The Middle East Channel

Both sides of the fence

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is not unlike his father. Hafiz al-Asad was a foreign policy pragmatist who went against the grain on occasion based on perceived national interest. He was able to steer a foreign policy course for Syria where it could play on both sides of the regional and international fences. Syria is the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is not unlike his father. Hafiz al-Asad was a foreign policy pragmatist who went against the grain on occasion based on perceived national interest. He was able to steer a foreign policy course for Syria where it could play on both sides of the regional and international fences. Syria is the only country in the Arab world that can do so in any meaningful way. On the one side of the fence Syria has been a cradle of Arab nationalism, yet it supported non-Arab Iran against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It was the leader of the Arab confrontation states traditionally arrayed against Israel, yet it has engaged in direct and indirect negotiations with the Jewish state for almost three decades, coming tantalizingly close to a peace agreement in 2000. It was a client state of the Soviet Union during the superpower Cold War, yet it sent troops to fight alongside American forces in the US-led UN coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1990-91. This foreign policy hopscotch can be frustrating to those countries that would like to see a more consistent policy path emanating from Damascus, but it is exactly the ability to do this that has allowed Syria to muddle through various crises in the recent past as well as provide what otherwise is a relatively weak state some leverage and utility.

The George W. Bush administration basically demanded that Syria choose one side of the fence or the other. But Bashar al-Asad could not agree to do this for it would entail the severing of its relationship with Iran and with groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas. These assets are few and far between in what had been a near-empty quiver in Syria’s foreign policy arsenal. Damascus would have lost what little leverage it had in dealing with the US, securing a prominent regional role, and negotiating with Israel for the return of the Golan Heights.

Now that the Obama administration is in power and has engaged in a diplomatic dialogue of sorts with Syria, Bashar believes that he can once again play both sides of the fence, as his father did. This has been on full display of late. In February, almost immediately after the Obama administration announced that Robert Ford would be the new US ambassador to Syria and after a visit to the Syrian president by a high level State Department official carrying a message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that encouraged Syria to begin to move away from Iran, Bashar feted Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus.   

Obama administration officials were not very happy about this. It has been pushed around a bit in its diplomatic encounters to date, so this was yet another perceived slap in the face. More importantly, it gave the naysayers (i.e. those who have vehemently opposed making any concessions to Syria) an open forum to condemn Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Damascus. Bashar has, perhaps, underestimated the anti-Syria inertia that permeates Washington, an unsavory relic of the Bush years. As such, this was not Syria’s finest diplomatic moment. On the other hand, this is also the Syrian way, although typically crude in its application. Bashar has repeated to me on a number of occasions how he would like to position his country as a regional facilitator, engendered by its unique ability to play both sides of the fence. Syria has displayed the potentiality of this role by helping to bring stability to Lebanon, trying to reconcile Hamas with the Palestinian Authority, and mediating with Teheran on occasion. And some officials in Washington were beginning to realize and appreciate this. Then Bashar goes and hugs Ahmadinejad and proclaims solidarity with Iran.  What I have found more often than not in Washington is an institutionalized enmity toward and frustration with Syria. Washington tends to hold a grudge-big time. There are many who are still viscerally angry at Syria for its role in facilitating Iraqi insurgents across the border. So embarrassing the Obama administration at this particular moment was unwise. On the other hand, Syria cannot play the role of regional facilitator unless it cultivates its diverse connections.  Policy: understandable; timing: awful.

It is perhaps time for Syria to play on the other side of the fence in order to maintain (and build upon) its foreign policy options. Bashar’s reported get well call to ailing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can be seen in this light. If Syria is to play a role in helping to reconcile Hamas with the Palestinian Authority, a working relationship with Egypt must be in place. Syria’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia over the past six months may also play out more favorably for US interests in the Arab League summit meeting regarding volatile issues in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. Yet on the other side at the Arab League meeting that just transpired in Libya, Bashar, along with Libyan leader Muammar Qadhdhafi of all people, reportedly encouraged the Palestinians to completely pull out of negotiations with Israel. Though his recommendation fell flat, it was an inexpensive way to reinforce his credentials on this side of the fence.

There are those who say that the US may have overplayed its hand with Syria too soon.  Syria also has to be careful not to overplay its hand. Maybe Bashar feels the Obama administration is too disorganized and weak right now to worry about making positive impressions, but this might not always be the case, especially if the US president’s perceived standing improves due to the passage of the time-consuming health care legislation. Bashar worked hard to finally be taken seriously in Washington and in the region, but straddling the fence can be dangerous too if you don’t know when to-or can’t-get off of it when the time is right.

David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio.  Among his most recent books are: The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern; The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History; and The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment.

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