Israel’s air strike against the Ain Sahab camp near Damascus last Sunday dramatically underscores the failure of the Bush administration to deal effectively with Syria. At the beginning of May, after President George W. Bush had announced the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Colin Powell, US secretary of state, travelled to Damascus to reiterate American complaints about Syria’s links to terrorist groups and its at least passive aggression against US forces in Iraq. Although Mr Powell claimed progress after his meeting with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, it soon became evident that the Syrians had little intention of changing course. It was continued Syrian support for Palestinian terror groups that gave Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, the opening he needed to order Sunday’s strike in response to a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli operation is noteworthy not so much for what some see as its escalatory risks—neither Israel nor Syria seems eager for wider conflict—but as evidence of how America’s ineffective diplomacy with Damascus complicates the pursuit of US interests in the region. The administration’s approach has created a policy vacuum that Congress is moving to fill with the Syria Accountability Act, which would impose economic sanctions.
Why does the administration have so little to show for its diplomatic efforts? The answer depends on one’s assessment of Mr Assad. Three years into his presidency, some believe he is a closet reformer, hemmed in by an “old guard” he inherited, along with his presidency, from his father. Others see him as a loyal son of both father and regime, seeking to protect Syria’s Ba’athist order. Still others see him as inexperienced, unable to play the game of regional manoeuvring with anything like his late father’s acumen.
In reality, all three assessments contain elements of truth. Mr Assad has demonstrated some reformist impulses but has been constrained by his father’s still-powerful retainers. Yet he can still fall into the most ossified sort of Ba’athist rhetoric and has demonstrated little flexibility in foreign policy, where he appears to be trying to follow the strategic “script” he received from his father. This acknowledges the desirability of a better relationship with the US but makes any strategic breakthrough dependent on meeting conditions that are rooted in the tensions of Syrian domestic politics. And Mr Assad certainly makes more than his share of mistakes.
While this suggests Mr Assad may be a suitable subject for diplomatic engagement, it also means that engagement will be effective only if the US establishes explicit targets. Engagement must also be grounded in a strategy that would entail significant costs for continued non-compliance with US requirements but clear benefits in the event of co-operation.
As Mr Assad observed last week, the US military will not soon be in a position to conduct “Operation Syrian Freedom”. And the Bush administration has not developed a credible package of “sticks”, short of invasion. Even Israel’s strike did not really impose costs on Mr Assad’s regime; if anything, it bolstered his ability to boast that he is the only Arab head of state “resisting Israeli aggression”. Meanwhile, Pentagon civilians and their allies have blocked any offer of “carrots”, arguing this would reward bad behaviour. The result is a non-policy.
To be effective, Washington must contrast the prospective costs of non-cooperation, such as economic sanctions, with the prospective gains from co-operation. These could include Syria’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, provided it expels terrorists from its territory, renews its anti-terrorist co-operation with the US against al-Qaeda and broadens that to include Syria’s own terrorist links. Another “carrot” could be accommodation of Syrian interests in Iraq, if Damascus helped tackle the security problems there. All this would let Mr Assad show the regime’s inner circle and the public that Syrian interests would be better served by co-operation with the US.
Strategic engagement succeeded in getting Sudan out of the terrorism business and close to a negotiated settlement of its civil war; this approach has also succeeded in persuading Libya to meet its obligations in the Pan-Am 103 case. It could also be the key to a more productive US relationship with Syria, at a time when both parties could use better ties.