways that can reassure Damascus about the future. On Iraq, it may not truly exercise positive influence until genuine progress is made toward internal reconciliation. The U.S. could push in that direction, test Syria’s moves and, with the Iraq government, offer the prospect of stronger economic relations with its neighbour. Syria claims it can press Hamas to moderate views but only if there is real appetite in the U.S. for an end to the Palestinian divide. Both could agree to try to immunise Lebanon from regional conflicts and push it to focus on long-overdue issues of governance. Given the current outlooks and suspicions in Damascus and Washington, these are all long shots. But, with little else in the Middle East looking up, it is a gamble well worth taking.
This is the first of two reports on Syria’s evolving foreign policy. The second, to be published shortly, will take a closer look at specific changes in Damascus’s regional approach and the prospects for U.S.-Syrian relations.
To the U.S. Administration and Syrian Government:
1. Devise a process of mutual engagement revolving around concrete, realistic goals, notably:
a) containing Iranian assertiveness in new arenas such as Iraq or Yemen (rather than aiming to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran);
b) working toward national reconciliation in Iraq, by combining U.S. leverage with the Iraqi government and Syrian access to the insurgency and former regime elements;
c) encouraging the Lebanese government to refocus on issues of domestic governance and containing the risks of a new Hizbollah-Israel conflagration; and
d) combining Syrian efforts to restrain Hamas and reunify Gaza and the West Bank with U.S. adoption of a more welcoming approach to intra-Palestinian reconciliation.
To the U.S. Administration:
2. Establish an effective line of communication by:
a) sending an ambassador to Damascus, part of whose mission should be to build a direct link with President Bashar al-Assad; and
b) identifying a senior official to engage in a strategic dialogue aimed at exchanging visions for the region and determining a blueprint for future bilateral relations.
3. Recalibrate U.S. efforts on the peace process by:
a) displaying interest in both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks;
b) working at improving Israeli-Turkish relations as a step toward resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations under joint U.S.-Turkish sponsorship; and
c) making clear that, consistent with past Israeli-Syrian negotiations, any final agreement should entail full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, firm security arrangements and the establishment of normal, peaceful bilateral relations.
4. Restart bilateral security talks related to Iraq, beginning with border issues, either immediately or, at the latest, after parliamentary elections in Iraq.
5. Soften implementation of sanctions against Syria by streamlining licensing procedures and loosening restrictions on humanitarian or public safety grounds.
To the Government of Syria:
6. Facilitate access for U.S. diplomats to relevant officials upon arrival of a new ambassador.
7. Utilise existing security cooperation mechanisms with countries such as the UK and France to demonstrate tangible results, pending direct talks with the U.S.
8. Articulate proactively its vision for the region in talks with U.S. officials.
9. Consolidate improved Syrian-Lebanese ties by demarcating the border and providing any available information on Lebanese “disappeared”.
10. Clarify what immediate, positive contributions Syria could make in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon and what it would expect from the U.S. in turn.
Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria’s New Hand
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Syria typically, and at times justifiably, brings to mind stagnation and immobility. Yet, over recent years, change has been afoot. In 2008, it agreed to Turkish-mediated talks with Israel. It built ties with the Iraqi government after long depicting it as the offspring of an illegitimate occupation. It began to normalise relations with Lebanon, after years of resisting its claim to sovereignty. It accelerated economic reforms. These steps fall short of being revolutionary; some were imposed rather than chosen and reflected opportunism rather than forward thinking. Still, by Syrian standards, they are quite remarkable, especially in contrast to recent fervent militancy.
In a companion report with identical policy recommendations published on 14 December 2009, Crisis Group analysed the factors behind Damascus’s strategic evolution. Here, it explores in detail the mechanism, extent and limitations of these adjustments as well as challenges faced by the Obama administration if it wishes to exploit and solidify them. Only so much can be done in advance of genuine progress in Israeli-Syrian negotiations. For reasons Israeli, Syrian and American, that could be some time in the making. In the interim, Washington and Damascus should move beyond their tactical interaction by heightening the level of their engagement, broadening its agenda and quickly focusing on joint steps on Iraq.
There was nothing preordained or inevitable in Syria’s moves. Each reflected a cautious, deliberative process in which the regime carefully assessed the impact of one step before taking the next. Each involved at times starkly diverging views about how best to defend national interests. All pointed toward a more powerful, assertive President Bashar al-Assad, who must nonetheless contend with competing power centres and divergent outlooks, while suggesting the growing weight of a generation of insiders he has methodically put in place. Occasionally, there was backsliding, indicating the shift from greater militancy to more pronounced pragmatism is susceptible to negative changes in the regional landscape or to blowback from Syria’s allies and so is anything but irreversible.
Barack Obama’s election had little if anything to do with the evolution. The changes were initiated while the Bush administration was in office, when many Syrians were wagering on John McCain’s victory and for reasons almost entirely independent of the U.S. Still, the triumph of a man who had promised to make engagement a foreign policy leitmotif gave rise to hope that the bilateral relationship would more rapidly to a sounder footing and that the two sides might find ways to work together on regional policies.
