Israel’s recent siege of Lebanon, which has imposed a crippling humanitarian, economic, and psychological setback on her northern neighbor, may return Syria to the center stage of Middle Eastern politics. Considering Syria’s enduring influence over Lebanon and the Palestinians and her close ties to Iran, ignoring Syria no longer serves America’s (or Israel’s) interests.
Even before the recent escalation of hostilities in the region, President George W. Bush’s advisors, mindful of his legacy, should have calculated the value of engaging Syria, given the realignment of Syrian and Palestinian objectives that resulted from Hamas’s recent electoral victory and Syria’s continued ability to loom large over Lebanese politics despite a hasty military withdrawal following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
When Lebanon held elections shortly after Hariri’s death, Hezbollah demonstrated its formidable political power by scoring more seats in the Lebanese parliament and the Beirut cabinet than ever before—an obvious windfall for Syria. In addition, Maronite politician Michel Aoun, enormously popular among Lebanon’s sizable Christian minority, behaved capriciously. As Syria’s fiercest opponent when he headed Lebanon’s army, Aoun had even declared war on Damascus toward the end of the Lebanese civil war. As Lebanon’s first post-occupation elections approached, however, Aoun left Syria off the table and reserved his ire for Hariri’s allies. Consequently, his “Omega” coalition, which triumphed in Lebanon’s most Christian region, actually included pro-Syria parties. Once the new parliament convened, Aoun entered into a political alliance with Hezbollah—another boon for Syria.
That Hezbollah did not fail to influence the Lebanese elections is no surprise. In the weeks leading up to the elections, American policymakers overestimated the influence of the anti-Syria camp, especially MP Saad Hariri, the politically inept son of the slain Rafik who, fearing his father’s fate, remained outside of the country.
Hamas’s January electoral victory in Palestine significantly reshaped Palestinian-Syrian relations, which should also have led President Bush to reconsider rapprochement with Damascus. Syria’s rapport with the new Hamas majority was a departure from the status quo, since, in previous years, Syrian and Palestinian leaders have been at odds. The Syrian government, led for decades by the micromanaging Ba’athist dictator Hafez Assad, had consistently horrible relations with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These grudges most aggressively manifested as an ugly sideshow during the Lebanese civil war, but Assad’s retaliation continued in the 1990’s through his support of the “rejectionist” Palestinian groups based in Damascus, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. These rivals of Arafat undermined the PLO’s peacemaking credibility by launching suicide bombings at inopportune times, which also served to remind the United States that she could not ignore Syria’s stake in the peace process. For a similar purpose, Syria steadfastly supported Hezbollah’s activities, serving as a logistical conduit for the transfer of Iranian weaponry to strongholds in southern and eastern Lebanon, enabling Hezbollah to claim victory for Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
When Hafez Assad died that same year, his mantle passed to his 34-year-old son, Bashar, who proceeded with similar affinity for Hezbollah and hostility toward the PLO. For example, during the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut, Assad’s trusty disciple Emile Lahoud, the loyal-to-a-fault Lebanese president, obnoxiously prohibited Arafat from addressing the conference via satellite from his Israeli-mandated confinement in Ramallah.
Early in his first term, President Bush attempted to cooperate with Syria—not to pursue the peace process, but to drive Iraq further into isolation. He also overlooked Syria’s increasingly unnecessary military presence in Lebanon and tolerated her support of Hezbollah, even allowing Secretary of State Colin Powell to snub the Lebanese opposition guru, Maro-nite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, when he visited Washington in March 2001.
After September 11, however, circumstances changed dramatically, and President Bush found himself increasingly surrounded by policymakers who saw evil in all things Ba’ath. Syria became a poster child for terrorism, especially in the rhetoric of the President’s neoconservative advisors. Assad’s strident opposition to the Iraq war and hostile practice of facilitating the insurgency—with Syria serving as a transit point—plunged U.S.-Syria relations deeper into disarray; in 2003, Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanon Sovereignty Act, which included economic sanctions.
The relationship did not hit bottom, however, until the assassination of Hariri on February 14, 2005, for which Washington quickly blamed the Syrian regime. Margaret Sco-bey, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, was officially recalled and has never returned to Damascus. The list of Syrian crimes now included murdering Hariri and his entourage, abetting the Iraq insurgency, hosting the “rejectionist” Palestinian groups, and supporting Hezbollah.
