Bashar al-Assad has maintained his country’s key position in Mideast politics by drawing out the peace process and turning it into warfare by other means
In the annals of “big policy ideas,” perhaps none has had as much staying power in the face of a dismal track record than the seemingly perpetual conviction that integrating Syria into the pro-American order in the Middle East is a real, achievable possibility. The ultimate authority invoked in support of the idea that Syria is the keystone for stability in the region is usually Henry Kissinger, the arch-realist of American foreign policy, who is said to have said, “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.”
With the exception of a brief suspension during the George W. Bush presidency, the notion of Syrian centrality has dominated U.S. thinking—and often Israeli thinking—about the Middle East, and the Obama Administration is no exception. The idea that it is important to appease Syria at all costs appears to be behind the lack of any notable response to recent reports indicating that Syria may have passed Scud-D ballistic missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This dangerous development comes after a tripartite summit in Damascus between the leaders of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in February at which the Syrian and Iranian presidents openly mocked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her comment about wanting to see Syria distance itself from Iran. Instead, Damascus and Tehran waived visa requirements between their two countries.
The model for what U.S. and Israeli policymakers hope from Syria is the Camp David accord with Egypt, which established what some refer to as the “Pax Americana” in the Middle East. The Egyptian model was and remains the premise behind approaching Syria, as was evident during Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia in April, when Rep. Dana Rohrbacher wondered in his remarks what it would take to turn Syria around to becoming a more moderate Arab country “like Jordan or Egypt.”
While Cold War efforts to remove Syria from the Soviet orbit failed, a similar, enduring subplot has emerged regarding its 30-year-old alliance with Iran. The ubiquitous argument was summarized in a 2009 essay by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk in Foreign Affairs:
Syria is the principal conduit for Iran’s influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Israeli-Syrian negotiations threaten to sever these ties. Drawing Syria away from Iran would also deprive Tehran and its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies of a critical ally. Such a strategic realignment would weaken Iran’s influence in the region, reduce external support for both Hamas and Hezbollah, and improve the prospects for stability in Lebanon. A U.S.-brokered peace between Israel and Syria would remove Damascus as an enemy and, in the process, likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian alliance.
Advocates for pursuing Haass and Indyk’s recommendation include a list of revered former officials, often identified as Realists, such as former Secretary of State James Baker, former national security advisers like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a coterie of former ambassadors and peace processors, not to mention a host of policy mavens in the think-tank world.
Their argument rests on a basic linkage theory, which, incidentally, also accepts key aspects of the Syrian official line: The problems in the region are related, and they revolve around the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s occupation of Arab lands.
In this conceptual universe, Syria is at the center of the conflict. A weak country, unable to match Israeli power and American penetration of the region, it struck a realist, defensive alliance with Iran as well as with non-state actors Hamas and Hezbollah in order to avoid isolation, but also to gather assets to pressure Israel and the United States to the negotiation table to recover the Golan Heights. In doing so, Syria manages to frustrate any regional deals that ignore its interests. Therefore, any deal in the region has to be “comprehensive,” i.e., involving the Syrians. After all, you cannot make peace without Syria, as the adage has it.
Another part of the idea that Syria is the key to regional peace, and can be won over to the West, has to do with the nature of Syria’s rulers. The Assads—who have ruled Syria since 1970—aren’t ideological, like Iran, the theory goes, but are secular and pragmatic horse traders. As former Secretary of State James Baker, one of the ardent supporters of this worldview, put it, “a deal is there to be had.”
Once the Syrians get what they want, Baker and his cohort believe, they will become more cooperative, leading to at least a reformulation of their ties to Iran and allied militant groups. Syria will ultimately embrace the West, they believe, because Iran cannot satisfy Syria’s serious economic woes. Only the West can offer Syria the investments it needs. This gives rise to other convictions about Assad himself, who is portrayed as a secular modernizer who, in the words of Brent Scowcroft, “cannot be comfortable clutched solely in the embrace of Iran.”
Secretary of State Clinton made this premise explicit at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the heels of a trip to Damascus by William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs: “We have laid out for the Syrians the need for a resumption of the Israeli/Syrian track on the peace process, which had been proceeding through the offices of the Turks, and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran, which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”
Assad’s reaction was swift and unambiguous: He hosted a tripartite summit with Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah during which Assad and Ahmadinejad specifically ridiculed Clinton’s statement. Assad told reporters he and Ahmadinejad “misunderstood” Clinton’s comments, “maybe because of translation error or limited understanding.” Instead, he said, Syria and Iran signed an agreement canceling visa requirements between their countries. Ahmadinejad piled it on: “Clinton said we should maintain a distance. I say there is no distance between Iran and Syria. We have the same goals, same interests and same enemies. Our circle of cooperation is expanding day after day.”
Assad’s rhetorical slight was matched by his escalating transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, namely anti-aircraft systems and long-range missiles, culminating in the recent Scud crisis.