So far, that has not been the case. Each side has its own explanation. Syria is convinced it has taken the first steps – in Iraq and Lebanon in particular – and that the onus is on Washington to do its part. Damascus expected the administration to reverse at least parts of the Bush-era legacy, reestablish normal diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador, show greater flexibility on sanctions, push for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks and, more broadly, propose a partnership on regional issues where Syria claimed it was willing to cooperate. It says that without a minimal common vision, it is not about to simply do America’s bidding. It feels it is being asked to prove its worth, not treated as a worthy partner.
The U.S. sees a traditional Syrian pattern repeating itself – halting some hostile action and expecting recompense while continuing to engage in unfriendly activity (such as allowing some insurgents to slip into Iraq or arming Hizbollah) and counting on a blind eye. Besides, the young administration believes it has more pressing matters, must contend with a sceptical Congress and even more sceptical regional allies (notably in Lebanon and Iraq) and fears that renewing the Israeli-Syrian track at a time when the Palestinian track is at a halt risks jeopardising any chance of breathing life into the latter.
As a result, each side has tended to see significant value in its own goodwill gestures, while essentially dismissing the other’s. The U.S. has indeed engaged, repeatedly dispatching officials to Damascus. But it has stopped well short of initiating a thorough strategic dialogue with Syria in which views of the region’s future are exchanged. Nor, on the issue of arguably greatest immediate concern, Iraq, has it implemented a bottom-up approach designed to build trust and produce tangible results. Instead, it cancelled security talks on that subject as soon as that country’s prime minister – alleging Syrian complicity in a tragic series of bomb attacks – chose to oppose them. Syria, for the most part, has done what it does best: sit and wait. It has refrained from putting forward its own approach to successful engagement, let alone a vision for the region that might gain U.S. buy-in.
It always was unrealistic to expect that the mere call for or initiation of engagement would overcome years of mistrust, divergent conceptions for the region and conflicting alliances. Right now, a productive process is needed, not immediate, dramatic results. But there is not even that.
It is still early. President Obama has not personally invested himself in the Syrian file, the Israeli-Syrian track could revive, both the U.S. and Syria continue to profess their shared desire for a new page and, in terms of atmospherics at least, the improvement in bilateral relations is notable. But they are not where they should be and little has been done with the opportunities that have arisen.
There also are potential clouds on the horizon. The international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri could develop in ways that that will significantly complicate management of the Syrian file; so too could the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Syria’s alleged nuclear program. Violence in Iraq also could produce a further downturn in U.S.-Syrian relations in the absence of a joint security framework. The situation at the Israeli-Lebanese border remains tense. The roots of the 2008 Gaza war are still unaddressed. A confrontation around Iran’s nuclear program could move the region in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
The most realistic measure of success is not whether the U.S. and Syria achieve a quick breakthrough. At best, that will take time and will have to await changes in the region and real progress toward Israeli-Syrian peace. The test, rather, is whether they can move the relationship far enough so that it might resist crises that, almost inevitably and always unexpectedly, will arise.
Hariri visit seals a good year for Syria
By Sami Moubayed in Asia Times
Dec 15 2009
DAMASCUS – Talk of a visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Syria has been in the air since his March 14 Coalition emerged victorious in the June parliamentary elections. Shortly after President Michel Suleiman asked Hariri to create the new cabinet, speculation mounted on whether he would make the Damascus visit, as customarily done by every Lebanese prime minister since the 1940s.
The Syrians declared from day one that Hariri would always be welcome in Syria, letting bygones be bygones, and scores of Lebanese politicians, eager to mend relations with Damascus, began sending positive signals, hoping that the doors to the Syrian capital would be opened to them as well, seeing that it was political suicide to be at odds with Damascus now that George W Bush had left the White House.
Hariri’s ally, Walid Jumblatt (a former ally of the Syrians), went to great lengths to do that and is expected to make an on-air live apology this week, through the Doha-based channel al-Jazeera. Politicians like Jumblatt and Hariri had wrongly bet on the Bush administration during the years 2005-2008, thinking that the days of Syrian government were numbered.
They unleashed a war of words against Syria and its Hezbollah allies, calling for the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah. In 2006, they were unimpressed by the Hezbollah victory – realizing that it only strengthened Syria’s influence in Lebanon. Then came the mini-civil war of May 2008, when Hezbollah managed to round up all of March 14’s armed stalwarts in a matter of hours, proving that it had the upper hand on the streets of Beirut.
That action was taken after the March 14 cabinet of then-prime minister Fouad al-Siniora tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport. The Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, came out with a thundering statement, threatening to “cut the hand” of whoever tried to meddle with the “arms of the resistance”.
The Hariri team reasoned that Hezbollah was there to stay since it was so deep-rooted in Lebanese society, especially in south Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut. Writing it off militarily had clearly failed, and relying on Israel to do the job had also proved futile. Betting on the UN or the US was also no good – the only way forward, Hariri reasoned, was to mend broken fences with Hezbollah and Syria.
