A Distrustful Washington Eyes Syria

July 13, 2004

For those few in Washington who are aware of the existence of Syria and who are, for one reason or another, concerned with developments there, the country appears increasingly incomprehensible, and therefore unfriendly. With ideology ruling the day in the US, creating a situation where the hostile, or what is perceived as such, is swiftly put on a haphazard to-do list that politicians and policymakers, regardless of their political affiliations, will go through sooner or later, the Syrian regime has no choice but to try and seriously tackle the underlying causes behind the incomprehension it faces.

Syria is said to have an eloquent and energetic ambassador in the US these days, Imad Mustafa, who is not shy to be seen conversing with policymakers, advisers and lobbyists. Relatively speaking, he is more open toward the media than his predecessors, and is willing to issue statements and be interviewed as often as there is interest, with little or no bureaucratic complications.

This indeed represents a new attitude for Syrian officials, or so say observers. It is also an indication that some in the Syrian regime are aware of the need to make Syria’s positions more comprehensible to American politicians.

But then, most politicians who meet with Mustafa tend to come away with the impression that the man, though capable and well intentioned, represents mostly himself rather than his regime or any power center within it. That is, his views and statements do not necessarily reflect actual policies that the Syrian authorities have adopted or intend to adopt. More important in this regard is the fact that Syrian policy these days is becoming increasingly hard to explain to American audiences, no matter how eloquent the person attempting to do so.

The problem of the Syrian regime, as far as most American policymakers and politicians are concerned (and Europeans as well), is not one of public relations, but of practice and policies that Damascus insists on pursuing in the name of such decorative catchphrases as “holding on to constants” or “sticking to national imperatives.”

It is the seeming absence of realism, and realpolitik, on the part of Syria’s policymakers that lies at the heart of the increasingly troubled relations between Syria and the US (if not Syria and the world). Remedying this state of affairs is directly related to the ability of the Syrian regime to reform itself and its ways, and is not a simple question of public diplomacy.

For Americans, it is incomprehensible that despite increasing internal and external pressures and inducements (more specifically the stick offered by the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act and occasional bellicose US statements, as well as the carrot offered by the EU in the form of an association agreement), the Syrian regime continues to crack down against dissents, fails to distance itself from outlawed groups, and seems incapable or unwilling to come up with initiatives for internal reform – political or economic.

Moreover, when compelled to act or justify its policies, the Syrian regime continues to fall back on Cold War tactics, rhetoric and defiance that make virtually no sense in light of current realities.

It might be tempting, therefore, to pronounce the regime to be hopelessly deadlocked and beyond all possible redemption, as many in the US are currently willing to do. This assessment is based mainly on the fact that Damascus has had ample time and opportunity to mend its ways and has so far failed to capitalize on this. The lack of new blood is not the only problem, as some would note; it is the regime’s inability to internally work out a new vision for the country that can help guide its domestic and foreign policies.

For this reason, the only way out of the impasse seems to be the introduction of a wholesale and open process of national reconciliation and reform, one that can help reinvent the country, not simply the regime, transforming it into a state for all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnic or sectarian affiliations. This process will permit the regime to widen its support base and gain more internal legitimacy and intellectual input regarding the various crises it and Syria as a whole are facing. This, in turn, will allow it to address more confidently and effectively various Bush administration demands, which will be reiterated by future US administrations – specifically an end to continuing Syrian support for “outlawed” Palestinian groups, Hizbullah and those fighting the US in Iraq, as well as a discontinuation of Syria’s possible development of weapons of mass destruction.

The introduction of such a process would also allow for more active diplomacy of the type favored by Mustafa, improving Syria’s relations with the US and the world.

Bluntly put, in order to avoid potential isolation and implosion, and the mayhem and accountability that accompany this, Syria’s regime must relinquish much of its control and power, opening the way for greater participation by civil society and opposition figures in the country’s decision-making process.

This would hurt the entrenched economic interests of much of the ruling elite, but the latter can survive, perhaps even easily so. Another round of international isolation, on the other hand, might prove impossible to outlive. Unfortunately, the Syrian regime’s continued inability to deal with the US is slowly paving the way toward such an end. Each misstep and misstatement Damascus has made in the past few years, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, are being logged and documented by its enemies worldwide, especially in the US, so that a case can be built up for the regime’s outright removal one day.

Indeed, the process might take years, but, barring any serious overture by the Syrian regime for reform, and any serious internal challenge to its authority, time is clearly on the side of Syria’s enemies. And the fate of the country and its people is hanging in the balance.