Given the conceptual framework within which the Administration is operating, it was unsurprising that the reaction to Assad’s behavior was one of befuddled confusion. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg shrugged off the Damascus summit as “theater.” Optimists even saw it as evidence of Iranian “insecurity” and “nervousness.”
After the reports of Scud missile transfers from Syria to Hezbollah, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman offered the following commentary on the Damascus summit to the Lebanese daily An-Nahar: “First, it seems that there is a pattern, as I mentioned in the [House] hearing, that after every visit [to Syria] by a U.S. or Western official, an Iranian official visits Damascus, or a Syrian official visits Tehran. I don’t know what this pattern means, but it could signify some very important things.”
Feltman had made the same observation during a stormy hearing of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia a few days earlier, in response to a remark by Rep. Dan Burton, who described Assad’s summit with Ahmadinejad as “spit in our face.” Feltman retorted that the pattern suggests that the Iranians are worried or that something was going on behind the scenes. He neglected to mention that this same pattern has been going on for 30 years, without any real impact on the endurance of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which seems as solid as—if not more solid than—it has ever been.
The fact that the Administration’s hopeful understanding of Syrian motivations fails to make sense of actual Syrian behavior has not been lost on U.S. policymakers, who nevertheless seem stuck in the same old box. As one official told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. Until then it’s all damage control.” Why Assad behaves the way he does was dubbed “the million-dollar question” by the same official.
At the heart of the Administration’s flawed conceptual framework is an acceptance of the idea that Syria’s behavior is ultimately reactive, driven by grievances against Israel and the West, the occupation of the Golan Heights chief among them. By accepting the centrality of the United States and Israel, policymakers miss far more powerful local factors that motivate regime calculations.
What is often referred to as a transient “marriage of convenience” between Syria and Iran is now in its 31st year, having enjoyed its silver anniversary during the Bush Administration. In fact, the relationship between the Assad regime and Ayatollah Khomeini predates the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Hafez Assad cultivated ties with the cadres of the Iranian opposition to the shah and even offered to host Khomeini in Damascus when the Iraqi Baath regime expelled him from Najaf in 1978. One figure that played an initial role in the relationship was the Iranian-Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr, who had sided with the Syrians in Lebanon in order to balance Palestinian influence.
Sadr had bestowed a measure of religious legitimacy on Assad’s Alawite sect (deemed heretical by orthodox Islam), declaring Alawites to be Shiite Muslims in 1973. Sadr was also hosting a number of Iranian opposition cadres in Lebanon, where they were able to train and assist the opposition movement to the shah. These figures, who went on to assume leadership positions in Iran’s newly founded revolutionary regime in 1979-1981, would move through Syria and were offered Syrian-issued passports to facilitate their movement. One such activist, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who went on to become Iran’s foreign minister, was given a Syrian passport and cover to work in Paris as a correspondent for the Syrian government paper, al-Thawra.
The Assad court historian, Patrick Seale, reports that on a visit to Tehran in August 1979, then-Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam boasted that Syria had supported the Islamic Revolution “prior to its outbreak, during it and after its triumph.” Well before Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of a “Shiite Crescent,” Seale had already written that Assad pursued a policy “to confront the world of Camp David” through an alliance with revolutionary Iran.
Far from recoiling from a Shiite Islamist “awakening,” Assad welcomed it. The “secular” Assad congratulated Khomeini over the victory of the Islamic Revolution and dispatched his information minister with a present for the new Iranian leader in Qom: an illuminated Quran.
The current effort to lure Syria away from Iran through incentives (political and economic) is hardly the first. For example, in 1986 the Iranians were “nervous” about an attempt at rapprochement with Syria led by Jordan, whose King Hussein also attempted achieving a reconciliation between Assad and Saddam Hussein. Between 1985 and 1988, there was a concerted effort backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and even Syria’s Soviet patron to entice Damascus into the so-called “Arab fold.”
Much like today, Syria’s economy was in dire straits, and the country was diplomatically isolated. Western observers figured that Assad’s choice was an easy one to make. And yet to their befuddlement, Assad refused, despite serious Soviet and Saudi pressure. The Syrian-Iranian alliance not only survived, it was consolidated during the subsequent two decades. Clearly, what outside observers have been arguing was Syria’s best interest was not in sync with its leadership’s calculation.
There is an immense gap between Syria’s grandiose self-image and the reality of its weakness as a second-tier regional actor. Damascus has always liked to invoke grand memories of its relatively brief imperial moment when it served as the seat of the Umayyad caliphate. This was a historical exception to geographical Syria’s status as a buffer zone and invasion route for larger, neighboring empires. But illusions of grandeur persist. The latest extravagant version of this charade being peddled by Assad is one that paints Syria as the nexus of “a single, large perimeter [with Turkey, Iran and Russia] that combines five seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea,” as the Syrian president grandly proclaimed in a May 24 interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica. “We’re talking about the center of the world.”
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