Damascus, Jerusalem, and Washington: The Syrian-Israeli Relationship as a U.S. Policy Issue

March 2, 2009

Executive Summary

The priority the United States placed on the Israeli- Syrian relationship declined dramatically under the administration of George W. Bush, compared to its cardinal position during the period of the Clinton Administration. In addition, during the Bush years, the relative importance of the Israeli component of Washington’s relationship with Damascus declined whereas other components, particularly Iraq and Lebanon, came to the fore. The Bush Administration’s overall policy toward Syria—neither to engage with Syria nor attack it, but to seek soft ways of penalizing it—failed to work.

On the Israel side, the Israeli government’s policy transformed from Ariel Sharon’s and Ehud Olmert’s initial rejection of “the Syrian option” to Olmert’s quest for a settlement with Syria. It will be up to the Obama Administration and Israel’s new government to decide whether to pick up where Olmert left off. Of critical importance is the fact that the emphasis of Syrian- Israeli negotiations has shifted from the relatively simple formula of “territories for peace” to a more comprehensive formula that includes Syria’s relationship with Iran, Hizballah, and the radical Palestinian organizations.

The Obama Administration and Israel’s new government will most certainly take a fresh look at Middle Eastern diplomacy. The Israeli government will have to decide whether it wants to proceed with the Syrian negotiations, in what fashion, and to what end. It will have to integrate such decisions into a larger strategy that will address the other core issues of Israel’s national security policies: its relationship with the new U.S. administration, how to address the Palestinian issue, and what to do about Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and a nuclear arsenal.

For the Obama Administration, Syria would be a small, yet a significant piece in a larger national security puzzle. Its policy towards Syria and the issue of an Israeli- Syrian peace process is likely to unfold along one of the following four scenarios:

A Derivative of a Potential American-Iranian Dialogue. One of the top priorities of the Obama Administration will be to develop an Iran strategy. It may continue (or push further) the Bush Administration’s policy of isolation or, more likely, it may explore whether a “grand bargain” with Iran is feasible. Such a choice would be natural for a president who had advocated an open dialogue approach with Iran during his election campaign.

If a dialogue materializes and unfolds successfully, a new context would be created for Washington’s relationship with Damascus. An American-Iranian understanding should cover Iraq, Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. If such an understanding is indeed reached, Syria would no longer be seen as the junior partner of an evil state and therefore U.S.-Syrian accommodation and a new American stewardship of an Israeli-Syrian peace process would be facilitated.

A By-Product of Lingering Hostility with Iran. Should the previous option not be pursued or should it fail, the prospect of wooing Syria away from Iran would loom as a joint policy goal for both the United States and Israel. This idea is not new. In fact, the aim of breaking Syria away from Iran was used by the Olmert government in justifying its decision to enter into and publicize indirect negotiations with Syria. A similar rationale was articulated by France when Nicolas Sarkozy decided to engage with Asad. However, Syria has refused to discuss a change in its relationship with Iran as a precondition to progress in negotiations with Israel. Yet, in the past, various Syrian spokesmen have alluded to the position that Syria’s alliance with Iran is not fixed and that it is mostly a result of Washington’s rejection of Syria. Such claims can of course be tested, but testing them would not be an easy diplomatic exercise. The Ba’th regime has a long tradition of straddling the line and Syria’s leadership is likely, if a dialogue with the United States is renewed, to try to proceed in that dialogue without actually severing its intimate relationship with Tehran.

Henry Kissinger’s success in shifting Egypt in the early and mid-1970s from the Soviet orbit to a pro-American orientation has been cited as a model for pulling Syria away from Iran. It should be noted that a peace process and Egypt’s regaining of the Sinai were important dimensions of that successful strategic realignment. It should also be noted that while the Egypt case is an inspiring example, Anwar Sadat was a bold, visionary leader who was willing to jump from the Soviet orbit even before a safe position with the United States had been secured. Hafiz al-Asad showed no such inclination, and thus far, neither has Bashar.

A Policy of Using Force. As noted above, the Bush Administration decided to avoid both ends of the spectrum by refraining from either dialogue with or using force against Syria. If both varieties of dialogue mentioned above do not materialize, the Obama Administration could reconsider the option of using force against Syria. However, this is a highly unlikely prospect.

A Policy of Maintenance. Should the Obama Administration relegate the Syria issue to a relatively low place on its foreign policy agenda or should it decide to allocate priority to the Palestinian issue, it will have to find a way of keeping it and the question of the U.S. relationship with Syria on hold. If put on the back burner, the Syrian issue may deteriorate into direct or indirect conflict, similar to what occurred in earlier decades. Therefore, a strategy of conflict management will be necessary.