The Syrian Boogyman
The United States and Syria appear to be making some headway. Throughout the entire year, some very important people have been traveling to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. Envoy George Mitchell has met Assad three times already, with the main discussion concentrating on the stalled peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns arrived in Damascus last week to talk about bilateral issues between Washington and Damascus; one would guess that Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and Israeli-Syrian peace were on the agenda. And of course, President Barack Obama nominated the first U.S. Ambassador to Damascus in five years, tapping Robert Ford for the job (by the way, you can read a little more about this in my article that was published by the NWJI).
So with all of these breakthroughs occurring between the two former rivals, it’s not surprising that many people in the IR field and in the media are expecting dramatic improvements over the next few months.
Well, maybe too optimistic. The same bloggers that were hopeful a few months ago are now complaining about the lack of real progress. The blogosphere is full with these sorts of arguments. Republicans and some Democrats are claiming that the meetings between American and Syrian officials are more like symbolic gestures than real events. Elliot Abrams took this a step further, berating President Obama’s entire foreign-policy based on what he views as a slow first year between the United States and Syria. Jennifer Rubin of Commentary takes a similar tone, making the case that Washington needs to stop giving away “freebees” to Syria without some strings attached. As she puts it, “could it be that having given Assad pretty much all he wants up front, we have no leverage to extract anything further from him? Could be.”
Could be indeed. Syria’s strategic standing in the Middle East is now enhanced, due in part to American recognition and due in part to America’s sudden return to Damascus. But surely Mr. Abrams and Mrs. Rubin understand that diplomacy is not a cut and dry affair? Based on their impressive credentials, I would hope so.
No one said this was going to be easy. Not all U.S. objectives (Syria moving away from Iran, Syria making peace with Israel, Syria keeping tabs on insurgents going across its border with Iraq) is going to happen. And likewise, not all Syrian demands will be met either, like an ending of economic sanctions and investment in U.S. markets. Diplomacy is not a zero-sum game.
And just as diplomacy is not a zero-sum game, it’s also not a miracle-pill that will magically cure all ills. Discussion and dialogue between allies takes time, and even more so when allies were once formidable enemies (Syria still remains on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism).
But before we can understand how diplomacy works, we have to understand what is going on with this new U.S.-Syrian relationship. Unfortunately, it seems like some bloggers and neoconservative commentators are getting the facts completely wrong.
Let’s get a few things straightened out first. Number one, it’s the United States that wants to desperately engage Syria, not the other way around.
It is President Obama that is extending his hand, not the Syrian Government. First off, the White House is still trying to salvage its Mideast peace initiative. Despite Israeli arrogance and Palestinian political division, Israeli-Palestinian peace remains a primary foreign-policy goal for the Obama team (George Mitchell has a lot of jet-lag and frustration to prove it). Like it or not, the United States needs Syria’s cooperation on this problem.
Damascus holds tremendous weight among Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, evident in their willingness to take in Palestinian refugees. Syria’s image as a defiant defender of Arab rights is only going up, confirmed by a recent poll that shows Bashar al-Assad as the most popular leader in the Muslim world (http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/16/people_of_the_year_2009_middle_east_edition). And of course, we cannot discount Syria’s role in Iraq, both as a covert supporter of Islamic militants and as a safe-haven for former Baath Party officials.
It’s great that Washington is starting to take Syria seriously. But it’s not simply because Syria is under extreme pressure from economic sanctions and international isolation (although this may have contributed to Syria’s modified behavior). To the contrary; it’s because Syria is at the heart of every problem that the U.S. is concerned about (Arab-Israeli Peace, Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran). Name any other country that has this type of influence.
When all is said and done, the nomination of Robert Ford is a very good start, but we should keep the entire affair in perspective. One year of engagement is not going to reverse five years of diplomatic absence.
-Daniel R. DePetris