Overview of Syrian-US Relations

Landis Interview with a Foreign Journalist

1. Professor Landis, tensions between the US and Syria have deteriorated. What are the main reasons of this deterioration?

Syrian-US relations have been quite bad since 2000 when President Clinton’s efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Syria collapsed. The reason for this failure are important because initially, the US blamed the on Syria, claiming that President Assad was not serious about peace. But in his memoirs President Clinton corrected the record and reversed his assessment of blame. Israeli statesmen, present during the talks have also weighed in recently to repeat Clinton’s argument that Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak “got cold feet” and was unwilling to close the peace deal that was on the table. The reasons that Prime Minister Barak could not complete the deal his team had negotiated with the Syrians is that he believed the Israeli public were not ready for it. Also, he was hoping to finalize a Palestinian agreement over the West Bank and Jerusalem, which was going badly. The Israeli public was turning to the right and Barak’s coalition government was losing popularity in 2000. Barak felt compelled to scuttle negotiations with Syria in order to concentrate on the Palestinian issue. He didn’t believe that the Israeli public would accept two big land deals at the same time. Central to the negotiations was the Golan Heights – a large fertile and strategic border region that Israel took from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Syria insists on the return of the entire Golan in return for providing Israel with water and security guarantees.

Relations between the US and Syria became unusually bad during the administration of President George W. Bush. Syria objected America’s the invasion of Iraq, placing it in Washington’s crosshairs. President Bush moved in 2004 to pull Lebanon out of Syria’s sphere of influence and bring it into that of the US. One of the casualties of this tug of war was Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister and leading statesman. The US withdrew it ambassador from Syria in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri President for which it blamed Syria. Obama promised to make an effort at improving relations between the two countries and promised to send back an ambassador, but his confirmation has been blocked by congress, which accuses Syria of arming Hizbullah and helping Israel’s enemies.

2. Is the real issue of conflict between Israel and Syria the Golan Heights? Are there other reasons?

There are other reasons, but the Golan is the big reason today. Syria was never happy with the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. As early as 1920, parliaments in Syria began issuing statements declaring that Palestine was part of Syria and belonged to the Arab nation and not the Jews. Today, President Assad says that he is willing to recognize Israel when the Golan is returned. He insists that Syria is committed to a just peace and changing the strategic environment of the region. Syria’s ambassador to Washington says, “an Israeli peace agreement with Syria would open the door for Israel to comprehensive peace.”

3. Syria has long presented a serious problem for the Middle East region and Western policy. Has something changed?

Syria presents a major problem for the US, which would like Syria to stop helping Israel’s enemies, such as the Palestinians and Hizbullah. Syria will only do this if it gets back its occupied territory. Damascus claims it has a legal right to resist occupation. The United States does not recognize this right even though it does not officially recognize Israel’s right to occupy the Golan. US politicians, however, side with Israel on this issue. The US has designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979.

4. Does Syria want to play an influential role in regional politics?

Yes, Syria insists it is an important regional actor that cannot be isolated or ignored. In particular it has opposed US attempts to ignore its interests. Syria has largely won this argument over the last few decades. When the US invaded Iraq, ignoring Syrian interests, Damascus opened its border to mujahedin and foreign fighters, which cost America dearly.

Syria is the most influential foreign actor in Lebanese affairs. It has kept Lebanon within its sphere of influence despite repeated Israeli and US attempts to wrest it away. When Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon in 1982 in order to destroy the PLO and bring Beirut into its own sphere of influence, Syria helped build up Hizbullah and other militias, which eventually pushed out the Israelis. Today, Hizbullah is a major power in Lebanon and remains close to Syria, much to America’s displeasure.

George W Bush tried to wrest Lebanon away from Syria and bring it into America’s camp in 2004, but largely failed. Syria has provided refuge for Hamas’ leader in Damascus despite repeated attempts by Israel and the US to force it to expel him. This past month, Turkey and Syria announced that they are forming a free trade zone, which will include Jordan and Lebanon.

5. Is Syria a chronic exporter of instability in the Middle East?

Syria’s enemies certainly argue that it exports instability. They point to its aid to various Palestinian resistance groups, its support for Hizbullah against Israel, and support for Sunni groups and the Iraqi Baath in Iraq. Syria has also been a constant ally to Iran, which both the US and Israel excoriate as a terrorist state.

Syria naturally sees things quite differently. President Assad argues that Syria is a conservative power that has tried to preserve stability in the region in the face of Israeli and US radicalism. Syria rejected British and American efforts to create a Jewish state on Syria’s border in 1948. It argues that the creation of Israel on Palestinian and Arab land brought great instability to the region, causing the Palestinian refugee problem and provoking numerous wars over the past 60 years. Likewise, it argues that America’s invasion of Iraq brought another wave of instability to the region and largely destroyed Iraq, causing some four million Iraqis to flee their homes. Syria is now refuge to almost a million Iraqis and half a million Palestinians.

