It's time to talk to Syria.

It's time to talk to Syria.

It's time to talk to Syria.

Military analysis.
Sept. 15 2006 1:30 PM

Let's Make a Deal

It's time to talk to Syria.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

It's a golden moment for a diplomatic overture to Syria.

This week's armed assault on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus should have shown Syrian President Bashar Assad that his country isn't as immune to the region's terrorism as he might have thought.

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The Syrian security guards' successful repulsion of the attack and defense of the embassy should have shown President George W. Bush that the two countries might share some interests—and that the terrorist threat isn't as monolithic as he's made it appear in recent speeches.

The incident comes in the wake of the summer's disastrous war between Israel and Hezbollah, which should have shown all concerned that military power alone—even when unfurled by the once-invincible Israel Defense Forces—cannot resolve the region's political conflicts.

So, will Bush take the plunge or at least explore the possibilities? Almost certainly not, and that's a shame, because it means more dreadful violence is nearly inevitable.

It's a bad break that Syria—poor, tiny, fragile, murderous Syria—occupies such a central spot in the Middle East tinderbox. It would be more satisfying to ignore Assad's regime, or to swat it like a gnat, than to deal with it as a serious power. But the world is rarely a satisfying place.

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There's a good reason Israel didn't swat Syria during the summer war. Assad's regime probably would have collapsed, but it would have been replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood or worse. (And if a group of al-Qaida wannabes had stormed the U.S. Embassy, this new regime's security guards might not have tried to stop them.) Another good reason: Syria had recently signed a mutual-defense pact with Iran; an attack on Syria might have triggered retaliation by Iran against not just Israel but also the oil routes in the Persian Gulf, U.S. troops in Iraq, and who knows what else.

It's worth trying to strike a deal with Assad because: 1) He can be bought off (he's offered to be bought off before, on several occasions); 2) yanking him away from Iran will pull the rug out from under Iran; 3) getting him to temper his support of Hezbollah will defang Hezbollah.

But to buy off Assad requires buying him—giving him something in exchange for his switch. And that's something George W. Bush is loath to do.

There was a moment on Tuesday, after Syrian guards fought off the embassy assault, when a warm breeze seemed to waft through the air. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "I do think that the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that."

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But then White House spokesman Tony Snow brought things back to earth. "Now the next step," he said, "is for Syria to play a constructive role in the war on terrorism, stop harboring terrorist groups, stop being an agent in fomenting terror."

Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, responded in kind, blaming the assault on the United States, whose policies in the Middle East, he said, "have fueled extremism, terrorism, and anti-U.S. sentiments."

Both sides, of course, were right. Syria does harbor terrorist groups; U.S. policies have fueled terrorism. The question, though: What are the two sides going to do about it?

An alliance with Iran gets Assad security, economic aid, and investment. Supplying arms to Hezbollah gets him leverage in Lebanon and street cred with Arabs. If he changes policies and does what Tony Snow wants him to do, what does he get in return?

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Joshua Landis—whose blog, Syria Comment, is the most informative clearinghouse of analysis on the country—thinks that Assad wants better relations with the United States; that he turned to Iran in part because he needed to turn somewhere and had no alternative.

Assad is a secular leader, faces his own Islamist threats from within (as the embassy assault dramatized), and must wonder how durable his alliance with the mullahs of Iran might be. As Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker a few years ago, Syria was the Bush administration's best source of intelligence on al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks—until the United States invaded Iraq, at which point Syria cut off the flow. Similarly, back in 1990, when Bush's father was rallying the (genuine) coalition to oust Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, Syria joined up and, by its example, brought other Arab nations along. Even before George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, Assad tried to revitalize relations by offering the administration intelligence on Saddam's plans and forces—but he was rebuffed.

In other words, it's a big mistake to regard Syria as an implacable foe—much less to lump it along with the myriad regimes and movements (Iran, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, North Korea, and so on) that Bush views as a monolithic force of darkness in the global war on terrorism. (This Manichean view may be Bush's most unfortunate misconception. By not understanding the nature of his enemies, he cannot defeat them; and by failing to detect the fissures that divide them, he passes up opportunities to play them off against one another.)

What would Assad need to change his ways? Landis and others suggest a few incentives: a guarantee that neither the United States nor Israel would attack Syria; excision from the official list of nations that sponsor terrorism (a step that would permit aid and investment from the West); some liberty to flex political influence in Lebanon; and negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan Heights.

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In exchange, Assad would have to earn Syria's removal from the terrorism list (that is, he would really have to stop sponsoring terrorism); he would have to stop funneling arms to Hezbollah and, instead, support Hezbollah strictly as a political party; and he would have to accept Israel's existence within the framework of a two-state accord with the Palestinians (which—though it's always dangerous to be optimistic about such things—a new, possibly unified, government in the Palestinian territories seems on the verge of doing).

This is a lot to bite off. It's not at all an appealing idea, whatever the trade-offs, to legitimize the resumption of Syrian influence in Lebanese politics or the stiffening of Hezbollah's political power. But those things are going to happen anyway. Should they happen with Syria in an alliance with Iran—or in a security arrangement that involves the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union?

Of course, the whole scenario may be fantasy. Unless he drastically shifts gears, George W. Bush is simply not going to reach out and make a deal with Syria. Assad's an evil dictator; we don't do deals with evil dictators. Michael Corbin, Washington's new chargé d'affaires, was ordered not to talk with Mustapha, the Syrian ambassador. Corbin told a friend that there aren't going to be any talks with Syria "for two years"—that is, until Bush leaves office.

It may also be a fantasy on a separate level. Michael Young, the shrewd and experienced columnist for Beirut's Daily Star (and a regular Slate contributor), thinks that Assad would never take such bold steps, in part because the United States has nothing to offer him for doing so. It's true: Washington doesn't have the same leverage that it had during the Cold War, and the failure in Iraq has reduced that leverage even further. Still, for that reason, an overture might be worth a try because the alternatives are so grim. We need allies to maintain influence and stability in the Middle East, and we hardly have any these days. It may be time to resume the practice of "realism" and build up some allies to help do our dealings, even if it means trading favors with the lesser and more malleable of evils.