Earlier in 2009, Hariri met with Nasrallah – a cordial meeting that buried the hatchet between the two men. After emerging victorious last June, Hariri created a cabinet of national unity that answered all of Hezbollah’s demands. It gave the Ministry of Telecommunications to a Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) candidate, Charbel Nahhas, which was a long-standing demand by both Hezbollah and FPM leader Michel Aoun.
Hariri also agreed to name Aoun’s son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, as a minister. Then in a final gesture, Hariri pushed for a cabinet policy statement that promised to protect and embrace the arms of Hezbollah. Hariri had no other choice – he could only rule by consensus, and that consensus could not be made unless he includes the Shi’ites, who are overwhelmingly supportive of Hezbollah, in any cabinet formation.
This antagonized Hariri’s relations with some of his Christian allies, like the Phalange Party of ex-president Amin Gemayel and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagega, a warlord. Hariri reasoned that Hezbollah’s support was more crucial for him at this stage than that of Christian statesmen who represented – at best – only half of the Lebanese Christian community. The breakthrough came on the heels of a royal visit by Hariri’s patron, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, to Damascus where he, too, turned a new page with the Syrians after relations had soured in 2005-2006. The Syrians and Saudis realized that what united them over Lebanon and other regional issues, such as Iraq, was greater than what had divided them since 2005 – mainly the issue of Hezbollah.
Now comes Hariri’s visit to Syria, expected this December. It closes a troubled chapter of Syrian-Lebanese relations that was imposed on both countries by the Bush administration. That chapter began to turn when Syria and Saudi Arabia reconciled at an Arab summit over Gaza, which took place in Kuwait last January, symbolically on Bush’s last day at the White House.
The Bush team – eager to punish Syria for confronting them in the 2003 occupation of Iraq – tried to isolate Syria, blaming it for the insurgency in Iraq and the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005. It too reasoned, however, that it could not obtain any breakthroughs in the Middle East without the cooperation of Syria. The Syrians were needed after all, to moderate the actions of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, more importantly, the behavior of the Iranian government.
It all boiled down to one thing: if the Americans wanted peace and tranquility in the Arab world, they had to deal with either Syria or Iran. Dealing with both was too difficult for the Bush team and continuing to deal with neither was clearly not working. The Americans reasoned, towards the end of the Bush era, that dealing with Syria was less difficult, given that Syria had proven to be a credible negotiating partner and did not have a history of anti-Americanism.
Then came President Barack Obama, who showed from day one that he was very different from Bush in dealing with the Middle East. Obama began sending official delegations to Syria to find common ground on Iraq, listening to Syrian grievances while expressing their own, seeing the many ways forward for both countries. Obama began to do away with some of the sanctions imposed by the US in 2004, and in the summer of 2009 announced that he was going to send an ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005.
Obama’s priorities, however, were very different from those of Syria. He was clearly more interested in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan than in the Middle East peace process. In as much as he would have loved to hammer out a peace treaty between the Palestinians and Israelis, a troublesome US Congress and a hardline Israeli government prevented him from achieving any of that.
The Syrians, however, wanted two things from Obama: jumpstarting serious talks on the occupied Golan Heights and improving bilateral relations between the US and Damascus. Neither the Syrians nor the Americans had Lebanon on their priority list – although both continued to regard the Lebanese file as “important”.
Hariri and Jumblatt were among the first to realize how different the balance of power had become in the Middle East in the post-Bush era. The US needed Syria in Iraq and the Syrians needed the US to get back the Golan. A new relationship of cooperation had flourished and if Lebanon did not blow with the prevailing wind, now coming from Damascus, it would sink into oblivion in the new Middle East.
Rather than beat Hezbollah and Syria, they decided to join them, restoring a status quo that had existed during the 1990s between Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Lebanon. This means that the Saudis’ proxy in the region, Hariri, would co-rule Lebanon with Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.
Lebanon would no longer be used as a launching pad for anti-Syrian propaganda, and the Syrians would be assured that no anti-Syrian cabinet would reign in Beirut, now that its allies were strongly represented in the Hariri cabinet. More importantly, the Hariri visit proves that all talk marketed by the US and March 14, which blamed Syria for the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005, had now vanished.
Simply put, had the Syrians killed him, then evidence would have emerged to incriminate Syria. The fact that nothing has emerged from the international tribunal that began last March is testimony to Syria’s innocence, so is the honeymoon between Syria and France, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the US.
These are good days for Syria. Regional solutions have seemingly been tailor-made to fit the liking of the statesmen in Damascus. A new US ambassador will likely land in Syria before the end of this year, and the Americans are still promising engagement and more results on the peace process.
The anti-Syrian craze in Beirut has been silenced – probably for good – and relations could not be better between Damascus and Paris on one front, and Damascus and both Ankara and Doha on another. Syria is playing a pivotal role in the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, and is using its considerable influence to hammer out solutions between Hezbollah and March 14 in Lebanon.
From where the Syrians see things: only one breakthrough is still needed – enough US pressure on Israel to cease settlement expansion and return to the peace talks with the Arabs, for the sake of restoring occupied land to both Syria and Lebanon. The year 2009 could not have been better for Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.