Realigning Syria

Prem G Kumar. Foreign Affairs. Volume 88, Issue 2. March/April 2009.

In their recent essay, Richard Haass and Martin Indyk urge the Obama administration to promote an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, arguing that it could break the Iranian-Syrian alliance and help isolate Iran in its nuclear standoff with the West. Given the recent violence in Gaza, which has highlighted the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, such calls to focus on the Syrian track may increase. The land-for-strategic-realignment deal that Haass and Indyk envision would involve an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights-most likely to the Unes of June 4, 1967-in exchange for a Syrian pledge to end support for Hamas and Hezbollah and significantly downgrade ties with Iran.

But there is little evidence that the Syrian government is prepared to make such a strategic shift. Actively courting Syria with many carrots but few sticks, as during the peace process of the 1990s, is not likely to change attitudes in Damascus. Syria could improve its relations with the West while simply maintaining its current strategic orientation—an outcome that would put no additional pressure on Iran. Instead, Washington should adopt a newly positive tone toward Damascus but combine that with the diplomatic, legal, and financial pressure needed to induce Syria’s realignment.

Haass and Indyk are right to point out that most of the substantive issues between Israel and Syria were resolved by early 2000, but public support for peacemaking in Israel has declined significanuy since then, which means that the bar for a successful agreement is now higher. During the 1990s, a small majority of Israelis opposed full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for the normalization of relations with Syria; today, according to polls conducted by the Dahaf Institute, the figure is closer to two-thirds. These numbers are likely to improve only if the next Israeli prime minister can point to specific and credible Syrian commitments to strategic realignment that go beyond the nowdevalued peace dividend of the 1990s. But the Syrian regime and many of its subjects believe that President Bashar al-Assad’s hard-line policies in the face of U.S. pressure since 2004 have worked and that the West should now engage with Syria on Syria’s terms. They envisage a peace deal in which Damascus would act as an intermediary between the United States and Israel on one side and Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran on the other. Needless to say, this is not the strategic realignment that most Israelis seek.

An Enduring Bond

Syria has long-standing reasons for rejecting peace on Israel’s terms. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Iranian-Syrian relationship is not a tactical marriage of convenience; it is one of the most enduring strategic partnerships in the Middle East. The ties between Tehran and Damascus were forged in the early 1980s due to a shared hatred of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, were strengthened over the next two decades as Iranian and Syrian interests converged in Lebanon, and have further solidified since 2002 because the two countries have supported each other in the face of U.S. pressure. The Iranian-Syrian partnership was formalized in 2006 with the signing of a mutual defense pact and has since been reinforced by enhanced economic and cultural links. Although there have been occasional strains in the relationship, notably over Syria’s support for a strong central government in Iraq and its participation in the 2007 U.S. -sponsored Annapolis peace conference, Tehran and Damascus have minimized their public disagreements. In fact, Syrian officials went out of their way to emphasize that a break with Iran was not on the table in the indirect talks with Israel and that it never will be. Tehran is a reliable and important ally for Damascus, not one to be traded overnight to meet Israeli or U.S. demands.

Similarly, the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah has grown more intimate over the past five years. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed Hezbollah as a client to be manipulated in order to pursue Syria’s interests in Lebanon and put pressure on Israel. By contrast, Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad, treats Hezbollah as a strategic partner, meets with the group’s leaders often, and publicly praises them in ways that his father would have found beneath him. The younger Assad exulted in Hezbollah’s “victory” over Israel in the summer 2006 war, famously ridiculing moderate Arab leaders as “half-men” for their criticism of Hezbollah. Since its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Syria has become more dependent than ever on Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is the only force that can reliably ensure there is a Syria-friendly government in Beirut. It would be a tall order for Damascus to alienate the most powerful group in Lebanon by cutting off material support to it or otherwise undermining Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel.

Incentives for Peace

Even so, Assad does have reasons to pursue peace with Israel. Winning back the entire Golan, a goal his father never achieved, would be a major feather in Assad’s cap and could be sold to the public as a vindication of Syria’s hard-line policies since 1979. Damascus also has economic reasons to seek a deal with Israel. Given Syria’s declining oil production and moribund state-run industries, a peace treaty with Israel could be a path to the new economic relationship with the West that the country needs. But these economic challenges are not grave enough to induce Damascus to compromise at the moment because the Syrian economy is still doing well. The International Monetary predicted in 2008 that economic growth Syria would increase and that would be able to continue diversifying economy away from oil.

The withdrawal of Syria’s troops from Lebanon has, surprisingly, also had a salutary effect on some sectors of the Syrian economy. The repatriation of assets from Lebanon and the need to offer wealthy Syrians the services they once sought in Beirut led Damascus to introduce reforms in the country’s banking, construction, and telecommunications sectors, which have attracted investment from the Persian Gulf states. These changes have also kept the Sunni merchant class of Damascus-long a potential political threat to the regime-quiescent. Down the road, the economic benefits of peace will matter, but at the moment there are more important considerations.

Assad’s main reason to seek peace with Israel is the prospect that it would bring rapprochement with the West and with moderate Arab states, which would protect his regime from external threats. Some Syrians, for example, have accused other Arab states of secretly backing the jihadists suspected of carrying out a string of bombings in Damascus over the past year. Reaching an accommodation with the United States, and by extension its Arab allies, would presumably help Assad deal with this jihadist threat.

