What does Syria want?

COURTNEY KEALY/Getty One way to divide the debate over the United States’ Middle East policy is between those who favor dealing with Iran and Syria, and those who don’t. The Iraq Study Group and others who favor engagement assume that Syria’s interests are in a stable Iraq. Syria has been so flooded with Iraqi refugees, ...

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604221_bashar_assad_05.jpg
401808 02: President Bashar Al Assad meets with Lebanese leaders March 3, 2002 at the Lebanese presidential palace outside Beirut, Lebanon. It is the first visit by a Syrian leader to Lebanon in 27 years and the first official Syrian visit to Beirut in more than 50 years even though Syria maintains 25,000 troops in Lebanon and has a strong say in all political matters in the country. The Lebanese and Syrian leaders did not directly comment on the recent Saudi proposal for peace between Israel and the Arab world. But signs indicated they are not happy with the peace plan as they met to coordinate policies ahead of the Arab summit to be held in Beirut later this month. (Photo by Courtney Kealy/Getty Images)

COURTNEY KEALY/Getty

One way to divide the debate over the United States' Middle East policy is between those who favor dealing with Iran and Syria, and those who don't. The Iraq Study Group and others who favor engagement assume that Syria's interests are in a stable Iraq. Syria has been so flooded with Iraqi refugees, they note, that it has put in place visa restrictions at odds with its professed pan-Arab ideology. On the opposite side of the argument, an Iraqi government spokesman recently accused Syria of responsibility for "50 percent" of the attacks going on in the country in claims that have been echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, of course, various Bush administration officials.

Supporters of engagement ask: why would the Syrian regime be stirring up trouble in Iraq if it was directly bearing some of the consequences? Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, may have provided a clue in an interview on Good Morning America yesterday when he said that his country is and wants to be "the main player in this issue." Syria is desperate to be influential in the region, not just for the sake of Arabist pride, but also because the embattled regime's survival is at stake. By contributing to problems, Syria can remain relevant by presenting itself as the only party who can solve them. It's thus both arsonist and fire department, to paraphrase Bush administration official Michael Scott Doran.

COURTNEY KEALY/Getty

One way to divide the debate over the United States’ Middle East policy is between those who favor dealing with Iran and Syria, and those who don’t. The Iraq Study Group and others who favor engagement assume that Syria’s interests are in a stable Iraq. Syria has been so flooded with Iraqi refugees, they note, that it has put in place visa restrictions at odds with its professed pan-Arab ideology. On the opposite side of the argument, an Iraqi government spokesman recently accused Syria of responsibility for “50 percent” of the attacks going on in the country in claims that have been echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, of course, various Bush administration officials.

Supporters of engagement ask: why would the Syrian regime be stirring up trouble in Iraq if it was directly bearing some of the consequences? Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, may have provided a clue in an interview on Good Morning America yesterday when he said that his country is and wants to be “the main player in this issue.” Syria is desperate to be influential in the region, not just for the sake of Arabist pride, but also because the embattled regime’s survival is at stake. By contributing to problems, Syria can remain relevant by presenting itself as the only party who can solve them. It’s thus both arsonist and fire department, to paraphrase Bush administration official Michael Scott Doran.

Opponents of engagement should understand that Syria is not willing to give up its leverage in neighboring countries and distance itself from Iran, its increasingly erratic protector, for nothing. At a minimum, Syria hopes to avoid punishment for its alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanese political figures and support for terrorism against Israel, it wants power in Lebanon, and it wants the Golan Heights back.

Those in favor of cutting a deal should be sure that the price is worth it, however. For now, with no sign of a rapprochement with the United States, fanning a fire in Iraq—or at least looking the other way—may continue to look like a plausible strategy to Syria.

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