U.S. Policy and Syria: Who’s Converting Whom?

April 24, 2008

Mr. Chairman, members of this subcommittee:

Thank you for the invitation to testify on the important topic of U.S. policy toward Syria.

The idea of splitting Syria from Iran seems like a no-brainer. This is the most important strategic argument that is often made for trying to improve the U.S. relationship with Syria. The idea has been around for a long time, however – 25 years or so, in fact, since the Syrian-Iranian alliance took shape during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. The obstacle to actually accomplishing this strategic coup is that no one has figured out a way to do it consistently with other important strategic interests or without risk to other strategic interests of the United States.

It is reasonable to look at this question again, however, in the current context – especially in light of recent rumors of Syrian-Israeli contacts.

The Strategic Context Up to Now

The main problems lately have been Syria’s role and actions in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian diplomacy, and in the nuclear dimension.

Iraq. Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad sided with Saddam Hussein just before the 2003 Iraq war. Then, after the war, he opened Syria to Ba’athist extremists trying to undermine the new Iraqi government and to kill Americans. The Bush Administration sent senior officials on several visits to Damascus to meet with President Asad to try to persuade him to stop these activities: Secretary of State Colin Powell went in May 2003; I had the privilege of visiting myself in September 2004 as part of an interagency delegation with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns; and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had a similar meeting with Asad in early 2005.

In each case, the Syrians’ response was that destabilizing Iraq and killing Americans were the furthest things from their minds; they did confess to having trouble controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border, and asked for our technical assistance. The concern that the American side expressed, however, was that the main problem was not border control but the evident policy of the Syrian government to allow sanctuary inside Syria for political organizing by Iraqi extremists directly involved in those hostile activities. We even gave them names of senior Iraqi extremists who we knew were operating out of Syria. As we told President Asad, we had a hard time believing that the Syrian government did not have control over these kinds of activities on its territory. In response, they turned over one Iraqi radical, if I recall correctly.

And the Syrians are masters of spin. Each of these visits by senior Americans was meant to convey a serious warning and to ratchet up pressures on Damascus to reverse its disruptive and destructive policy. Our talking points, I recall on my own visit, were as blunt and tough as any talking points I have seen in many years (and we let President Asad know they had been cleared by President Bush). But the Syrians always publicized the fact of the high-level meetings as a sign that U.S.-Syrian relations were excellent. This conveyed a wrong impression to everyone, including our friends in the region. In other words, while our tough talking points were meant to ratchet up pressures, the Syrians spun the visits into relief from pressures.

Lebanon. The murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri took place in February 2005; the war between Israel and Hizballah occurred in July 2006. One important consequence of these two events was to isolate Syria in the Arab world. The Arabs, particularly the Gulf Arabs, were furious at Syria – Hariri was a close friend of the Saudis, and the Gulf Arabs saw Hizballah’s aggression as an Iranian power play. At an Arab summit, there was the unusual occurrence of many leaders condemning Hizballah for provoking the conflict. The Syrians chose that period to float another peace overture to Israel. But we and the Israelis and the Arabs correctly saw this as a ploy – as a device to break out of their isolation, indeed as a way to split us from the Gulf Arabs. At a moment when we and the Gulf Arabs were intensifying our security cooperation – in an important U.S. initiative called the Gulf Security Dialogue – prompted in large part by concern over Iran, for us to have taken the bait and launched into a rapprochement with Syria would have caused considerable confusion in the Arab world about our strategic judgment.

Arab anger at Syria is a recurring phenomenon – usually short-lived. In recent years, however, given the growing threat from Iran, the unholy alliance between Syria and Iran is likely to remain a big issue in Syrian-Arab relations. We should not forget which side we have the bigger stake in.

The Palestinian Issue. On the Palestinian issue, too, Syria has long played a negative role, backing rejectionist forces. Today it is solidly backing Hamas and harboring its leaders. President Carter’s efforts notwithstanding, this is a way of obstructing the peace process, not advancing it. Syria has long played this kind of role – to maximize its leverage over Israel and indeed its regional leverage.

