The Future of U.S.-Syrian Relations

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

April 24, 2008

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to address the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sub-Committee on Middle East and South Asia.

For the past seven years relations between the United States and Syria have been fraught – the product of intense disagreement over policy toward Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. The dominant view of Syria that has developed in Washington during this period is that of a country ruled by an unreliable leader, with ruthless ambitions to dominate its smaller Lebanese neighbor, harboring Palestinian terrorists and Iraqi insurgents, and maintaining an alliance with Iran – a strategic adversary of the United States.

In these circumstances, Syria’s opposition to American interests has provided ample justification for a policy of containment and isolation. Consequently, Syria remains on the State Department’s Terrorism List, our ambassador has been recalled, and Congress has imposed a range of additional, unilateral sanctions on the Assad regime.

The results of this policy are mixed, at best. On one side, Syria has managed to prevent the election of a new Lebanese president and has thereby stymied Lebanese politics, advantaging its local allies (Hezbollah and some Christian factions). It has facilitated the rearming of Hezbollah to pre-2006 war levels. It continues to provide safe-haven and succor to Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Palestinian terrorist groups that violently oppose the Annapolis peace process. And it suppresses all political dissent inside Syria.

On the other side, Syria for the time being is cooperating with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. It has attenuated its support for Iraqi insurgents. President Assad continues to assert his interest in making peace with Israel and sent an official delegation to the Annapolis peace conference. He is also careful not to provoke conflict with Israel, or even retaliate for Israel’s strike on what appears to have been a clandestine Syrian nuclear facility.

In short, Syria fits the category of a “rogue regime” but is doing just enough to avoid making itself the target of a regime change policy from the Bush Administration.

With a new American president on the horizon, it is worth considering whether a different approach to Syria would produce a more productive relationship, one that could help graduate it from “rogue” status. A review is in order for two reasons:

i) The Government of Israel is keenly interested in engaging Syria in peace negotiations but President Assad will only agree to do so if the United States participates too.

ii) Syria provides the conduit for Iranian influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Restricting that pipeline would constitute a strategic setback to Iran, which has become America’s main regional adversary.

An Israeli-Syrian peace holds considerable advantage for U.S. interests in the Middle East. It would remove the last of Israel’s neighboring Arab states from the conflict, helping to stabilize the region and enhancing America’s reputation as peacemaker at a time when Iran is arguing that violence and terrorism is the answer to the region’s afflictions. It would also provide important political cover for other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel. And it would create a wedge between Syria and Iran that has the potential for shifting the balance of regional power back in our favor after our ill-fated Iraq adventure managed to tilt it in Iran’s.

As I understand it, the Bush Administration is unwilling to encourage Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations out of concern that this would reduce Syria’s isolation and result in the sacrificing of Lebanon’s independence on the altar of an Israeli-Syrian peace. But this puts the U.S. in the unprecedented and invidious position of opposing an opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking even when our ally Israel is keen to pursue it.

My own experience in the Clinton Administration, where I advocated a “Syria first” strategy to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace, has made me supremely conscious of the likelihood that the Syrian regime seeks a peace “process” rather than to end to its conflict with Israel. Such a process would significantly reduce its isolation, which is a major reason for its insistence on America’s involvement in the negotiations. Nevertheless, there could be considerable advantages to the United States in pursuing such a process, even if it does not lead to a peace agreement in the short term.

First, the U.S. could use its agreement to participate as a way of protecting and promoting Lebanon’s independence. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers in the Bush Administration’s stance is that Israel and Syria may go ahead and negotiate without Washington’s involvement. This would surely lead to an undermining of Lebanon’s independence since Israel has only one interest in Lebanon these days: the disarming of Hezbollah. If Syria were to promise to do that, Israel would have reason to accept its re-intervention in Lebanon in order to make Damascus responsible for curbing Hezbollah.

Conversely, were the U.S. to agree to sponsor Israeli-Syrian negotiations, it could make its involvement conditional on Lebanon being off the table and, in the course of the negotiations, it could guarantee that Lebanon’s interests are not sacrificed. The U.S. could also join Israel in insisting in the course of the negotiations that Syria prevent arms flowing into Lebanon from Syrian territory.

In addition, the launching of Israel-Syria negotiations would create the necessary conditions for launching Lebanon’s own negotiations with Israel, in which the disarming of Hezbollah could be treated as a sovereign decision of the Lebanese government in the context of resolving the Sheba’a Farms issue.

Second, an Israeli-Syrian negotiating process could facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in several indirect ways: Hamas and PIJ would feel under far greater pressure to go along with the negotiations if they felt their Syrian patron was about to make a deal with Israel and shut down their Damascus headquarters; the Palestinian negotiators would have greater political cover in the Arab world; and the U.S. could take advantage of the competition between the two tracks to advance progress on both.

Third, and perhaps most importantly given our broader strategic interests, an Israeli-Syrian negotiating process under U.S. auspices would spook the Iranians. I do not believe that it is possible simply to “flip” Syria out of its alliance with Iran. This is a multi-faceted strategic relationship that will take time and a considerable effort to break. However, on the subject of what to do about Israel there is a deep divergence between these two allies, captured in the fact that at the same time as Iran’s president was threatening to wipe Israel off the map, Syria’s president was offering to make peace with it. Thus negotiations with Israel will inevitably generate tensions and friction between Damascus and Teheran. This was quite evident in the 1990s when Israel and Syria were engaged in American-sponsored peace negotiations, captured in a statement by then Iranian Foreign Minister Velayati: “The more a country gets close to the usurper regime [i.e. Israel], the more it will distance itself from us.”

Iran’s position in the Middle East heartland is now so much more robust than it was back then precisely because it has been able to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict to enhance its influence both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian arena. Iran will therefore be loathe to see any reduction in tensions between Israel and Syria and will be particularly concerned about any constriction of its pipeline through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I would hasten to emphasize that I am not now advocating a return to the “Syria First” policy pursued by the Clinton Administration. I believe that it is now much more urgent to make progress on the Palestinian track. But there is no inconsistency between making that a priority and launching negotiations on the Syrian track. Indeed they can be mutually reinforcing. One of the lessons of our experience back then is that the U.S. is more likely to achieve a breakthrough on the Syrian track if we focus our energies and attention on the Palestinian track. It is one of the multiple ironies of the Middle East that when the U.S. pushes hard on one door, another one may open instead.

Moreover, sponsoring Israeli-Syrian negotiations does not require the U.S. to drop any of its other concerns, from maintaining the independence of Lebanon, to ensuring the effectiveness of the Special Tribunal, to pressing Damascus to end its human rights abuses and its sponsorship of terrorist organizations. Indeed, if the next president goes down this road toward a more constructive engagement with Syria, the United States would be able more effectively to pursue each of these issues.

There is one caveat that the next president would need to be mindful of should he/she decide to pursue this option of engaging Syria via peace negotiations. Just about every leader that has attempted to deal with President Bashar al-Assad has come away frustrated. The list includes Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The cause of their frustration is the disconnect between Assad’s reasonableness in personal meetings and his regime’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on understandings reached there. It is unclear whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of ability to control the levers of power. Either way, it raises questions about the utility of a policy of engagement.

In my view, however, the Bush Administration has managed through its policy of isolation to get Assad’s attention. Given the other advantages of pursuing engagement, it is at least an idea worth testing by the next president provided he/she enters the bazaar with clear eyes, a wariness about buying faulty goods at too high a price, and a willingness to walk away if the merchant does not live up to his side of the bargain.