Should The United States Engage Syria? A Saban Center Policy Forum Debate

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a debate on October 23, 2006 between Joshua Landis, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, and Ammar Abdulhamid, a Saban Center Nonresident Fellow, on whether the United States should engage with Syria. Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center, formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs and twice U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Saban Center Research Fellow and Director of the Arab Democracy and Development Program, chaired the event.

Should the United States engage with Syria? The renewed interest in this question derives from concerns about Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hizballah following the recent war between Israel and Hizballah, and a widespread view that the Arab-Israeli peace process needs to be revived. Hints from Syrian President Bashar al-Asad that he might be open to talks with the United States and Israel, and reports of Syrian assistance in foiling an attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, have encouraged consideration of the engagement option.

In recent weeks, retired officials, such as former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami have urged engagement and dialogue with Syria. At the same time, senior officials in the Bush administration, notably outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have expressed firm opposition.

The debate at the Saban Center’s Policy Forum considered the following questions: What gains might the United States reasonably expect from engagement with Syria? Can the United States engage with the Syrian regime without compromising its goals in the war against terrorism? Is President Bashar al-Asad of Syria a viable partner for engagement and, if so, what lessons from previous attempts at dialogue might the United States employ in talking with him?

Joshua Landis: The Case For Engaging Syria 

Syria’s obstructionist behavior derives largely from the fact that the United States has historically allied itself with Syria’s enemies. Rapprochement with Syria would change this context. Moreover, Syria’s undefined international borders, as opposed to the Ba’thist state’s ideology, is what fuels radicalism in Syria. An intrinsic component of a United States-Syrian rapprochement, then, would be a concerted US effort to press Israel to conclude a peace agreement with Syria and end the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

Syria’s support for Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories will remain unwavering until it regains the Golan Heights and there is a lasting Israeli-Syrian peace. Syria’s continued support for groups such as Hizballah and Hamas has been a necessity for Syria, a weak power attempting to bolster its influence. However, Syria would no longer be able to justify its interference in Lebanese affairs or its support for Hamas and Hizballah following the return of the Golan Heights. Moreover, there is no reason why Israel cannot have a stable peace with Syria, in the same way as it has stable peace with Egypt and Jordan. Israeli-Syrian peace, brokered by the United States, would ultimately goad Syria to exercise positive influence over Hizballah and to act as a mediator for talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That would also deprive Hizballah of its main justification for maintaining a military wing and refusing complete incorporation into the Lebanese government. Syria could then be instrumental in pressuring Hizballah to integrate better into the Lebanese state.

Second, the United States should engage with the Ba’thist government in Syria because any hope of uprooting it is futile. Those who argue that President Bashar al-Asad is weak or foolish in his political calculations, need to explain Asad’s insistence on maintaining close ties with and support for Hizballah and Hamas which look like quite shrewd calculations. This consistent support has given Damascus influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Asad rightly predicted the Iraqi reaction to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Given positive Syrian economic indicators, the United States would not succeed in pressuring Syria into changing its policies through economic means. Asad can comfortably wait out the final two years of President George W. Bush’s term in office and wait to see what the attitude of the next U.S. president will be. Consequently, continued U.S. isolation of Syria, will not produce another Libya-style reversal, but only a continued, painful stalemate for the Levant.

The greatest contribution the United States could make to the future of the Middle East would be to facilitate the establishment of recognized international borders by pressing for a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. Resolving this conflict would contribute to Syria’s democratization more effectively than anything the Bush Administration had yet attempted. With the Arab-Israeli dispute over, the basic ideology of the Ba’th Party will be redundant and “a real debate” between Syrians regarding the future of the country could then begin. The return of the Golan Heights would translate into more pressure on President Bashar al-Asad to end the system of one-party rule in particular and to renounce Ba’thism generally. Also, the return of the Golan Heights would help Syrian reformers and democrats because it will allow them to win back some of the credibility they have lost from their close alliance—real or perceived—with the United States. Ultimately, the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria is the key to de-radicalizing the Middle East and depriving the current Syrian regime of an issue it has thus far successfully exploited to fend off calls for reform and democratization.

Ammar Abdulhamid: Dangers of U.S.-Syrian Engagement 

Syria finds itself in conflict with the United States and with the international community primarily because of the policies taken by the al-Asad “clique,” a corrupt group whose core motivation is simply to retain power. The issue of the Golan Heights has been useful for the al-Asad “clique” in drumming up anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments whenever it finds itself under challenge internally.

Political engagement is preferable to military conflict, and therefore U.S. political engagement with the Syrian regime should not be ruled out from the start. At the same time, the United States should only engage a corrupt and dictatorial ruling élite according to clear guidelines. These must ensure first and foremost that the United States obtains more than it concedes in such a dialogue. If this cannot be assured, engagement would only empower the current ruling group in Syria and thereby create a larger problem than the one engagement intended to resolve.

The purpose of U.S. intervention in the Middle East is to win the war against terrorism. As such, any engagement with Syria must be considered in the light of its contribution to victory against terrorism. Syria has supported terrorism for decades, both because it makes Syria relevant in the region and because it gives Syria a means of negating its military inferiority to Israel. U.S. engagement with Syria, would be inconsistent with U.S. counterterrorism policy. The Middle East peace process is just one U.S. interest in the Middle East, and it should not trump the core imperative of winning the war against terrorism.

