Syria Seeks Change: On Its Own Terms

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

November 17, 2008


  • Syria’s success in breaking out of its US-imposed isolation is due to internal as well as external factors including power consolidation, diplomatic maneuvering, and US policy setbacks in Iraq and Lebanon.
  • Its recent foreign policy adjustment notwithstanding, Syria has not made a paradigmatic shift in its foreign policy thinking or compromised in a significant way on any of the issues that affect the survival of its regime, including Lebanon, Iraq, relations with Iran, and peace with Israel.
  • Despite the grim news currently surrounding US-Syrian relations, the most notable being the US raid into Syrian territory in October, the potential for improved relations between the two countries under the administration of US President-elect Barack Obama is possible.

Syria fell out of favour with the West following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, a murder which Syria is suspected by the UN of helping commit. Syria’s implication in the assassination, its continued interference in Lebanese domestic politics, its aiding of insurgents in Iraq and support for Hizbullah and Hamas put its regime on a collision course with Washington and Paris.

Notwithstanding the US raid into Syria in later October, that reality is no longer germane. Syria appears to have broken out of its isolation by improving relations with France, strengthening its domestic position, and indirectly negotiating with Israel the details of a future peace deal. The Syrian regime no longer feels vulnerable and, as its prospects of survival improve, its self confidence is increasingly apparent.

Breaking free

What broke the logjam between Paris and Damascus was the facilitating role Syria played in the Qatari-mediated talks between the Lebanese anti-Syrian coalition, led by Saad Hariri, and the Hizbullah-led opposition at Doha in May 2008. The successful conclusion of the Doha agreement removed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condition for the resumption of Syrian-French relations. Moreover, Assad formally established diplomatic relations with Lebanon and proposed interceding between Western countries and Iran over the Iranian nuclear issue. In return, Sarkozy promised to push for the long-stalled Association Agreement between the EU and Syria.

Syria’s pragmatic statecraft during this episode did not emerge in a vacuum but is part of a larger tactical reorientation in foreign policy. That reorientation began with the 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel in southern Lebanon in summer 2006. The duration of that conflict and the extent of the damage Israel’s punitive air strikes inflicted on Lebanon impressed upon Syrian leaders just how far the US-led international community would go to destroy Hizbullah.

As a result of this threat perception, Syria began sending signals to Israel via Turkish diplomats that Damascus was willing to resume peace talks. To date, four rounds of indirect talks between the two countries have taken place. Syria also leaned on the Damascus-based political leadership of Hamas to accept a truce with Israel that Egypt was negotiating. In another sign that it was willing to change its ways, Damascus allowed a team of IAEA inspectors to visit, unhindered, the site of the alleged nuclear facility bombed by Israel in September 2007. Confirmation of widespread reports that the inspectors have found weapons-grade uranium at the site is expected to come when IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei reports back to the UN at the end of November.

Tactical adjustments

Damascus’s foreign policy reorientation has not yet translated into tangible improvements in its relations with the US and Saudi Arabia, two key countries in Syria’s strategic orbit. Also, this pragmatic shift should not be seen as a radical new approach or a strategic realignment.

On Lebanon, Syria has made it very clear to the US and other Western powers that its smaller neighbour’s nominal freedom is tolerated as long as that it does not undermine or jeopardise Syrian strategic and national security interests. With regard to Iran, Syria has repeatedly stated that its strategic relations with the Islamic Republic are firm and as a result will not be drastically affected by any potential peace deal with Israel. This fixed position also applies to relations with Hizbullah and Hamas, as it is difficult to see how Syria would voluntarily break with these actors in the absence of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal.

Meanwhile, relations with Saudi Arabia have never fully recovered after the assassination of Hariri. Hariri was a staunch ally of Riyadh and his murder was a big blow to Saudi interests in Lebanon. Syria’s endorsement of the Doha agreement may have slightly eased the tensions between the two countries, but fell well short of putting relations on track. Mistrust between the two countries remains high as Saudi Arabia is still wary of Syria’s intentions in Lebanon and Syria is constantly worried about the Kingdom’s alleged attempts to destabilise the Assad regime through Syrian Sunni tribes loyal to Riyadh.

Damascus also remains a relevant player in Iraq. Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Baghdad in 2006 and has maintained ties with senior Iraqi figures (including Jalal Talabani and Moqtada al-Sadr). More importantly, it enjoys solid relations with Iran, the major regional power broker in Iraq. While the Bush administration remained suspicious of engaging Syria, President-elect Obama has given clear signs that he is more willing to resort to conventional diplomacy, rather than aggressive unilateralism. However this is not to suggest that future US-Syria relations will be straightforward or unconditional.

The US wants a clear commitment from Syria to cooperate on Washington’s exit strategy from Iraq, a reassurance not to destabilise Lebanon, and a promise to break with Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. Syria, on the other hand, wants the US to end the international tribunal into the killing of Hariri, recognise its influence in Lebanon, and mediate a peace deal with Israel.


The notion that the Syrian regime merely seeks better relations with Washington is incorrect as Syrian officials often privately cite the example of Libya’s transformation in a derogatory manner, therefore, Syrian ‘capitulation’ to become a ‘moderate’ ally is unthinkable at this stage. Damascus seeks recognition before popularity and it is waiting for a comprehensive business arrangement. In this respect, Damascus is likely to find the incoming US administration more receptive than the outgoing one.