Forty years ago, in assessing the foreign policy direction of the regime of Hafiz al-Assad in Damascus, the CIA concluded that “[T]he question in regard to Syria’s future… is not whether it will be moderate or radical, but what will be the kind and intensity of its radicalism.” Four decades later, the Obama administration has been struggling with the same question as it has worked to craft a new policy toward Syria.
These days, most politicians seem to favor engagement, ever looking inward to find the American solution to Syria’s behavioral problems. The thinking is that if the United States would only offer this carrot or that incentive, Syria would reorient itself away from Iran and terrorists, dump its designs to establish a Greater Syria, stop subverting its neighbors, and become a constructive player in the Middle East—perhaps even a US ally. Some have even posited the idea that the problem with Syria actually lies with us, and our failure to explain to Damascus how changing its behavior would actually benefit the regime there.
Before taking office, the working assumption that emerged among many in the Obama administration was that the problem was not as much about the hostile and belligerent ideologies of states and actors such as Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, but rather the style with which Bush conducted statecraft. This inaccurate yet widely held narrative of Bush’s abrasive diplomacy led many to conclude that the confrontational posture and aggressive diplomacy had been tried and failed. Instead, through diplomatic engagement and by offering rewards and incentives, rogue regimes such as Syria and Iran would alter their behavior. This persistent error in judgment continues to affect how the US engages with the Middle East.
Syria’s importance in the Middle East rests on its ability to play the role of regional spoiler. Syria is a charter member of the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, making the list with its first publication in 1979, and it is a title that is well deserved. Indeed, since the 1960s, Damascus has used terrorism to advance its goals internally and in the region by employing such methods as the assassination of political rivals and attacks on Israeli, Jewish, Lebanese, and Western targets.
Middle East Peace Process
Bashar al-Assad continuously claims in Western media that he is seeking “a just and comprehensive peace” between Israel and its neighbors. Not so in the Middle East press. The problem and the proposed solution Assad expressed in his April 2, 2009 interview in Asharq al-Awsat: “The enemy does not want peace. What is the alternative? The parallel route to the peace process is resistance. The Israeli [sic] will not come by his own will, so there is no alternative but for him to come from fear.” The regime in Damascus has made a habit of telling Washington that it could use its influence with regional actors to help make peace in the region. The issue, however, is that Syria provides cover—not influence—for the most radical opponents of peace, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP-GC. And the result of Syria’s cover is never moderation.
One example was last summer’s Fatah conference in Bethlehem. The United States asked Syria to exercise its influence with Hamas to allow the Fatah delegates in Gaza to attend the West Bank gathering that would endorse Mahmoud Abbas. But Damascus does not regard the Palestinian Authority as an ally because they are too moderate for Assad’s taste. Instead, Syria refused to deliver, preferring to cast its lot on the Palestinian issue with Hamas.
The peace process with Israel offers Syria the best avenue to reap rewards and showcase its assumed regional importance. But it is all about the process and never about the peace. And yet, for some reason successive Israeli governments have failed to grasp this simple truth. From 2005 until 2008 Syria was isolated in the region. This ended with Ehud Olmert’s decision to engage in peace talks with Syria under Turkish mediation. It opened the door to France who rushed to rehabilitate Assad. In fact, the Syrian president was a guest of honor at France’s annual Bastille Day military parade in July 2008. With the US presidential campaign in full swing and poll numbers favoring Obama who promised to sit down with Ahmadinejad in Iran, it was clear that engaging rather than isolating America’s enemies would be the new order of the day. This led Saudi Arabia to seek some level of rapprochement with Syria, whereas they previously stood with Egypt, staunchly opposed to Damascus.
All it took for Syria to reap these rewards was embarking on the process of peace.
What, then, does peace look like to Assad? Bashar explained in a March 2009 interview with the Emirati newspaper, Al-Khaleej: “A peace agreement,” he said, “is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.” This should be a troubling sign for Israel. After all, a peace agreement with Syria today is no longer about land for peace but land for Syria’s strategic realignment. This would mean turning away from Iran and ceasing the support for terrorist groups devoted to Israel’s destruction. Therefore, in exchange for all of the Golan Heights and Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee, in a hypothetical peace Syria would still keep the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices open for business in Damascus, while arming Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is the best-case scenario available to Israel today.
Yet even this form of peace would likely prove too much for Assad. That is because it is not in Syria’s interest to have a peace agreement with Israel that would inevitably increase American influence in the region, just as it is not in its interest for a separate Palestinian-Israeli peace to emerge that would forever rob the regime of its most valuable card: the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian issue is the regional gift that keeps on giving, and no one has played that card better than the Assad family. It is therefore no wonder that Syria supports the opponents rather than the advocates for peace.
Meddling in Lebanon
In Lebanon, Syria’s support for the Shi’a terrorist group, Hezbollah has increased exponentially since Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency of Syria after his father’s death in 2000. And it should be recalled that before September 11, 2001, no terrorist group was responsible for killing more Americans than Hezbollah.
In the years leading up to the 2006 summer war between Hez- bollah and Israel, Syria gave Hezbollah 200mm rockets with 80-kilogram (176 lb) warheads with a range of 70 kilometers (almost 44 miles), and 302mm rockets with 100-kilogram (220 lb) warheads with a potential range of about 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). While during the days of his father, Hafiz al-Assad tended to transship weapons from Iran to Syria, in 2006 there is evidence that Bashar sent weapons from his own military’s arsenal such as the Russian-made Kornet antitank missile and 220mm antipersonnel rockets. According to some estimates, 80 percent of the 4,000 rock- ets fired at Israeli targets by Hezbollah during that conflict came from Syria. There is also increasing evidence that Damascus is now providing the terrorist group with advanced antiaircraft weapons. Undoubtedly, this will change how Israel views the threat from their north.
