The Two-Faces of the Bashar al-Assad
Good news for President Barack Obama in the Middle East. Over the past few days, it appears that the U.S. foe, the Arab Republic of Syria, is more than willing to improve diplomatic ties with the western world. According to a July 4 message directed to the White House from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Damascus is more than willing to welcome Mr. Obama with open arms. Assad was quoted by Britain’s Sky News as saying “we would like to welcome him in Syria, definitely. I am very clear about this.” Could this be a dramatic step towards political reconciliation between the Syrian state and the world’s remaining superpower? In more dramatic terms, is Mr. Assad’s friendly demeanor part of a larger genuine interest…a personal desire to finally bridge the Arab-Israeli divide once and for all? Or is this yet another attempt to pick up much-needed international support: just as its main ally, Iran, is continuing to experience domestic upheaval?
Before answering these crucial questions, we must first determine why Damascus is altering its behavior towards the United States as a whole. First off, President Obama’s administration deserves some portion of the credit. Mr. Obama has consistently advocated for direct American dialogue with all players in the Middle Eastern region, not to mention his constant pleas for tolerance and respect in the wider Muslim world. The foreign-policy staff of the White House has made it publicly known that positive engagement, in all forms, will be the bedrock of any extensive U.S.-Arab diplomacy. Soon after President Obama was sworn into office, he began to practice what he routinely preached throughout his fall campaign…namely by choosing to “start-over” with regimes that were previously hostile to the United States under former President George W. Bush. Certainly, Iran and Syria are two states that fit this description (both states are regarded by the U.S. Government as major state-sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East).
In the desire to up the ante on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the Obama administration decided to send two prominent State Department officials to Damascus for a formal meeting with Syrian officials: the first such trip by high-level U.S. diplomats since Washington withdrew its ambassador from the country in 2005. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was even seen shaking the hand of the Syrian Foreign Minister, a symbolic show of support for Mr. Obama’s doctrine of unconditional dialogue with former enemies. Months later, Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell visited Syria in early June. In the most updated version of the “Obama Doctrine,” the White House has finally confirmed that a new U.S. Ambassador to Syria will be appointed in the coming weeks. Considering the fact that President Assad is still regarded by the international community as a prominent fundraiser for Hezbollah and Hamas, Obama’s decision to send an American diplomat to Damascus is certainly an unprecedented move.
With all of the practical actions undertaken by the Obama administration, it should not be a surprise that Mr. Assad has returned the favor…at least in language. Ever since Obama was victorious in the 2008 presidential election, the Syrian regime has continually stressed their unending desire to meet with the American leader. While encouraging, this sentiment is not some sort of radical change in Syrian behavior towards Washington. Rather, it is proof of Mr. Assad’s political agility: he has a remarkable aptitude in gaining international concessions for his short-lived cooperation.
There is one other factor in this debate that is worth discussing…namely President Obama’s mission to distance himself from the policies his unpopular predecessor. For all of Syria’s ineptitude, its political leadership surely recognizes this phenomenon. Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo-Bay interrogation center has not been lost in the minds of Arabs, let alone members of Syria’s Alawite ruling class. While seemingly unrelated, the closure of the U.S. base is a dramatic example of Mr. Obama’s desperation to make all parties happy…for the sake of his political legitimacy. The president has made it absolutely clear to both Americans and non-westerners how important reformed U.S. policy will be to his presidency. As he did repeatedly throughout his presidential campaign, Barack points to change as the word that best describes his early legacy as a public figure. If such is the reality, imagine what a little poking and prodding by the Damascus regime could do for Mr. Assad’s strategic interests. Unfortunately, Syrian benefits do not necessarily bode well for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
The Assad dynasty may be looking to exploit Mr. Obama’s youth and inexperience as a national politician. An Obama-controlled White House could very well be the Syrians’ best chance to gradually formulate a beneficial territorial agreement with Israel. Perhaps Mr. Assad does not need to talk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the Israeli’s to unilaterally withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights (a strategic piece of land that was captured by Israel in the 1967 six day war). He can simply bypass the middle man by going to the “politician that controls all.”