But two questions remain in most Syrian minds: Which regional relationships would they have to downgrade to this rapprochement? And how are the benefits of an improved ship with the West? Given the popularity of Hamas and among the Syrian public and Assad’s frequent expressions of solidarity with these groups, it would be very difficult for the Syrian government to strategically realign itself as visibly or as quickly as most Israelis would like without risking a backlash at home.

A Little Respect

Faced with these unfavorable circumstances, one might be tempted to conclude that Washington should wait for a more propitious time to invest significant political capital in pursuing an Israeli-Syrian deal. But as Haass and Indyk argue, the Middle East has a way of forcing itself onto the U. S. president’s agenda regardless of his other plans. Moreover, the costs of a renewed proxy war between Israel and Syria would be high. To improve the prospects for peace, Washington should begin by raising Syrian confidence in the benefits of improved relations with the West.

The United States should return its ambassador to Damascus and increase cooperation on issues relating to Iraq-widely expected steps that would serve both countries’ interests. Washington should also adopt more respectful rhetoric toward Syria, while continuing to press Damascus to loosen its ties with Hamas and Hezbollah. However, the United States should realize that this may occur only as the result of a peace agreement with Israel.

Then, President Barack Obama should publicly declare his strong support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations and for Lebanon’s territorial integrity and political independence. Obama should affirm that in the event of a Syrian peace agreement with Israel, his administration would work with Congress to repeal the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act-which imposed a range of sanctions on Damascus for its destabilizing behavior in the region-and remove Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama should also make clear that the United States is ready to deploy troops at an early warning station on the Golan Heights (to warn Israel of a surprise Syrian attack), secure accession to the World Trade Organization and other trade benefits for Syria, and work with allies in Europe and the Middle East on substantial military and economic aid packages for both Israel and Syria.

Meanwhile, Washington should quietly build leverage over Damascus on other key issues and be prepared to use it to clinch a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. First, it should continue to generously support the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Although Syria has grown confident in recent years that the tribunal will not charge highranking Syrian officials, the indictment of even low-ranking ones or their proxies in Lebanon would strengthen Washington’s negotiating position. If Syria agrees to make peace with Israel and permits these indictees to be transferred to the tribunal, Washington should work with its allies and the UN to effectively offer immunity from prosecution to the rest of the regime, as it did with Libya in 1999 in an effort to resolve the Lockerbie affair.

Second, the United States should aggressively push for a broader probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into the suspected Syrian nuclear plant in Al Kibar, which Israel attacked in September 2007, and for multilateral sanctions if Syria refuses to cooperate, Although securing Chinese and Russian support for this effort will be difficult, Obama will be in a better position to try if he signals that the United States no longer seeks to isolate or overthrow Assad’s regime. If Syria agrees to realign itself, Washington should then help lift the sanctions against Damascus for past violations of me Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, so long as it agrees to comply with the NPT in the future,

Third, the Obama administration should attempt to broaden its proposed dialogue with Tehran to address Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah. If it seems that Tehran is ready to cut off support for these groups, Syrian leverage over Israel would quickly decline, as Iranian aid is far more important to Hamas and Hezbollah than the support they receive from Damascus.

Fourth, Washington should work with its allies to quiedy pressure Western and Japanese banks to turn away Syrian individuals and entities suspected of financially supporting terrorism.

Finally, instead of acceding to Syria’s request to sponsor negotiations with Israel, Washington should urge the two countries to first engage in direct talks hosted by Turkey and only get involved when they are close to a deal. This approach would help avoid the pitfalls of the 1990s, when Israel and Syria often negotiated with the United States rather than with each other and premature summits derailed the entire process. The Obama administration should also consider establishing a contact group of countries similar to the six-party framework for North Korea, including France, Russia, Turkey, and members of the Arab League, to coordinate international support for the talks and prevent the parties from playing off their patrons against one another.

As it pushes for peace, the United States must ensure that Israel’s demands in the negotiations are based on a specific and realistic definition of Syrian strategic realignment. Instead of demanding a complete Syrian break with Tehran, Israel may need to accept a peace agreement that effectively nullifies the Iranian-Syrian mutual defense pact without requiring Damascus to formally withdraw from it. This could be combined with an end to Damascus’ intelligence and military collaboration with Tehran and agreement on the deployment of an international force in Lebanon to verify Syria’s pledge to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Before agreeing to sponsor the Israeli-Syrian talks, Washington should seek concrete signals from Damascus that Lebanon would not pay the price of any Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. These signals could include delineating the Lebanese-Syrian border in the Shebaa Farms region (which would help negate Hezbollah’s claim that Israel still occupies Lebanese territory), supporting a renewal of the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Lebanon as a step toward a full peace agreement, or accepting the Lebanese government’s efforts to disarm Palestinian militants.

Getting Syria to make peace with Israel and to distance itself from Iran will be an extremely complicated task. The U.S. approach must be designed to succeed, and not just to sustain a peace process, because Iran will be meaningfully affected only by an actual peace agreement between Israel and Syria—not simply progress toward one. But with the right combination of incentives and pressure, the Obama administration could help redraw the strategic map of the Middle East.