How to Get Syria Out of the Terrorism Business

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

May 4, 2003

The military victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime has empowered some officials in the Bush administration to push for similarly decisive action against other state sponsors of terrorism. For the hardliners, Syria has become the preferred next target in the war on terrorism.

I know because I’ve been hearing the argument a lot in recent days. For the last eight years, I have been directly involved in United States policymaking toward Syria, as a C.I.A. analyst, on the State Department’s policy planning staff and at the White House. In all that time, I have never seen officials as willing to take on the Syrian regime as they are today.

The current concern about Syria is understandable. A longtime supporter of terrorist groups, Syria has developed weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, Syria backed Saddam Hussein to the bitter end, demonstrating a troubling willingness to challenge American interests.

But Syria also presents the administration with a strategic opportunity that would be imprudent not to explore. Since the 9/11 attacks, the problem of how to get states out of the terrorism business has been a defining question for American foreign policy. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we achieved this end by toppling irredeemable regimes. But can we change the behavior of a terrorism-sponsoring state like Syria without unseating its regime? Is it possible to reform Syria’s posture not through force, but through diplomatic engagement?

The answer is a qualified yes. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s visit to Damascus today has the potential to be the first stage in this experiment.

The success of engagement depends in large measure on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Assad is not an ideological fanatic like Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, or an incorrigible thug like Saddam Hussein. He is young, educated partly in the West and married to a British-born woman who was once in J.P. Morgan’s executive training program. He has also made it clear that Syria needs to modernize, and that its long-term interests would be served by better relations with the United States.

While Mr. Assad’s inclinations make engagement plausible as a strategy, constraints on his effective authority mean that diplomatic success is far from assured. Mr. Assad was only 34 when he became president upon the death of his father, Hafez, in June 2000. Until then, most of his political career had been spent as head of the government-run Syrian Computer Society. Still encumbered by several of his father’s key advisers, he does not yet have the standing to make fundamental changes in policy on his own. One has only to observe the Syrian president in meetings where he is accompanied by his foreign minister (in office since 1984) or his vice president (a key regime figure since the 1970’s) to appreciate the constraints he faces.

For this reason, it will not be enough for American officials simply to show up in Damascus, present a list of complaints about Syrian ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, and expect Mr. Assad to take action. Syria’s leaders have heard these complaints before and have offered little more than canned rhetoric as a response.

This time around we should avoid generalities and consistently identify for Mr. Assad the specific steps he needs to take. These might include closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, expelling terrorist leaders like Jihad’s Ramadan Shallah, and stopping Iranian supplies for Hezbollah from moving through Syria on the way to Lebanon.

We should then outline a series of measures we would undertake if Syria fails to act. We might start with additional economic sanctions—like barring Syria from participating in Iraqi reconstruction or imposing a comprehensive trade embargo—and end with covert and possibly overt attacks against terrorism-related targets in Syria or Lebanon.

But given Mr. Assad’s political constraints, sticks alone will not produce more than short-term tactical adjustments in Syrian behavior. To bring about real change, we must also offer concrete benefits in exchange for meeting our demands. Doing so would enable Mr. Assad to demonstrate to the regime’s inner circle that Syrian interests would be better served by cooperation with us than by a gradually intensifying confrontation.

In this regard, an important incentive to offer Mr. Assad is a role in a genuine strategic discussion about the region’s future. In the years after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Syria’s principal forum for having its regional interests considered by the United States was the Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Since President Bill Clinton’s summit with Hafez Assad in Geneva in April 2000, however, there has been no Syrian track. Diplomatic marginalization has been a source of frustration for Syria—and it’s one that will probably intensify as the country becomes encircled by pro-Western states (including, now, Iraq). We should therefore indicate a willingness to begin talking with Mr. Assad about Syria’s regional interests, but only on the condition that he take steps to cut his country’s links to terrorism.

The United States should also make clear that it is prepared to remove Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In the 1990’s, we made Syria’s removal from the list contingent on a peace treaty with Israel that never came; we should now tie removal to changes in Syria’s relations with terrorists. Taking Syria off the list would allow American economic aid to flow to the country for the first time in decades and substantially increase assistance from international financial institutions.

Getting Syria out of the terrorism business through diplomatic engagement would be a major achievement in itself, both for our counterterrorism campaign and our Middle East policy. Perhaps more significantly, success with Syria could establish hard-nosed engagement as the most effective way to confront, and eventually to change, the behavior of states that back terrorism. In this regard, Secretary Powell’s journey to Damascus could mark a new stage of the war on terrorism—one that will enable the Bush administration to match its military achievements with even more impressive diplomatic accomplishments.