The first issue was the freshest, most dramatic, and easiest to sell diplomatically, and it even afforded President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac the opportunity to kiss and make up—at Syria’s expense. The second issue mattered the most to the American public, with the dubious claim that “Saddam’s WMDs were moved to Syria” still ringing in their ears. But the Hamas/Hezbollah factor became an ideological sticking point for the administration, increasing its already ardent desire to humiliate the Syrian regime.
Assad, in turn, played the antagonist par excellence. In addition to strengthening ties to Iran, he capped off his defiance with a September 10, 2005, televised press conference during which he flaunted his close ties to Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal and other Damascus-based detractors. At a time when Washington was rolling out the red carpet for PLO leader Abu Mazen, the Syrian regime seemed determined to undermine those efforts, much to the fury of White House officials.
In retrospect, the Bush administration’s actions suggested neither a valid assessment of Arab public opinion nor the establishment of robust contingency plans for the pending Palestinian election. Instead, Bush continued to pout, the Palestinians voted, and White House protégé Abu Mazen lost his legitimacy almost overnight, to the benefit of Hamas. Basically, Bashar Assad completely outmaneuvered Bush. For all the juvenile blunders he and his obtuse cronies committed in Lebanon, Assad, strategically speaking, more than compensated by reading Meshaal’s coffee cup like a seasoned pro.
The Hamas victory truly broke new ground, because the Syrian and Palestinian regimes represent separate tracks of the peace process with a far more cohesive agenda than at any time in recent memory. President Bush needs to accept this new reality and acknowledge Syria’s significant influence over both Lebanon and Palestine. Despite the lack of any connection to Hamas, and the scant hope of establishing one organically, America already has a relationship with Syria, strained though it may be. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice grudgingly admitted as much during a recent trip to the region.
There is also a track record of nearly completed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria that could be resurrected in order to make a deal that saves face for everyone involved. However, President Bush—and whatever discredited neoconservatives he still enlists—may be unable to take that ideological step. They hate the Syrian regime with a passion, and they unjustly project this bias onto the Syrian people, falsely assuming that Bashar Assad is weak and unpopular. Consequently, the Bush administration does not wish to legitimize the Syrian regime by engaging it in negotiations. This irrational fixation is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests, because, diplomatically speaking, Syria is the only reliable access point to both Hezbollah and Hamas.
To reignite the peace process, the United States could discourage Israel’s unilateral disengagement policy, favored by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and pursue the Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks together. Assad could be offered concessions in exchange for helping tame the behavior of Hamas and brokering an arrangement in Lebanon whereby Hezbollah would have to disarm. If the Syrians furnished Meshaal and other protégés with a crash course in peaceful diplomacy, thereby achieving a more moderate positioning from Hamas, and successfully facilitated Hezbollah’s disarmament—and Israel responded positively—President Bush might succeed in hammering out a comprehensive deal before leaving office. That deal would include a fully sovereign Palestinian state as well as a Lebanese political solution, which would update the 1989 Taif Accords and likely offer the Shiites—Lebanon’s largest sect—an expanded role to compensate for Hezbollah’s disarmament. A reasonable timetable would run well into the first term of President Bush’s successor, however, which would make it difficult for him to establish the peace deal as part of his legacy.
The alternative is an intensely risky and divisive strategy, but, given the current state of unrest in the region, the timing is right for Bush to implement it. In this scenario, the United States would cut Hezbollah’s supply lines and weaken Hamas by isolating it from Syria. Such a tactic would simplify the Palestinian equation, assuming that Israel would continue with a unilateral disengagement policy in the West Bank, while the United States would shepherd the less cumbersome, more easily implemented Syrian and Lebanese tracks. Presumably, Syria would be lavishly rewarded, most likely with the entire Golan Heights, in exchange for delivering on a lengthy list of tough concessions, which would include facilitating Hezbollah’s disarmament. Syria would have to cease all support for Hamas and the other “rejectionist” Palestinian groups, who would be permanently expelled from Syria back to the West Bank and thereby deprived of their impunity and subject to retaliation by Israel. Syria would have to recognize the state of Israel and normalize ties, including full diplomatic exchange. She would have to minimize her ties with Iran and express her disapproval of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. She would have to cooperate with American goals in Iraq, including, but not limited to, border control. She would have to grant full citizenship to some 420,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in Syria. She would have to compensate Syrian Jewish families who lost homes, businesses, or lands during reprisals following the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars. And she would have to acknowledge Lebanon’s sovereignty and establish an embassy in Beirut.