Syria argues that it has struggled to preserve the status quo and stability in the region in the face of foreign violence and trouble making. The US and Israel see Syria as the trouble maker because it has been a major source of resistance it to their plans in the region.

6. Can the new alliance between Syria with Iran and Turkey change the situation in the Middle East?

Syria hopes that Turkey’s new turn toward the east will bolster its position with Israel and the US. Both countries also hope that Iraq will join their alliance but it is too early to tell how Iraq’s foreign policy will emerge. So far, Iraqi politics have been too unstable to support a consistent foreign policy.

Turkey and Syria eliminated visa requirements over a year ago and have just announced plans to form a larger free trade union with Lebanon and Jordan.

7. This Islamic alliance is dangerous for the very existence of the state of Israel?

Syria and Turkey are both secular states. They do not threaten Israel’s existence. Turkey has stopped its joint military exercises with Israel, but Israel remains the region’s supper power. It has an estimated 200 to 400 nuclear warheads, which it can deliver by nuclear submarine, the advanced US bombers, and by its inter-ballistic missiles. No other state in the region has this capability. Israel has threatened to destroy the Syrian regime and bomb the country if Syria continues to arm its enemies. Israel is in a much better position to threaten the existence of either Syria or Turkey, should it feel provoked. The killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a ship headed for Gaza gave Turkey a taste of what it can expect if it challenges Israel.

8. Is Syria the leader of the Arabs in their ongoing conflict with Israel?

Yes, Syria is the largest Arab state still at war with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreement with Israel and work closely with Israeli intelligence on security matters. Saudi Arabia has emerged as an Israeli ally in its opposition to Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran. All the same, Syria is a very weak military power compared to Israel. Syria has not acquired new fighter plans since the Soviet Union collapsed. Most of its military is in very bad shape. Israel is negotiating with the US to acquire stealth bombers. The US has recently provided substantial monetary and technological support to Israel to provide it with a sophisticated missile defense system and advanced weaponry.

9. Does Syria hinder U.S. policy in the Middle East?
Yes, Syria is a major obstacle to US objectives in the Middle East. It continues to resist Israeli territorial expansion to arm Israel’s enemies. It supports Iran, which the US has decided is the World’s greatest threat and a major supporter of terrorism, primarily because it provides weapons and money to Hizbullah. Iran is also a competitor with Saudi Arabia and the US for control of the Persian Gulf and influence in Iraq. Syria is not a democracy, although neither are America’s major Arab allies in the region: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Syria will continue to challenge the United States in the region, especially in its relations with Israel – that is so long as Israel retains the Golan Heights, which is the primary obstacle to peace. In other areas, the US has common interests with Syria. Iraq is a primary example of this. Now that Washington is withdrawing from Iraq, Syria and the US find themselves with a number of common goals. Both countries want stability in the region and to ensure a role for Sunni Arabs in the Baghdad government. Neither country wants Iran to dominate Iraq. Syria and the US have a common enemy in al-Qaida. Both have resumed intelligence sharing on this issue. Despite their common interests, however, the US and Syria will continue to have strained relations so long as Israel’s borders with its Arab neighbors remain undefined and contested. For better or worse, the US largely treats its relations with Syria as a subset of its relations with Israel.

Comments (9)

madmax said:

The water rights to the Golan can be monotized so as to not to depleat any further the Jordan River cachtment basin. Getting a multinational consortium to build a pipeline to the Golan from the Euphraties is a small price to pay for peace while at the same time overhauling the ruinous ditch irrigation methods with the help of (can you believe this?) the Iraelis’ famous drip systems. Syira is losing more agricultual land each year along the Euphraties than it will ever get back from the Golan.

June 18th, 2010, 3:23 am


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

“…When the US invaded Iraq, ignoring Syrian interests, Damascus opened its border to mujahedin and foreign fighters, which cost America dearly”.

“…Syria presents a major problem for the US, which would like Syria to stop helping Israel’s enemies, such as the Palestinians and Hizbullah. Syria will only do this if it gets back its occupied territory”.

