SYRIA: Choosing a new US strategy toward Syria
Alon Ben-Meir

New York, February 15, 2006

The rise to power of Hamas in Gaza provides the United States and Israel with a strategic opportunity to shift their attention to Israel`s northern front with Syria. Damascus` interest in recovering the Golan Heights remains on the top of its national agenda. Syria is also in dire need of economic assistance and development, which will be possible only through normalized relations with Washington. The Syrian government is ready for a dialogue.

Thus, the Bush administration and Israel need to look afresh at Syria and examine what new policy options they can explore in dealing with it. Although this may seem to defy conventional wisdom, a new US policy toward Syria can dramatically change the political landscape throughout the region.

The argument against pursuing a more conciliatory policy rests on numerous serious charges against Syria. Among these are that it provides refuge to militant groups, especially Palestinian organizations, which often even operate at the behest of Damascus. Syria also fully supports Hizbullah in Lebanon and maintains cozy and mischievous relations with Iran, now in defiance of the international community. Syria is further accused of being behind the assassination of Lebanon`s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, of actively promoting anti-American and anti-Western sentiments throughout the Arab world, and of aiding the insurgency in Iraq.

The issue is not whether these charges are true; rather, the prevailing perception that they are makes it necessary for Syria to address them. But, while it is up to Syria to do this, should not the United States try, at the same time, to compel Damascus to change direction by appealing to its national interests?

Until now, the Middle East policies of US President George W. Bush have been driven by the single idea of regime change, regardless of the current turmoil in the region and the potentially explosive consequences of such policies. It is time for the US administration to instead consider a policy of engagement consistent with the existing environment in the region.

In suggesting this, I recognize that there are three cogent arguments against this that deserve plausible counterarguments:

The first argument is that the timing is wrong. It can be reasonably argued that this is not the perfect time for any of the key players to take a far-reaching initiative. But then, what is a prefect time if it is not based on the reality on the ground? This reality is that nothing in the Middle East has turned out the way it was expected to five years ago. The so-called war on terrorism is a fledging war; the war in Iraq is still raging; very little is left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Islamist groups are winning elections everywhere; the hatred of the United States has reached new heights, and many Arab regimes still fuel the anti-Western sentiments among the masses to cover up their own incompetence and failures.

It is these realities that warrant a review of US policy. In the face of them, for Washington to continue to focus on regime change simply ensures that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will again violently explode; Iran will race with all its might to obtain the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons; the insurgency in Iraq will exact heavier tolls, and Islamist groups will win every democratic election.

A policy shift toward Damascus could stop the deterioration and calm the region. But although such a shift of policy is both needed and timely, it should not be without conditions. Syria must undertake some serious policy corrections, but at the same time, it needs to be able to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Some may call this an appeasement, wrong! Nobody understands better than the Syrians the awesome power of the United States, even with all its troubles in Iraq. Moreover, feeling beleaguered by its desperate economic straits, Damascus has one single overriding interest - the recovery of the Golan and, secondarily, normalization of relations with the United States.

The second argument against changing US policy toward Syria is by doing so the US is rewarding a despot: It is true that Washington cannot simply `make nice` to a leader like Bashar Assad who has repeatedly crossed the line of internationally accepted norms of conduct.

That said, improved relations with Damascus are not a one-way street. The United States and Israel will benefit tremendously. A quick look at the geo-strategic conditions in the Middle East makes it clear that the repercussions of supporting regime change without knowing what type of government will be ushered in would be at best, reckless, and at worst, ominous, for it has the great potential of creating even more turmoil.

The Bush administration should instead persuade Syria to change its policies in return for substantial inducements, including normalized US-Syrian relations and the opening of serious talks on the return of the Golan.

A change of policy that includes the prospect of Syria regaining the Golan will upset the entire political calculations of the major regional players and significantly benefit Israel: It will isolate Hamas and put huge pressure on it to moderate its ways; further isolate Iran and deny it an access to the Mediterranean through Hizbullah while also seriously disrupting its pursuit of a nuclear weapons` program. It will shut down all the militants` sanctuaries in Syria; reduce the level of the insurgency in Iraq; bring about a peace between Israel and Lebanon, and lead to Hizbullah`s disarming.

I believe that Syria is willing to pay the price for any real chance to reclaim the Golan and normalize relations with the United States. Damascus will seize the opportunity to break free of its suffocating isolation.

The third argument against a change in US policy is that Israel will be very resistant to returning the Golan: True, the Israeli government and many of its supporters will reject, out of hand, the return of the Golan, especially because Israel has no compelling reason to do it. Syria cannot recapture the Golan by force and is unable to exert pressure on Israel to regain it through negotiation.

But Israel should not interpret this failure to mean that Damascus has given up or assumed a policy of benign neglect toward the Golan. As long as the status quo is maintained, Syria will remain the spoiler in the Middle East. Because the hope of regaining the Golan is nationally ingrained in every Syrian`s psyche, it will not diminish over time. Moreover, this hope is constantly reinforced, with the Syrian public made increasingly more aware about the need to salvage its national honor by attaining this goal. Regardless of what government rules Syria, the demand for this national matrimony will not only continue, it will shape Syrian regional policies.

This is not a question of right and wrong, and without dwelling on the historical account, we know that there cannot be any comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world without Syria being an integral part. But peace with Syria will never happen unless the Golan is returned. All Israel is doing by not dealing with this reality is delaying the inevitable. But the day of reckoning will come, and the conditions then may not necessarily be more favorable than they are today.

Why not negotiate on the Golan from a position of strength when Syria is eager to shed its isolation? Damascus may be willing to accept a less stiff price than `a leg in the water` as was coined by Ambassador Mohammed Basiony. The reference here is to the June 4, 1967 ceasefire line (the extent of withdrawal demanded of Israel by Syria) verses the 1923 international border, which was one of the critical bones of contention at Camp David in May 2000 that thwarted the negotiations.

The recent appointment of Syria`s deputy foreign minister Walid Al Moualem, (formerly ambassador to the United States) to the post of foreign minister could offer a fresh beginning. No one is more familiar and better informed about the US scene and sentiments, and the Israeli-Syrian negotiations - he was his country`s chief negotiator. Moualem understands the complexities of the problems facing Syria, but he is also very pragmatic and sensitive. I speak from personal experience: through many meetings with him, I`ve come to appreciate his grasp of the issues and his commitment to a peace of reconciliation between Israel and Syria. His appointment should not go unnoticed.

Another critical player that can initially mediate between the United States and Syria is Turkey. Ankara has mended its relations with Syria, enjoys tremendous respect in Israel, and maintains a solid relationship with Washington. It can use its influence to prepare the grounds for Damascus to make some important gestures to the United States, such as closing some offices of militants groups in the capital and also visibly increase its monitoring of its borders with Iraq to slow, if not, prevent the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq from Syrian territory.

In sum, the United States must find a way to open a dialogue with Syria, while persuading Israel to focus on the Syrian track now that Hamas controls the Palestinian territories. This will not be the first or the last time the US has cooperated with an authoritarian regime. But it is time for the United States and Israel to make a strategic choice to move in a dramatically different direction, with far-reaching implications for decades to come.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and is the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute, New York.