Why ignoring Syria is misguided

Ammar Abdulhamid & Moshe Maoz / Special to The Daily Star

It is time for U.S. President George W. Bush, following his re-election victory and the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, to reconsider his Middle East policy. The Palestinian-Israeli problem is not going to be settled soon, even under Arafat’s successors. That’s why the second Bush administration should start by encouraging Israel and Syria to resume peace negotiations.

Peace between the two countries would not only serve their national interests, but could also improve the shaky position and negative image of Washington in the Middle East and beyond. Israeli-Syrian peace could help create a strategic network of pragmatic pro-American regimes in the region, increase regional security through a coordination of efforts against Islamic terrorist groups, contain militant Iranian policies, and support the establishment of a stable Iraqi regime. For Israel, peace with Syria would entail peace with Lebanon, which Damascus effectively controls, and this could lead to a neutralization of Hizbullah. Improved Israeli-Syrian relations could also help push forward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well as enhance Israel’s relations with other Arab and Muslim nations – provided the Israelis do not use peace with Syria to circumvent a resolution of the crucial Palestinian problem. Peace with Israel would allow reformist elements in the Syrian regime to focus on the serious developmental problems their country is now facing. It would also help normalize Syria’s increasingly strained ties with the international community, especially the United States, and perhaps even France. Armed with a peace agreement, Syria would feel more capable of complying with the demands for withdrawal from Lebanon made in UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which would in turn help normalize the internal situation in Lebanon.

Less than five years ago, President Bill Clinton was nearly successful in brokering a historic breakthrough between the late Syrian President Hafiz Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The remaining obstacle to a peace agreement was a dispute over a narrow strip of land 12 kilometers long and a few hundred meters wide along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The pervasive impact of an otherwise seemingly minor obstacle reflected the divergent strategic, psychological and ideological attitudes of Syrians and Israelis. Perhaps with a bit more time, Clinton might have induced the two respective leaders to settle their territorial dispute and sign a formal peace agreement, leading toward reconciliation between their peoples. He could have suggested and pressed for a compromise solution for the narrow strip of land. Regrettably, all three leaders, notably Barak, missed the unique opportunity to bring about Israeli-Syrian peace under U.S. auspices, which would have helped contain Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, curtail Hizbullah’s militancy and enhance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Unfortunately, during the last several years, U.S.-Syrian and Israeli-Syrian relations have deteriorated because of several developments – the Iraq war, the Palestinian intifada and the arrival of new leaders in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Syrian President Bashar Assad and George W. Bush. Perhaps as a reflection of his political inexperience, or a need to protect himself from that accusation, Bashar Assad initially adopted a belligerent attitude toward both Israel and the U.S. and fostered closer ties with Iran and Hizbullah, as well as with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He also improved relations with the Iraqi regime, helping it in various ways during the pre-2003 war period and beyond, while vehemently opposing the U.S.-led invasion. The American occupation of Iraq imposed a threatening geostrategic predicament on Syria, prompting Assad to try mending fences with the U.S., particularly after October 2003 when the U.S. Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which imposes economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria if certain U.S. demands are not met. In December 2003, Assad publicly proposed to revive peace negotiations with Israel with no preconditions. But neither Sharon nor Bush was impressed. The Israeli prime minister flatly rejected Assad’s offer while Bush would not urge Sharon to resume peace negotiations with Syria.

In some Bush administration quarters there have been those advocating attacking Syria, on the grounds it is a de facto member of the “Axis of Evil.” Such ill-advised action would be disastrous for U.S. interests in the Middle East and would undermine stability in the region. The Bush administration should take advantage of Syria’s regional predicament to bring Damascus into the fold of pragmatic Arab regimes. If Syria pursues economic and political reforms, ceases its support for Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and stops supporting anti-American insurgents in Iraq (contrary to recent reports the Syrian regime seems quite serious in its efforts to satisfy U.S. demands in this regard), the U.S. should reward Syria with financial help and investments, as part of its effort to support reform activities throughout the region. Washington should also induce Israel to respond more positively to recent peace overtures from the Syrians – where Damascus again seemed to suggest it would negotiate without preconditions – in a process that should lead to a peace agreement. This would serve the vested interests of the two parties as well as those of the U.S. Furthermore, a stable Israeli-Syrian relationship would help facilitate a fair settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in light of the flexibility of the anticipated Palestinian leadership.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus, is currently a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle Eastern studies at the Brookings Institution. Moshe Maoz, an Israeli professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is currently a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.