Right. Asad (the secular) uses Jihadists as a weapon of blackmail.
Yalla Yalla Ya.. Jihad is sweet.. Jihad is fun…


June 18th, 2010, 9:04 am


jad said:

الإفراج عن اثنين من قياديي إعلان دمشق وإعادة اعتقال الكاتب علي العبد الله

أفرجت السلطات السورية يوم الخميس 17/6/2010 عن اثنين من قياديي تجمع إعلان دمشق للتغير الوطني الديمقراطي وهما الدكتور وليد البني والدكتور ياسر العيتي وذلك بعد انتهاء مدة الحكم الصادر بحقهما ،و أعيد اعتقال عضو الأمانة للإعلان الكاتب علي العبد الله الذي أنهى مدة محكوميته وكان المفترض ان يفرج عنه معهما وذلك بناء على ضبط نظم بحقه في مكان توقيفه في سجن دمشق المركزي (عدرا)على خليفة كتابته مقالا سياسيا حول العلاقات السورية الإيرانية ووجهت النيابة العسكرية له تهمتي “نشر أنباء كاذبة من شانها ان توهن نفسية الأمة” و “تعكير صفوة العلاقات مع دولة أجنبية” وقرر قاضي التحقيق العسكري يوم أمس الخميس توقيفه وإيداعه سجن (عدرا).
وكانت السلطات السورية أفرجت في وقت سابق عن أربعة من قياديي الاعلان هم فداء الحوراني وأكرم البني وجبر الشوفي وأحمد طعمة ومن المنتظر ان يتم الإفراج عن كافة قياديي اعلان دمشق المعتقلين تباعا خلال الأيام المقبلة .

جدير بالذكر ان محكمة الجنايات الأولى بدمشق كانت قد أصدرت بتاريخ 29/10/2008 قرارا بتجريم قياديي إعلان دمشق : رياض سيف – فداء أكرم الحوراني – أحمد طعمة – أكرم البني – علي العبد الله – جبر الشوفي – ياسر العيتي – طلال ابودان – وليد البني – محمد حجي درويش – مروان العش – فايز سارة ،بجنايتي “إضعاف الشعور القومي – نقل أنباء كاذبة من شأنها أن توهن نفسية الأمة” وسجنهم لمدة عامين ونصف العام.

يشار إلى ان السلطات الأمنية السورية كانت قد شنت حملة اعتقالات ضد أعضاء المجلس الوطني لإعلان دمشق بعد انعقاد مؤتمره الأول في 1/12/2007.

إن المرصد السوري لحقوق الإنسان يهنئ المعتقلين المفرج عنهم بخروجهم إلى الحرية ويدعو الجهات المختصة إلى حفظ الدعوى المحركة بحق المعارض السوري علي العبد الله والإفراج الفوري عنه ويكرر المرصد مطالبته للحكومة السورية بالإفراج عن جميع معتقلي الرأي والضمير في السجون السورية والتوقف عن ممارسة الاعتقال التعسفي بحق المعارضين السياسيين والسماح بلا قيد أو شرط بعودة السوريين من أصحاب الرأي خارج البلاد الذين يخشون اعتقالهم في حال عودتهم إلى سورية.

المصدر:المرصد السوري

June 18th, 2010, 10:00 am


jad said:

If anyone in or close to Toronto or Detroit, ENJOY THE SHOW! 🙂

Julia Domna
Enana Dance Theatre


Celebrated throughout the Arab world, Syria’s Enana Dance Theatre has also won acclaim as far afield as China, India, and Ukraine. Now the company makes its not-to-be-missed North American debut with the spectacular story of one of ancient history’s most extraordinary women.
Born in the second century AD, the daughter of a high priest, Julia claimed descent from Syrian kings. A philosopher, a student of literature and politics, and a patron of the arts, she married the future Roman emperor Septimius Severus – and soon became the power behind his throne. Her life, however, was destined to end in tragedy.
Exploding with colour and kinetic energy, and bringing together the musical traditions of East and West in a potent mix, Julia Domna is both a dazzling carnival of sight and sound and a compelling drama of power won and lost.
Location: MacMillan Theatre, Faculty of Music University of Toronto Edward Johnson Building


June 18th, 2010, 10:14 am


clayton said:

Good article. Analytical, detached, sound analysis. Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered if the Syrian regime, assuming the Israelis were amenable, would close the deal so to speak without an underlying resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

June 18th, 2010, 11:39 am


Joshua said:

Thanks, Clayton,

Syrian officials have a formula for the Palestine first problem. They explain how during the Oslo process, the Palestinians decided to push ahead alone. AT the time, Syria said that they would not try to stop the negotiations between the PLO and Israel. Later they joined on their own track. Since then Syria has consistantly said that they will pursue talks to their conclusion, which should not hinder the Palestinians from doing the same. Assad does say that Israel and Syria will never enjoy a full peace of the people until all the conflicts are settled. The implication is that Syria will sign a peace agreement with Israel for the Golan without waiting for the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, if the Israelis fail to move toward a peace with Palestinians, Syrians will never have a warm peace – not dissimilar, I suppose, to the peace that exists between Israel and Egypt or Jordan today.

