The fifth session of the Crisis in the Middle East Task Force addressed the topic of “Whither Syria?” on December 13, 2007. This session, hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, focused on the difficult in balance among competing U.S. priorities towards given its interference with the U.S. agenda in the Middle East.
Participants detailed many U.S. complaints against Syria. The Syrian government allows foreign fighters to transit Syria on their way to Iraq, provides a haven for Iraqis with U.S. blood on their hands, permits anti-U.S. elements to organize, and has a weak track record of making arrests at U.S. request. Syria causes trouble in Lebanon; supports Hizballah and Hamas; and frustrates the U.S. campaigns to fight terrorism and promote democracy in the region. The Syrian government’s domestic strength, one participant noted, means that it is either directly supporting anti-U.S. forces or is actively refusing to oppose them.
Participants discussed competing U.S. priorities regarding Syria, which one participant described as “fundamentally contradictory.” The United States wants to isolate Syria while separating it from Iran, and wants peace between Syria and Israel without sacrificing Lebanon. Many noted that Iraq is the main priority.
Crafting a U.S. strategy toward Syria depends in large part on what Syria wants. Syria may cause trouble to focus attention on regaining the Golan Heights from Israel or, perhaps, Syria simply enjoys making mischief. Participants noted that Syria’s ruling elites and people have different interests. The regime may be unclear on its goals and how to achieve them and Syria’s leaders may not even share a unified vision for their country. By negotiating secretly, the United States has enabled Syria to talk out of both sides of its mouth and avoid prioritizing. Although it was argued that Syria knows what to do to gain U.S. favor, another participant argued that the United States bears some responsibility for Syrian confusion regarding U.S. offers. In the view of this participant, Syria believes that the United States will not “take yes for an answer.” However, another participant countered that United States asked for Syrian cooperation after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Syria then consciously chose to oppose the United States despite past U.S.-Syrian cooperation.
It was suggested that Israeli-Syrian peace and the return of the Golan to Syria could provide substantial gains for the Bush Administration and President Bashar al-Assad. One participant argued that getting the Golan is Syria’s first priority and this would subdue Syria in other realms. Regardless, the United States has placed its main investment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Some participants argued that Syria was changing and that the United States should be open to this. Improved Syrian behavior was noted regarding Iraq, Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict. One participant interpreted Syrian participation at Annapolis as a good sign, showing that it prioritizes its Arab neighbors over its ties to Iran. However, Syria may just be trying to avoid diplomatic exclusion. It was observed that Syria has “slowed or stopped” the transit of foreign fighters into Iraq. However, it was suggested that this is just a positive external effect of a domestic crackdown. If Syria made an active choice to change its behavior, then the United States would notice, and respond accordingly because of the benefit to distancing Syria from Iran.
Participants discussed the nature of the Syrian regime. One participant asked what could be learned from Syria’s track-record—does Syria make decisions while under pressure or when it senses an opportunity? Participants also discussed the strength of the Syrian government, in particular providing different assessments of the efficacy of its intelligence services.
Various U.S. policy options were considered regarding Syria. Many regional actors have suggested closer U.S.-Syrian relations and one participant suggested that without U.S. engagement, Syria will frustrate other processes. Participants suggested that a U.S. offer of a “grand bargain” would clearly articulates what the United States wants, what it will offer in return, and demonstrates to Syria the advantages of cooperation. Syria would be pressured to accept the offer and, if it did not, would incur the wrath of Arab states and the European Union states. That would allow tougher U.S. measures in the future and providing greater clarity about Syria’s intentions.
Participants argued that because of Syria’s behavior, the United States cannot pursue engagement now. However, one participant argued that talking with Syria does not necessarily constitute a reward. Therefore, a preliminary conversation with Syria about the possibility of engagement was suggested.
Participants probed what engagement would achieve, considering U.S. priorities and also what the United States would be most willing to give. One participant suggested Lebanon could be sacrificed for Iraq. However, it was argued that because of the Bush Administration’s focus on democracy promotion, betraying Lebanon would encourage Syria and provoke other Arab states. UN resolutions also bind Syria regarding Lebanon. Another participant argued that both Iran and Syria are afraid of the United States. As such, altering the relationship between the United States and Syria could split Syria from Iran. However, it was noted that the United States does not have the means to give Syria what it would like to achieve such a maneuver. Furthermore, there was a lack of clarify about which tradeoffs should be completed. One participant argued that, in general, that while engaging Syria is better than not; the strategic benefits of this should be considered.
Syria might have more in common with the United States than seems apparent at first glance. One participant highlighted that Syria supports groups that are not logical long-term allies. For instance, Hamas rule of the Palestinians and Hizballah rule in Lebanon would not be in Syria’s strategic interest.
Participants also examined the policy of isolation. This has a limited impact because of Syria’s location. Isolation does not prevent Syria from interfering with U.S. interests. The isolation tactic strategy alienates the Syrian people and runs the risk of either requiring U.S. concessions at a later stage or leading to armed conflict. One participant also doubted U.S. ability to pressure Syria meaningfully. This participant thought that U.S. failure to determine its priorities is problematic.
The role of third-party intermediaries, such as France, was considered as it was argued that direct talks benefit Syria. Additionally, Syria may not wish to engage with the United States but may want to work with Arab states. One participant emphasized that this is not just a U.S.-Syrian conflict. However, some participants noted that no third-party exists.
Participants considered other options as well, ranging from pursuing multiple strategies at once and being willing to consider all options concurrently to a “military solution.” The military option was not recommended by anyone and one participant directly dismissed its effectiveness. Alternatively, the United States could directly address the Syrian people and declare its desire to help them or could hold secret negotiations with the Syrian regime.
The conversation closed without a conclusion about how to proceed. It was suggested that if the United States cannot obtain everything it wants from Syria through engagement, the current strategy, its defects, may be the best possible.