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Will Syria Fold?

Why U.S. efforts to get Syria to give up its bad behavior might come to naught.


This week, a U.S. military delegation is in Damascus, Syria, to discuss how the two countries can collaborate to stabilize Iraq. Having served in the Pentagon for four years, including as the Levant director responsible for U.S. policy on Syria, among other countries, I wish them luck. During the last eight years, U.S. engagement with Syria fluctuated considerably as the Bush administration initially tried to convince the Syrian government to play a positive role in the Middle East and then, once Syrian actions to the contrary became quite clear, implemented a robust slate of sanctions against the regime. Interactions between the two governments were substantially curtailed and consisted entirely of rare discussions on Iraqi refugees and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

I cannot help but be impressed by the Obama administration’s deft efforts in dealing with this difficult regime. But, difficult — indeed intractable — issues remain that could stymie its best efforts. Getting Syria to change its bad behavior in Iraq and Lebanon, to cease its partnership with terrorists and terror-sponsoring states, and to come clean about its nuclear program will not be easy.

To date, the administration has managed to strike an impressive balance of carrots and sticks. Over the last six months, Damascus has welcomed a host of U.S. officials, including special envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, State Department and National Security Council staff, and this week, the second military delegation from Central Command (CENTCOM). These visits signal a willingness to engage Syria on various bilateral and multilateral issues, including Iraq and the Israeli-Arab peace process.

To Syria’s chagrin, however, one important visitor has been missing: CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, whom the Syrians have been itching to welcome as a symbol of the new chapter in U.S.-Syrian relations. They know from press reports that General Petraeus had hoped to visit Damascus upon taking over the helm at CENTCOM, but he was prohibited from doing so. He had hoped to wedge Syria away from Iran through this effort; however, the Bush administration was unwilling to engage the Syrian regime after it refused to change its behavior. A visit by General Petraeus would demonstrate to President Assad and his cronies that there is truly a new group in charge in Washington.

In another exciting move for Damascus, the United States announced its intention to return an ambassador to Syria, though no real steps have been taken to name a nominee or begin the time-consuming process of Senate confirmation. Finally, the State Department recently announced that Syrian requests for information technology, communications equipment, and airplane parts will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

The Syrians are touting this statement as a significant step toward normal relations, but it actually means little in practice. As the Pentagon’s official tasked with considering these requests, I can tell you that they have always been examined individually, and not all were denied. Further, the administration has renewed various sanctions against powerful and unsavory Syrian regime affiliates, such as Hafiz Makhluf and Muhammad Nasif, who have undermined Lebanese sovereignty. So though the Syrians can gloat over a few visitors and some announcements, the administration has actually given the Syrians very little. Instead, the doors to dialogue have been opened with sufficient caveats and only for a period. U.S. diplomats have been quick to emphasize that Syria will need to take important steps to change its behavior if it hopes for a sustained relationship. Overall, the administration should be praised for capably and cautiously executing a complex effort to engage Syria.

Unfortunately, these efforts will soon grow more difficult. The Syrians might not deliver on U.S. requests for assistance on securing Iraq and stemming the flow of jihadists. The most recent estimate of the extent of this flow is from May, when an unnamed U.S. official told the Washington Post that 20 fighters per month were entering Iraq from Syria. Both General Petraeus and his successor in Baghdad, Gen. Ray Odierno, have said that foreign fighters continue flowing into Iraq from Syria. Further, the Treasury Department in mid-May sanctioned Abu Khalaf, a senior leader of al Qaeda’s foreign-fighters network in Syria.

Syria might also resort to its old policy that I refer to as "turning off the lights," wherein it takes only superficial steps in response to a U.S. request, such as rounding up low-level jihadists transiting the Iraq border while leaving senior jihadi leaders untouched in Damascus. This strategy takes its name from a wily move by President al-Assad in 2003 in which he closed down Palestinian terrorist offices after Secretary of State Colin Powell implored him to do so during a visit to Damascus, only to permit their rapid reopening.

There is also that persnickety problem of Syria’s nuclear reactor, which was quietly destroyed by Israel in September 2007 before it could become operational. Putting this issue on the table for discussion is inconvenient, to say the least, for those dealing with Syria or North Korea (just imagine the dilemma that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill faces; in his previous job he worked with North Korea on nuclear issues and now he needs to gain Syria’s cooperation on Iraq).

Finally, the price that the United States is willing to pay for Syrian cooperation has not yet been defined. Unlike two decades ago, when the United States quietly accepted Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon in exchange for its membership in the Gulf War coalition, it is doubtful that such a dramatic policy change could occur today given the strong U.S. backing for Lebanon’s ruling coalition, its substantial efforts to build the Lebanese Armed Forces, and its staunch support of the international tribunal to investigate former Prime Minister Rafi Hariri’s assassination. The administration might try instead to lure Damascus by pushing painful concessions on Israel. That could easily backfire: U.S.-Israel relations appear shaky right now, and neither the Israeli government nor its public appears willing to make compromises until Syria begins changing its posture.

Contrary to the bright-eyed wishes of some former U.S. officials, new relations with Syria will not markedly alter the region. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Edward P. Djerejian most recently made this argument in the Wall Street Journal, citing the many achievements of the U.S.-Syria dialogue under his tutelage from 1988 to 1991, around the time of the first Gulf War. But Syria’s cooperation during this period was tied to its national interests: A weakened Iraq serves Damascus, and the price paid (Lebanon) was rather high. In any case, Damascus might choose to scoff at this opportunity — as it did multiple times during the previous administration, particularly on Iraq — and decide against changing its destabilizing and unhelpful behavior, which should in no way be underestimated or ignored.

But given the crises Syria is witnessing this summer — from turmoil in Iran, its closest ally, to its proxies’ losses in Lebanon’s June election — Assad may decide that now is finally the time to take some advice from Kenny Rogers: "You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them."

Mara Karlin is an associate professor of the practice of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She worked for five U.S. secretaries of defense.

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