Don’t Rush on the Road to Damascus

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

March 2, 2005

The assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has given new life to an old idea: using the issue of Lebanese independence to undermine Syria’s strategic position. Drawing on the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last summer, President Bush and senior officials are now calling on “the Syrian regime” to remove its military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon and cede any political role there.

Administration hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who, as President Reagan’s Middle East envoy, oversaw the collapse of America’s foray into Lebanon’s civil war) and the National Security Council’s Elliott Abrams (whose previous involvement in Lebanon policy helped generate the Iran-contra scandal) believe that such a course would allow the establishment of a pro-Western government in Beirut that would accommodate Israel and help to project American influence. They also believe that it would set the stage for the Syrian regime’s collapse, removing another Baathist “rogue state.”

The turmoil unleashed in Lebanon by the Hariri assassination—which reached a high point this week with the resignation of the Syrian-backedprime minister, Omar Karami—may indeed represent a strategic opening, but not for the risky maximalist course that some in the administration seem intent on pursuing.

For starters, any effort to engineer a pro-Western Lebanese government would be resisted by Hezbollah, the largest party in Lebanon’s Parliament, which because of its record of fighting Israel is at least as legitimate in Lebanese eyes as the anti-Syrian opposition. In the face of such resistance, efforts to establish a pro-Western government would fail, creating more instability in the region when the United States can ill afford it.

Does the Bush administration understand that for the foreseeable future, any political order in Lebanon that reflects, as the White House put it, the “country’s diversity,” will include an important role for Hezbollah? Does the administration feel confident about containing Hezbollah without on-the-ground Syrian management and with the group’s sole external guide an increasingly hard-line Iran? Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s national security adviser recently said that an overly precipitous Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could pose a threat to Israel.

Moreover, the sudden end of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad would not necessarily advance American interests. Syrian society is at least as fractious as Iraq’s or Lebanon’s. The most likely near-term consequence of Mr. Assad’s departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist. In the end, the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower Mr. Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him.

To exploit the current moment wisely, the Bush administration must abandon ideological attachments to a bygone era when Maronite Christian leaders dominated Lebanon or fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic state emerging in Syria over the next few months. We have been down this road before, during Lebanon’s civil war; it ends with Americans killed or taken hostage in terrorist attacks, and our credibility damaged by our inability to undergird rhetoric with sustainable policy.

It’s smart to take advantage of the current focus on Syria’s position in Lebanon to obtain concrete improvements in Lebanon’s political environment. With help from international partners and key Arab states, it should be possible to win the redeployment of the last Syrian troops in Lebanese cities either to Syria or to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in accordance with the 1989 Taif accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Mr. Assad’s recent statements make clear that it should also be possible to induce the Lebanese and Syrian governments to negotiate a timetable for withdrawing all Syrian forces. During his four and a half years as president, Mr. Assad has already cut the number of Syrian troops in half, setting precedents for further reductions.

By taking up Mr. Assad’s call for bilateral dialogue, the administration could also negotiate a freer Lebanese electoral process, monitored by international observers. The United States, however, should recognize that an expansion of political openness will unfold over years, rather than weeks or months; it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid a re-emergence of sectarian violence.

As Syria retrenches in Lebanon, the United States should use the issue to leverage improved Syrian behavior on issues that arguably matter more to American interests in the region, like Syrian support for insurgents in Iraq and for terrorist activity against Israel. Syria’s decision to effect the turnover of Saddam Hussein’s half brother and other Iraqi Baathists did not come primarily in response to American jawboning over Iraq. Rather, it was prompted by Syria’s interest in deflecting the mounting criticism of its role in Lebanon.

The Bush administration can elicit more sustained improvements in Syrian behavior on Iraq and terrorism by using the threat of intensified criticism of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon—including Security Council action—as a badly needed stick in the repertoire of policy options toward Syria. Washington should also not be afraid to spell out for Mr. Assad the carrots it would offer in return for greater cooperation. In so doing, President Bush could more effectively pursue some of his most important objectives for the region while tangibly improving the lives of ordinary Lebanese.