Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 10th, 2006
Should The United States Engage Syria?
A Saban Center Policy Forum Debate
with Joshua Landis, Univ. of Oklahoma and Ammar Abdulhamid, Nonresident Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
Saban Center Middle East Memo #10, November 17, 2006
Should the United States engage with Syria? The renewed interest in this question derives from concerns about Syria's alliance with Iran and Hizballah following the recent war between Israel and Hizballah, and a widespread view that the Arab-Israeli peace process needs to be revived. Hints from Syrian President Bashar al-Asad that he might be open to talks with the United States and Israel, and reports of Syrian assistance in foiling an attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, have encouraged consideration of the engagement option. In recent weeks, retired officials, such as former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami have urged engagement and dialogue with Syria. At the same time, senior officials in the Bush administration, notably outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have expressed firm opposition.
The debate at the Saban Center's Policy Forum considered the following questions: What gains might the United States reasonably expect from engagement with Syria? Can the United States engage with the Syrian regime without compromising its goals in the war against terrorism? Is President Bashar al-Asad of Syria a viable partner for engagement and, if so, what lessons from previous attempts at dialogue might the United States employ in talking with him?
Joshua Landis: The Case For Engaging Syria
Syria's obstructionist behavior derives largely from the fact that the United States has historically allied itself with Syria's enemies. Rapprochement with Syria would change this context. Moreover, Syria's undefined international borders, as opposed to the Ba'thist state's ideology, is what fuels radicalism in Syria. An intrinsic component of a United States-Syrian rapprochement, then, would be a concerted US effort to press Israel to conclude a peace agreement with Syria and end the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.
Syria's support for Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories will remain unwavering until it regains the Golan Heights and there is a lasting Israeli-Syrian peace. Syria's continued support for groups such as Hizballah and Hamas has been a necessity for Syria, a weak power attempting to bolster its influence. However, Syria would no longer be able to justify its interference in Lebanese affairs or its support for Hamas and Hizballah following the return of the Golan Heights. Moreover, there is no reason why Israel cannot have a stable peace with Syria, in the same way as it has stable peace with Egypt and Jordan. Israeli-Syrian peace, brokered by the United States, would ultimately goad Syria to exercise positive influence over Hizballah and to act as a mediator for talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That would also deprive Hizballah of its main justification for maintaining a military wing and refusing complete incorporation into the Lebanese government. Syria could then be instrumental in pressuring Hizballah to integrate better into the Lebanese state.
Second, the United States should engage with the Ba'thist government in Syria because any hope of uprooting it is futile. Those who argue that President Bashar al-Asad is weak or foolish in his political calculations, need to explain Asad's insistence on maintaining close ties with and support for Hizballah and Hamas which look like quite shrewd calculations. This consistent support has given Damascus influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Asad rightly predicted the Iraqi reaction to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Given positive Syrian economic indicators, the United States would not succeed in pressuring Syria into changing its policies through economic means. Asad can comfortably wait out the final two years of President George W. Bush's term in office and wait to see what the attitude of the next U.S. president will be. Consequently, continued U.S. isolation of Syria, will not produce another Libya-style reversal, but only a continued, painful stalemate for the Levant.
The greatest contribution the United States could make to the future of the Middle East would be to facilitate the establishment of recognized international borders by pressing for a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. Resolving this conflict would contribute to Syria's democratization more effectively than anything the Bush Administration had yet attempted. With the Arab-Israeli dispute over, the basic ideology of the Ba'th Party will be redundant and "a real debate" between Syrians regarding the future of the country could then begin. The return of the Golan Heights would translate into more pressure on President Bashar al-Asad to end the system of one-party rule in particular and to renounce Ba'thism generally. Also, the return of the Golan Heights would help Syrian reformers and democrats because it will allow them to win back some of the credibility they have lost from their close alliance—real or perceived—with the United States. Ultimately, the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria is the key to de-radicalizing the Middle East and depriving the current Syrian regime of an issue it has thus far successfully exploited to fend off calls for reform and democratization.
Ammar Abdulhamid's argument is here for why the US will be unable to engage "the policies taken by the al-Asad "clique," a corrupt group whose core motivation is simply to retain power," in a meaningful way.