With Obama’s strong opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West-Bank, President Assad may conclude that the American leader is worth sitting down and talking to…either to voice his frustrations about the Israelis or to advance numerous Syrian grievances.
This type of thinking is certainly logical when taking the Syrian perspective into account. The fact that President Obama has already opposed Israel’s chronic disdain for the Palestinian population shows that more problems could emerge between the two nations in the immediate future. It is not an unforeseen development to predict that American and Israeli interests will inevitably clash in the coming months. Historical events have demonstrated that this dangerous precedent is well worth avoiding: the more divisive two allies become, the more likely one will blame the other for obstructing success. Syria would come out as the ultimate victor in this worst-case scenario, not only gaining significant benefits in the process but building up its national image as a popular defender of Arab rights.
An opening of Syrian society and the potential for constructive U.S.-Syrian negotiations is indeed desirable in the long run. Who could argue that a resolution on the Golan Heights issue would not dampen the hostility between Jerusalem and Damascus? Yet, although positive feelings are being exchanged between the American and Syrian capitals, attempting to cajole Syria away from the Islamic Republic of Iran will be an increasingly difficult endeavor. We must remember that this objective is what President Obama is ultimately trying to achieve. Taking Syrian political history into the equation, no amount of western investment or security guarantees will convince President Assad to drift himself away from Tehran’s mullahs and towards the U.S.-Israeli camp.
I am not saying that such efforts are impossible. We have seen the same policy work with respect to Egypt in the late 1970’s, when harsh economic times prompted a Mideast re-alignment between Cairo and Jerusalem (to capitals that engaged in two wars over a short six-year time frame). However, the Syrian case cannot, and should not, be compared with Egypt. Egypt did not have the capacity to alter the domestic policies of another Arab state, while Syria has frequently been able to indirectly govern its Lebanese neighbor with covert aggression. Egypt, although powerful in its heyday, was unable to sustain a relationship with militant proxy groups that could effectively resist its adversaries. Syria, on the other hand, is the number two financer and supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas: two terrorist organizations that have the ability to fight Israel on two fronts while advancing the national power and influence of President Assad’s regime.
The most significant difference is the fact that Egypt could not formulate strong and lasting alliances during its pinnacle of influence (no one can call the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian alliance effective in military terms). Syria under Assad’s leadership is quite the contrary: Damascus is perceived as a viable Mideast power precisely because it maintains strong relations with the rising Islamic Republic of Iran. With each and every advantage uncovered, it becomes increasingly naïve to believe that Mr. Assad would deliberately risk his political rule for a few American dollars.
Finally, we must be realistic as to what the Syrians are asking for. Syria has demanded that the United States and Israel appease their interests before any security arrangement can be reached. Not only does Damascus wish for western investment and a lifting of economic sanctions, but is thoroughly lobbying Washington to remove them from the infamous state-sponsor of terrorism list. This, of course, is hardly realistic. Syria has much to gain from its continued support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Even if President Obama decided to remove Syria from the State-Department list, there is no guarantee as to whether Mr. Assad would hold up his end of the bargain. He may very well be tempted to continue his operations with terrorist groups whose objectives coincide with his own. The only possible way such an agreement could be enforced is through human intelligence on the ground in Damascus…a formal type of spying that the Syrian regime would certainly not endorse.
Couple these preconditions with Syria’s other demands (the lifting of Syria’s indictment for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights) and the positive language emanating from Assad is more like a smokescreen than a legitimate step towards peace. I am sure that Mr. Obama recognizes this fact. I only hope that the president and his newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador will not etch out a deal for the sole purpose of fulfilling campaign promises.
-Daniel R. DePetris
-Information from Sam F. Ghattas of the Associated Press and Time Magazine’s July 6, 2009 edition of World Briefing contributed to this blog.