U.S. engagement will not only shore up the Ba’thists internally, but it will also have the effect of ending the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Such a step would undermine the current Lebanese government. Moreover, this engagement with Syria would cede its influence over Lebanon. In addition, the United States would be compelled to allow Syria to play a greater role in Iraqi and Palestinian affairs.

The assertion that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would force the Syrian state to reform internally is dubious. It is just as likely that the state would again avoid any discussion of internal reform by claiming that it needed to focus on Iraq.

Ultimately, engagement with Syria is dangerous for the United States because it risks further empowering the current Syrian government beyond its borders with unacceptable consequences for the United States. In order to engage with Syria, the United States will be required to abandon its promotion of democracy and respect for human rights not just in Syria, but also in the Middle East.

The notion that the alliance between Syria and Iran is likely to be broken by the offer of American incentives is debatable. In fact, the Syrian-Iranian alliance is close, of long duration, and rooted in common interests and mutual benefits. Engagement with Syria would also strengthen rather than weaken Iran, and this would compound an earlier miscalculation in U.S. policy towards Iran that eliminated the Iranians’ two main enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Syria’s continued relationship with Iran might even enable Damascus to act as an intermediary between Iran and the West, which would divide the United States off from its allies rather than splitting the Syria-Iran axis.

The United States cannot realistically expect engagement to alter Syrian policies with regard to key U.S. concerns. For example, the present Syrian government cannot act effectively against Islamist radicalism because the Alawite sectarianism of the al-Asad “clique” has caused conflict with Syria’s Sunni Islamists. The government has dealt with this by exporting radical Islamism to other countries in the region. This demonstrates that the Ba’thists are unwilling to risk a direct confrontation with Syria’s Islamists and will therefore continue to turn a blind eye to the activities of Islamists.

Furthermore, the Syrian government requires an atmosphere of constant crisis to maintain its internal legitimacy. As such, Syria cannot fully satisfy U.S. needs by abandoning its current troublesome policies toward Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian rejectionists, or Iran. Instead, any U.S. engagement with Syria will result in the United States completely satisfying Syria’s wishes without achieving Syrian reciprocity, violating the principle of “get more than you give” when negotiating with dictatorial regimes.

Engagement with Syria should be considered after the completion of the UN investigation into Hariri’s death, and should be undertaken with the clear understanding that engagement with Syria is de facto engagement with Iran. Given that, engagement with Syria should take place within a regional framework for democracy promotion and respect for human rights, and that honors countries’ obligations to UN principles and resolutions.

Unless the United States adheres to these principles, it risks turning its back on the pro-democratic forces in the region, who constitute the last group of people in the Middle East who still look kindly on the United States. The United States should heed the lessons from its last attempts at engagement with Syria, which took place in the 1990s and failed for reasons which are at least in part directly attributable to Syria.

Debating the Key Issues 

The discussion that followed focused on two key issues: the strength of the Syrian-Iranian alliance; and the potential costs of U.S. engagement with Syria.

Regarding the Syrian-Iranian alliance, Abdulhamid said that Iran has for some time cultivated deep and complex relationships with different members of the al-Asad family and that Iran serves as Syria’s only committed ally in the region, making it difficult to separate Damascus from Tehran. In addition, Abdulhamid claimed that, without cooperation from Iran, Syria’s influence over Hizballah could be significantly reduced. Landis countered that Iran’s and Syria’s interests are not synonymous, and diverge particularly when it comes to the issue of Iraq. He argued that the Shi’ah Arabs in the south of Iraq identify more strongly with Iran, whereas most of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s al-Anbar province identify with Syria and have begun sending their family members there for education and healthcare. This example, he suggested, indicated a genuine possibility for driving a wedge between Syria and Iran on an issue key to U.S. interests.

In discussing the costs and consequences of U.S. engagement with Syria, Abdulhamid warned that legitimizing Syrian authoritarianism through dialogue would result in more sectarianism and instability. Citing Syria’s poor record on human rights and democracy, Abdulhamid warned that American engagement with Syria would be tantamount to stabbing Syrian democrats and reformers in the back. Landis countered that the positive consequences of engagement would outweigh the costs, and that the pro-democracy movement in Syria is so small and weak that U.S. actions would have little effect on it. While noting that engagement with the Ba’thist state would indeed add to its legitimacy, Landis asserted that it is already legitimate in the Middle East and Syria. He further argued that U.S. engagement could be a positive force for much-needed stability in the region, adding that Syria needs U.S. assistance to manage effectively the changes occurring in the Middle East. Landis also maintained that, regardless of the United States’ opinion, Syria will soon be “in the driver’s seat” as an important player in the region, a country that others will have to consult with on regional issues. Consequently, Landis argued refusing dialogue with Syria will isolate Washington more than it will Damascus.

During the discussion, some argued that the United States had already made generous offers to Syria, such as during the Clinton years, but that Damascus had rebuffed these approaches. In addition, an argument was made for separating the issue of engagement with Syria from the issue of dealing with Iran, with the recommendation that the United States should attempt dialogue with both countries at the same time. In response to this suggestion, Abdulhamid felt that such an approach would be more consistent and honest than engaging Syria alone, and would be more likely to yield strategic benefits for the United States. The question remained open, however, as to whether the current Syrian government is a viable and effective a partner for dialogue.