Syria’s Place in the U.S. Agenda

The recent tension in U.S. relations with Syria quickly raised the specter of another war to follow the Iraq war. Although the possibility of such a war is very small, the fears are real in many quarters in the Middle East and around the world.

For even aside from the genuine U.S. concerns about aspects of Syrian foreign policy, at issue are pervasive fears about American intentions and about the shape of American foreign policy after the military victory in Iraq.

Just as the surprisingly easy toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had empowered those who want to use America’s military might to pursue American objectives, the quick demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime has reinforced the same tendency.

The immediate grievances leading to the tension with Syria are important enough to deserve pursuit but certainly not enough to raise the specter of war. Syria, as did many other states, opposed the war on Iraq but it also surprised many by supporting U.N. Resolution 1441 demanding immediate Iraqi compliance with previous United Nations resolutions.

Syria has been accused of helping Iraq, including perhaps supplying night-vision equipment, and also of harboring former Iraqi leaders and scientists. These are important issues that the United States will no doubt continue to pursue as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell makes his way to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The tone of the relationship in the coming weeks will be important not only in setting American priorities in the Middle East but also in addressing concerns that the United States is implementing a unilateralist policy to remake the Middle East beyond Iraq.

Many in the Arab world also fear that rising tension with Syria will make it more difficult to focus on Arab-Israeli negotiations which most, including the United States and Britain, want to revive.

In the past three decades, the Syrian-U.S. relationship has been as complex as Syria’s relations with Iraq. Although Syria is ruled by the secularist Arab nationalist Baath Party, it has been at odds with the Iraqi Baathists for decades. In fact, the Syrians’ mistrust of Saddam Hussein was so strong that theirs became the only Arab country to side with the non-Arab Islamic government of Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Syria pulled another surprise by joining the U.S.-led coalition to liberate Kuwait. That created a new American-Syrian relationship that helped Syria survive the loss of its Soviet patron after the Cold War ended. It also opened opportunities for Arab-Israeli negotiations; Syria and Israel were brought together to negotiate in the Madrid process immediately after the 1991 gulf war.

Although the 1990s were characterized by episodes of competition between the Syrian-Israeli negotiations on one hand and the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the other, the general sense was that a negotiated settlement was obtainable. That helped reduce the tension between the United States and Syria despite Syria’s military presence in Lebanon and its support for the Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, which was under Israeli occupation.

By the end of the 1990s, the situation had changed. The Israeli-Syrian negotiations collapsed even before the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations did in July 2000. And Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanese territories. Syria, which has remained on the U.S. State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” continued its support for Hezbollah, which continued to attack Israeli targets, especially in a disputed border area, Shebaa Farm. This increased the tension between the United States and Syria even before the heightened focus on terrorism that followed the tragedy of Sept. 11.

Until his death in June 2000, Syrian President Hafez el Assad had managed to forge stable relations even with his enemies through a cautious policy that understood the limitations of Syrian power.

Both Israel and the United States have found predictable ways to manage their relationship with Damascus even when they strongly opposed Syria’s policies.

When Bashar Assad became president after his father’s death, both hope and concern existed. The hope derived from the man’s youth, his education in Britain, and his apparent understanding of the need to reform. The concern derived from the understanding that he needed the old guard even more to survive and that he lacked his father’s experience.

In the months since, both tendencies have been confirmed. After initiating modest steps to open up the country economically and politically, the process has stumbled before its many obstacles. Given the decisions that Syria has made in the past three years, it has been hard to guess where it may be headed.

Syrian-American relations were surprisingly boosted immediately after the tragedy of Sept. 11 in large part because Syria expressed its unequivocal condemnation of the horror and of al-Qaida, and more important, provided significant intelligence information on al-Qaida that gained it good will in the White House.

In recent months, however, as the Bush administration shifted its focus from al-Qaida to regional militant organizations, including Hezbollah, and to Iraq, the differences with Syria were accentuated, and the good will coming out of Syria’s cooperation in the war against al-Qaida faded into the background.

It is likely that the Bush administration’s objections to Syria’s role in Iraq during and after the war could be resolved, perhaps even during Secretary Powell’s visit to Damascus. It is even possible, although by no means certain, that Syria may take steps down the road to close offices of some groups on the U.S. list of terrorism, such as Islamic Jihad. But it is highly unlikely that Syria would act against Hezbollah in Lebanon beyond drawing some red lines for its operations.

There are two reasons for this. First, Hezbollah is seen by most Syrians, Lebanese and others in the region as a guerrilla movement, because in recent years it has focused its attacks largely on Israeli soldiers inside or near the Lebanese border.

Second, the Syrian Golan Heights are still occupied by Israel, and Damascus has little at its disposal to get them back. Syria certainly does not have a military capacity to fight a war with Israel and thus has little incentive to rein in its Lebanese allies without a renewal of peace negotiations over the Golan Heights.

Weapons of mass destruction have also become an issue in the Syrian-U.S. relationship, with Syria accused of developing chemical weapons. Here the Syrians, who have denied receiving such weapons from Iraq, have taken a position that coincides with that of other Arab states: that they support making the Middle East—including Israel—free of weapons of mass destruction. Since Israel, which has nuclear weapons, is unlikely to accept such a proposition, it is clear that this issue will remain on the agenda of U.S.-Syrian relations in the coming months.

In the end, there are steps that could be taken by Syria and the United States to reduce the tension and resolve some of the issues of contention even in the difficult environment after the war with Iraq.

But other issues are much more difficult to address without clarifying the thrust of both Syrian and American foreign policies and without restarting Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations.

The Syrian president will be watched for the signals he sends about the path Syria intends to take at home and abroad in the coming months and years. Washington will have to decide on the direction it wants to take after the Iraq war: Will Washington exploit the short-term leverage to rebuild Iraq, revive the Arab-Israeli peace process and repair relations that have been strained in the past year? Or does America see the military victory in Iraq as a first step in a policy to radically change the region through the direct and indirect use of American power?

The future of U.S.-Syrian relations is in part dependent on these bigger questions.