During Oslo the two sides agreed not to coordinate at each step. This of course, served the Israelis in their effort to encourage concessions from each side by moving on the other side. Neither the PLO nor Syrians wanted to be the last party to sign an agreement for fear of being left out or left with diminished leverage. All the same, they found it impossible to coordinate negotiations, because they don’t trust each other and have quite different interests. The result was an agreement to pursue their own interests, with a recognition that both sides deserve the others support the the mutual problem of having occupied land.

As for Syria’s willingness to support Islamist groups such as Hizb and Hammas, I do not find it shocking. The secular US supported Muhahidiin in Afghanistan, Iraqi Son’s of Iraq, and various Shiite parties in Iraq. Israel initially sought to support Hamas as a tool to weaken the PLO, which worked quite well. I presume secular Israelis make common cause with fundamentalist Israelis when theiy have similar goals. This does not shock me.

June 18th, 2010, 12:12 pm


Observer 53 said:

The situation in the ME has got to be placed in the context of the Bush-Cheney Legacy and that of the authors of the Project for the New American Century. The goal was and is to control the oil resources around the world and the routes of transport while at the same time encircling any potential threat. The one country that could pose a threat is of course Russia with immense resources and technological know how. It was and is of paramount importance to keep it out of Europe and away from China. Controlling the ME and ensuring the role of Israel as the guardian of the so called stability was the objective. Well ” l’apprenti sorcier” got beaten at his game.
First the shock and awe showed that there is a limit to the hyperpower. The first is that local resistance can bog down any power, the second is that legitimacy is very very very hard to obtain especially if stability is not complete and long lasting. Thirdly, the US support for a phony war always drops to around 30% exactly as it happened in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq. Fourthly the appetie for sacrifice is not that of the WW 2 generation. Every family is limiting the number of children to give them maximum potential for success not to send them to a phony war.
The end result was and is a vaccum that is easily filled with the likes of Iran and Turkey. The former can do so only through its islamic credentials showing that an islamic oriented regime and society can build a modern independent state and achieve parity even with sanctions. The second being a non arab state that can only claim its role in the region not by being pro west and therefore pro israel but by being pro palestinian and with an islamist agenda.
The people lamenting the changing role of Turkey should not do so before they lament the complete dwarfing of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They are pygmies on the local and regional levels now and are still waiting for Obama to plot a strategy for them. They do not see the writing on the wall that their way of dealing with the region is obsolete.
As for Iran it is beginning to create a web of alliance with countries that are fed up with the current structure of the UN. I would predict that if the EU and US continue to insist on their way or the highway that we will find that the Latin Americans first and then some in the East will try to ignore or subvert the UN security council as it is structured today.
As for Israel, I agree with Asad that it is acting like a pyromaniac and asking for confrontation and bellicosity as it is the only mentality that they have. They are absolutely keen on one and one scenario only: complete enslavement of the region. Well this is not going to happen. I would advise many to start buying property in Europe especially since the prices are down. The move there will be easy and they can join the Europeans as they try to hang on to an outmoded and obsolete way of life with benefits payed for by a dying culture and ghetto immigrants.

The US foreign policy is adrift, the EU is going to be shocked about its weakness, the Euro may very well disappear, and we are back to the world circa 1905. Multipolar, nasty, and ever more complicated.

June 18th, 2010, 12:29 pm


Aram said:

Good analysis and perspective, Observer. It’s difficult to disagree.

Syria is, and should remain, a thorn in America’s side vis-a-vis US regional policy. The issue of Israel is a political one, but also one of morality and basic human rights in the most fundamental way.

Notwithstanding its support for Islamic groups, Syria, as a secular state stands on firm ground in opposing a country founded on religious and ethnic cleansing, and who continues to have tiers of citizenship based on religion. Much like the fight for justice in South Africa, this must remain a fight for basic human rights, including full equality and restitution for the Palestinians.

June 19th, 2010, 6:48 am


almasri said:

You didn’t get everything right in your comment Aram.

It is absolutely wrong to look at the Palestinian struggle and the Arab/Israeli conflict as that of a struggle for human rights. There is no parallel between South Africa and the zionist entity.

The Israeli entity is an illegal entity. The struggle is over the land of Palestine. The restitution for the Palestinians can only be fulfilled with the return of all the Palestinian refugees with their descendents to their homes in Palestine and the dismantlement of the zionist entity.

June 19th, 2010, 3:11 pm


Post a comment

Neoprofit AI