Don’t let Damascus out of the doghouse
By Tony BadranWhy engaging Syria on Bashar al-Assad’s terms is a fool’s errand. For years, the regime in Damascus has been an international pariah, given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s support for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, his family’s heavy-handed attempts to dominate Lebanon, his broken promises on domestic reform, and his proxy war against U.S. ...
By Tony Badran
Why engaging Syria on Bashar al-Assad’s terms is a fool’s errand.
For years, the regime in Damascus has been an international pariah, given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s support for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, his family’s heavy-handed attempts to dominate Lebanon, his broken promises on domestic reform, and his proxy war against U.S. troops in Iraq.
But now, with a new administration in Washington that has vowed to talk with its adversaries, Damascus has openly stated that it expects the administration to come rushing back in repentance. So far, however, the Obama team has been cautious.
On her Middle East trip, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made several important statements on Syria. Just before heading to the region, Clinton told reporters that it was “too soon” to speak of any U.S.-Syria thaw. Then, in her stop in Jerusalem, she told reporters that Washington would “not engage in discussions for the sake of having conversation. There has to be a purpose to them; there has to be a perceived benefit for the U.S.”
Critics of the policy of isolating Syria have often made “engagement” seem like an end in itself, but through her careful remarks, Clinton clarified that engagement should be based on a clear understanding that talks are but a tool to an end. This is a welcome development. The Assad regime is notorious for dragging out processes and offering no meaningful concessions while extracting unilateral ones.
For instance, despite promising French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would send an ambassador to Lebanon before the end of 2008, Assad has yet to even name one, let alone dispatch him or her to Beirut. All the while, he has pocketed French concessions. Similarly, the French lobbied to renew discussion over the EU association agreement with Syria, which contains clauses regarding human rights and weapons of mass destruction. Yet, Assad is in the middle of a nuclear coverup scandal with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has publicly told the French that it is “forbidden” for any Westerner to raise human rights and democracy issues with his regime.
Given the history of U.S.-Syrian ties, it is important that Washington signal clearly from the very outset that it is prepared to walk away from the process if it is leading nowhere. With its economy wrecked by decades of mismanagement and shackled by sanctions, Syria needs the United States, not the other way around, regardless of absurd claims by certain analysts and apologists that engagement with Syria will magically cure the region’s travails.
Meaningful engagement requires a proper understanding of the limited nature of Syria’s relevance, assets, and what it really has to offer. By any measure, Syria is at best a secondary regional actor. Syria has no real economy to speak of. Its minuscule oil reserves, which are the regime’s main lifeline, are dwindling, and the country has already become a net importer of oil. Its conventional military power is modest. Its only ability to project any influence has been through its sponsorship of militancy and violence and its ties to Iran, without which it would be relegated to the status of a marginal backwater. The regime’s legitimacy hinges on radical narratives of “resistance and rejectionism” toward the United States and Israel. But the gap between the Syrians’ actual importance and their self-image and sense of entitlement is vast.
What Washington wants from Syria is not help, but an end to misbehavior. The State Department has rightly defined U.S. policy objectives by making public a list of issues on which the United States seeks tangible Syrian behavioral change: support for terrorism, clandestine nuclear programs, subversion in Lebanon, and human rights at home.
The Syrians reacted with typical hostility. One regime mouthpiece even declared that Syria had “broken” the United States, and so it had no business making demands. Another told prospective U.S. delegations to Syria not “to waste their time and ours” if they intend to raise such issues as Syria’s support for terrorist groups, as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin did during his recent trip to Damascus. In Syria’s view, it’s U.S. policies that need changing.
In fact, since President Barack Obama’s election, Syria has announced its own conditions for any “dialogue.” Those include lifting of sanctions and removing Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In return, Syria has offered comically little: Reopening the American school in Damascus, for instance, is hardly a pressing concern for Washington.
A workable engagement policy requires bench marks and clear, irreversible, substantive deliverables from Syria. It needs all the leverage the U.S. government can bring, such as sanctions, which are proving exceedingly useful especially now that the economic crisis is hitting Syria hard. There should be no talk of lifting sanctions, or removing Syria from the terrorism list, before Assad moves first and in credible fashion. That isn’t likely to happen for structural reasons.
For the engagement crowd, the coming diplomatic dance will be instructive. Clinton is sending two envoys to Damascus: acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and a senior National Security Council official, Daniel Shapiro. Feltman in particular is a solid choice. He understands Syrian thuggery and slipperiness firsthand, having been physically threatened by Syrian proxies during his stint as U.S. ambassador in Lebanon.
If history offers lessons, it’s that engaging this Syrian regime is unlikely to be fruitful. Clinton’s statement about engagement as only a means to an end will soon be tested. Damascus is clearly betting that the Obama team will confuse diplomacy with glibness. But if the secretary refuses to substitute process for purpose, the Syrians will likely be in for a rude awakening.
Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
File Photo: Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images
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