The Nuclear Dimension. None of us on the outside can know the full ramifications of the reported Israeli strike last September against a North Korean-related nuclear facility in Syria. It was interesting that both Israel and Syria perceived an interest in minimizing the public political fallout from that event. The incident probably has more immediate relevance to our present diplomacy with North Korea, but it is also a reminder of the potential dangers of a Syrian-Israeli conflict. Syria already possesses other forms of WMD if not nuclear weapons.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Some might say these are all reasons for the United States to reach out to Syria. But, if Syria really wants to make a deal with us (and Israel) in good faith, and if that’s what Syria is really after, it has been going about it the wrong way. It is not in our interest to take the bait (on the Golan) in a context that complicates our Arab relations or seems to reward the killing of Americans. Some make the argument a little differently, saying that our current difficulties show we need Syria and need to reach out to them. But Syria’s collusion in the killing of Americans in Iraq has made it unattractive for the United States to take any such initiative. Yielding to blackmail, or approaching them as demandeur, would be the wrong approach.

Thus, Syrian policies have made it harder to visualize any kind of rapprochement – assuming that’s what they are interested in. My conclusion is, on the contrary, that the Syrian government has behaved like a government that has made a strategic decision to continue to play the spoiler – to cling to its alliance with Iran in order to maximize its regional position and leverage. Syria is an essentially weak country that has made itself a major factor in the Arab world by its alliance with Iran and by being disruptive and menacing in its behavior. It is not self-evident the Syrians will give all that up, just for the Golan Heights. Their strategic priorities do not seem to be limited to the Golan.

Is there some “grand bargain” to be had between us and Syria? If so, what would it be? What else could we give them, apart from helping them recover the Golan? We can’t “give them Lebanon,” or seem to. In 1991, the inclusion of Syria in the Madrid peace process was seen by some (including the Syrians) as giving them a green light to step up their bullying in Lebanon. That’s not in the cards today.

In other words, it’s not only Syria that has a price; we have a price:

  • Will they leave Lebanon alone? The continuing deadlock over the Lebanese presidency and cabinet shows Syria still playing a bullying role and trying to regain by other means the dominance it lost in Lebanon after it took its troops out.
  • In Iraq, there seems to be some recent reduction in the flow of extremist fighters from Syria, but it may be the result of a crackdown on Islamists within Syria – for Syria’s own domestic purposes – rather than a strategic decision to stop trying to weaken Iraq and bleed the United States.
  • Will Syria still play the role of spoiler on other regional issues – supporting extremists, maintaining its strategic alliance with Iran?

In short, the conditions do not exist for an improvement of relations with Syria so long as Syrian policies remain hostile to important interests of ours in the Middle East. It is appropriate to continue sanctions and pressures on Syria so long as this is the case. And, based on the experience of past meetings with President Asad, I am skeptical of the value of further diplomatic overtures in the absence of significant improvements in U.S. leverage or in the overall balance of forces in the region.

Lately there have been fresh reports of Syrian-Israeli diplomatic contacts. I can only speculate, but I can see some benefit to the Israelis in playing the Syrians and Palestinians off against each other, or in nailing down a stable situation on the Syrian front while they continue to wrestle with the agonizing Palestinian problem. Perhaps now is an opportunity for the Israelis to be creative in this area. But I have two concerns.

One is whether Israeli domestic politics can absorb a Syrian negotiation at the same time as the (already difficult) Palestinian negotiation. It has long been an axiom of the Middle East peace process that the Israeli political system cannot handle major concessions on more than one front at a time. But that, of course, is for the Israeli government and people to decide.

Second, it is essential that Israel and the United States coordinate their respective strategies toward Syria, in light of the broader regional significance of Syrian policies. Israel and the United States also need to keep in mind the broader Arab context – and the Iran context – and the stake we both have in cooperation with the moderate Arabs, including in the Gulf. Ultimately there will have to be a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement – everyone knows that – but it should be in a strategic context that strengthens the forces of moderation in the region rather than weakening them. Syria will be thinking strategically if it pursues a dialogue with Israel; so should we.

My bottom line is that Syria has to pay a big part of the price – in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and in its ties with Iran – if it wants the United States to lift a finger in its behalf.

Thank you.