Change of strategy on Syria needed

BY ALON BEN-MEIR

For a number of years, I have been advocating the importance of constructively engaging Syria, not only to improve the prospects for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but to substantially contribute to the stability of the Middle East. With security conditions throughout the region deteriorating daily, especially in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq, Damascus can play a significant role in stemming the tide of violence. This is why it is sadly ironic that the Bush Administration, which is battling to stabilize the situation especially in Iraq, remains blind to the fact that a change of strategy toward Syria is critical to tilting the region’s political and security dynamic toward at the very least a modicum of peace and security.

One argument against a change of policy toward Damascus is that the United States would be seen as rewarding extremism and bad behavior. Proponents of this view, miss the point: Policy must, in the final analysis, be determined by the desired outcome. If moderation and cooperation are what the administration seeks from Syria and the present Bush’s policy of regime change in Damascus has obviously failed, is now not the very moment to consider new policy options?

Another argument against changing policy is that dealing with Syria would be nothing less than appeasement and that the United States might as well submit to terrorism. I think the reality is the exact opposite: By not changing course, America is actually giving in to terrorism. Indeed Syria would collaborate with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism in many different ways including the sharing of intelligence as it had done immediately after September 11. A third argument is that dealing with Syria will come at Lebanon’s expense. But again, the opposite is more likely: Engaging Syria will have a positive, not a negative effect on Lebanon. The reason lies in the very fact that causes America the most unease, which is that Damascus exercises the greatest control over Hezbollah and other political and security elements to the degree that it can effectively influence their behavior in one form or another. To be sure, Lebanese internal stability depends in large measure on Syria because Damascus remains entrenched in Lebanon’s social, economic, cultural, and security affairs.

But Damascus is fully aware that it must pay a price in any peace negotiations with Israel if they are to lead to Syria regaining the Golan Heights. Such a price, must however, be integral to, not a precondition of, the negotiations. Damascus has no incentive to be helpful, let alone rein in extremism, when the threat of regime change continues to hover over the government. In fact, the greater the threat to the regime, the more tight is its leaders’ hold on power, while, conversely, the more secure the regime feels, the greater is the moderation that can be expected from them. Surely, Damascus must demonstrate that its call for peace negotiations is not some tactical play for time during which it prepares for the next adventure but is part of a genuine peace-seeking strategy. Thus, Syria will have to be ready to undertake clear and transparent measures, including severing its relations with radical Islamic groups, ending its political logistical support of Hezbollah, stemming the flow of insurgents and military hardware to Iraq, and ending its support to Hamas to demonstrate its commitment to peace.

Although no Syrian official will admit it, based on what we know, a change in policy toward Damascus will bring about much of this desired outcome because the Syrian leaders will act in their best interest and understand the limitations of their current policies, and are looking for a rapprochement with the United States. For the United States and Israel, the prospective gains are enormous, so they must not give way to doubt and thereby continue past policies that have led nowhere, except to erode regional security conditions. Syria will not go away. Regardless of the nature and the make up of the regime in Damascus, be it democratic or despotic, Syria’s national obsession with regaining the Golan and its historic and special interest in Lebanon will not go away either. As long as Damascus continues to have claims on both, it can be expected to do whatever it can to secure its own interests. Since no functioning, stable democracy is expected to emerge in Syria any time soon, the United States and Israel will be far better off dealing with a regime that has the authority to commit itself to a policy or a set of actions and take the necessary steps to back up its commitment.

Why then is there so much talk about a new summer war that may involve Syria and Israel, and possibly Hezbollah, when the channels for peace negotiation with Syria are wide open, and the regional security conditions can only deteriorate more if the current policy is left in place? Certainly, a weak Israeli government and an American administration stuck in the Iraqi quagmire may offer some explanation, but not enough to justify the continuation of a failed and disastrous policy. The Israeli intelligence community has clearly stated that Syria’s peace overture is genuine and that Syria is the key to regional stability. And in America, many influential and knowledgeable people and groups inside and outside the administration, Republicans and Democrats, including the Iraq Study Group, have strongly argued in favor of engaging Syria. But still no policy change seems in the offing. Instead, the administration continues to exert pressure on the Olmert government to ensure that no unilateral Israeli opening toward Syria is contemplated.

Given this intransigence, and if Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy offers any indication of where this administration is going, no one should be surprised if a summer war does break out, for no other reason than to break the debilitating 40-year stalemate.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]

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