As recently as November of 2009, Israeli commandos seized a ship in the Mediterranean with more than 300 tons of weapons. It was sent from Iran and according to the ship’s manifest, it was des- tined for Syria. There can be little doubt that once in Syria, the weapons would have been transferred onto trucks and shipped over land to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Indeed, the size of the arms shipment is staggering when compared to the 40 tons Israel seized on the Karine-A in 2002, whose weapons were bound for the Palestinians.
But meddling in Lebanon does not end with Syria’s support for Hezbollah or meddling in the state’s political system. The Assad regime also refuses to abide by international resolutions that call on Syria to demarcate their border with Lebanon so that the expanded United Nations force can attempt to stem the flow of these illegal weapons. This would be consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1701 that ended the war in 2006. Rather than cooperate or even pay lip service to the resolution, Syria has instead threatened that border demarcation and international participation in border control would be viewed by Damascus as a hostile act.
Meddling in Iraq
Bashar al-Assad did not want the US to invade Iraq, and once it did, he did not want the US to be successful, retain a military presence there, or have political influence to the east of his border. As a matter of policy, the Syrian government financed, trained, armed, encouraged, and transported foreign jihadists to fight against both Coalition forces in Iraq and the fledgling army of the new Iraqi government. Once the war began in 2003, state-chartered buses transported insurgents with considerable fanfare and public- ity. So brazen was Syria’s support for jihad against the United States that the regime allowed volunteers seeking to fight the US-led coalition in Iraq to gather in front of the Iraqi embassy, located across from the US embassy, while the Syrian mufti—the most senior state-appointed cleric—formally endorsed holy war against the coalition forces. This was nothing short of a declaration of war on the United States. This support continues to this day. Indeed, on September 11, 2009, America’s top commander in Iraq, General Ray Ordierno said, “[D]uring the past years, Syria was lending indirect support to some of the fighters, on top of financial support. Syria has not changed this type of interference.” He also said: “Syria continues to allow the facilitation of foreign fighters through Syria that both come into Iraq as well as, I believe, into Afghanistan.”
Above all of this are two other important issues. One is the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in which most fingers point to a combination of involvement between the Assad regime and Hezbollah. It was this event in February 2005 that had the Bush administration recall the US ambassador. The other is the IAEA investigation into Syria’s nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in September 2007. Syria is refusing to cooperate with either investigation.
Obama’s engagement strategy with Syria is based on two fundamental and misguided assumptions. The first is that it is possible to effectively pry Damascus apart from its alliance with Tehran, which will make engaging with Iran and solving the nuclear issue easier for the United States. But the durable Syrian-Iranian alliance is not a reactive marriage of convenience. They seek to overturn the regional balance of power and undermine Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States. Furthermore, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons does not depend on Syria.
There is no concession that the US can receive from Syria that would not be exponentially greater if it were received from Iran. A weakened Iran, and therefore a weakened Syrian-Iranian alliance would transform Syria into a fourth-rate power, void of natural re- sources, and with little influence in the Middle East. It would limit Syria’s ability to sow the seeds of destruction around the region. The reverse, however, is not true. Therefore, the Obama administration is wasting valuable time and resources rewarding Damascus with engagement while the key to unlocking progress in the region lies in Tehran. This points to Washington’s inability to understand that America’s problems with Iran will not be solved or improved by a change in Syrian behavior.
The second misguided assumption is that Syria is ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel that will be acceptable in Jerusalem and in Washington. But peace is not an attractive alternative to the status quo the regime in Damascus is enjoying. In any event, again, a peace agreement with Syria today is really about land for Syria’s strategic realignment, not land for peace. This would mean turning away from Iran and ceasing the support for terrorist groups devoted to Israel’s destruction. Therefore, in exchange for all of the Golan Heights and Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee, in a hypothetical peace, Syria would still keep the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices open for business in Damascus, while arming Hezbollah in Lebanon. This form of peace would not benefit the United States or Israel.
One can only hope that the future doesn’t resemble February 2010. During that month the Assad regime rejected an IAEA request for a meeting; began importing sensitive nuclear-related military equipment from North Korea; exported Syrian-made Fateh-110 missiles to Hezbollah; began training the terrorist group in the use of SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-surface missiles; mocked Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration with Ahmadinejad over dinner in Damascus; met with Hezbollah’s leader during lunch; vowed to strengthen its relationship with Tehran; pledged to continue support for the resistance; and threatened missile attacks against Israeli cities. It is an impressive litany to which the Obama administration responded by naming a new ambassador to Syria and lifting the State Department’s travel warning for the country.
The Obama administration’s current policy towards the Assad regime is to hope Syria will change in exchange for gestures from Washington. Instead, the White House should learn from the experiences of successive US and Israeli governments. Syria’s importance in the Middle East stems not from its ability to play a constructive role in region, but rather from its ability to cause mischief and wreak havoc upon its neighbors.
Furthermore, the argument made in Washington that aggressive diplomacy with Syria was tried and failed and now engagement and incentives must be the order of the day, is false. Neither a carrot nor stick approach has been fully explored. And one thing is certain: Syria’s rogue behavior is not the result of Washington’s diplomatic communications skills; it is the result of strategic calculations and decisions made by Damascus.
The Obama administration should be ratcheting up the pressure on the Assad regime rather than easing its pain. Syria should be presented with difficult choices that will unequivocally and irreversibly demonstrate that it has changed its worldview and behavior, before being presented with rewards for empty promises.