We can only speculate about the disposition of the Israeli public toward such a proposal. Their wartime psyche might reject the concept out of frustration and mistrust of Arabs in general. Alternatively, the tenacity of Hezbollah fighters and their consequent emboldening impact on provocative, militant elements in the Islamic world might convince Israelis that a conclusive “land for peace” deal is in their long-term interest. While the Israeli military can inflict major damage on Lebanon and certainly wage similar air strikes on Syria with relative impunity, its leaders know that this strategy is not sustainable. Unless Israel occupies every square inch of land from which missiles could be launched, the possibility remains for isolated rocket barrages to send tens of thousands of her citizens into bomb shelters.
Only one force has demonstrated the capability to stop such activities: the military and intelligence services of the countries from which these attacks could be launched. The only way that Israel will be safe in the long term is for these tightly controlled Arab state institutions to deal with internal rogue elements themselves. Essentially, Israelis need the infamous Syrian moukhabarat to work to disrupt terrorists instead of facilitating them. They would have to conclude that this outsourcing of crackdowns against militants, which has already been done with Egypt and Jordan, would ultimately increase Israel’s security. Of course, the price for the Syrian and Lebanese governments to switch sides and comply would be “land for peace” treaties that allow those governments to recover some of their dignity.
The Syrian regime, however, might not be willing or even able to make so many concessions. Backpedaling on resistance to Israel, including cutting support to Hamas and Hezbollah, could prove insurmountable. And, if such a peace deal were successfully brokered, Syria would no longer have an ominous external threat as her main focus and would have to shift her attention to internal economic issues, especially tackling corruption, which Assad has not yet shown sufficient motivation to confront. Furthermore, the Ba’ath Party would find little justification for maintaining the draconian Emergency Laws that have curtailed political activity since 1963, or for continuing Syria’s constitutional mandate of an essentially one-party system.
This plan would test the political savvy of Bashar Assad. To explain to the Syrian people that he has eschewed Ba’athist rhetoric about a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would certainly damage his cherished reputation as a staunch defender of Arabism.
Still, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Syrian Arab Republic regaining its territory in full. Assad’s presumed ability to restore Syria’s sense of national dignity would enshrine him, and his father by extension, as Arab heroes on par with few others, assuring goodwill from the Syrian people for years to come. He will also have validated secular nationalism and dealt a crushing blow to his only credible opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, having completely stolen their thunder. When free elections would finally be held, what argument could the radical Muslims possibly make to suggest their superior ability to rule Syria when their rivals, the secular incumbents, have delivered such a striking victory?
Certainly, the defeat of Syrian Islamists would forcefully curtail a worrisome regional trend. But America would reap other vital rewards from an Israel-Syria peace deal. Most importantly, agreement on the concept of “land for peace” on Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon would be accompanied by Hezbollah’s disarmament, thereby ending its role as an Iranian military proxy. If President Bush could steer this deal to completion and offer a sufficiently attractive package to pry Syria away from Iran, he would deliver a tremendous blow to Tehran’s imperial ambitions by essentially depriving Iran of valuable allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Responding to such a proposal would no doubt be the biggest and toughest decision Bashar Assad has faced. He has already navigated a few considerable challenges, and, despite some foolish rookie mistakes, his regime remains solidly in control of Syria, while his naive opposition is barely functioning. This would be his first true test as a leader and would define his legacy. During his six years as Syrian president, did he tighten relations with Hamas and Hezbollah because of some ideological commitment? Or did he astutely surmise their rising fortunes and merely ride their coattails to a stronger bargaining position with the United States and Israel? The answers are unclear, but it is worth the risk to discover them.