All Writings
February 20, 2007

Syria Does Matter

Administration officials are increasingly talking about the wisdom of engaging with Syria to try to gain its support of and participation in efforts to stop the already chaotic situation in the Middle East from further deteriorating. Although it would have been wise from the first to engage with Syria, talking directly to Syria at this juncture is even more urgent and of paramount importance to the United States and its allies in the region. Whether Washington likes it or not, Syria does matter, and so it is imperative for the administration to forget about regime change in Damascus and view Syria as a future partner rather than an adversary.

Syria matters because it is at the heart of the Middle East and is the key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In Lebanon, Syria matters because, imbedded in Lebanon's social, economic, and political makeup, it continues to exert tremendous influence over Hezbollah. As a predominantly Sunni state, Syria matters because it can shift the dynamic of the Shiite-Sunni conflict away from a dangerous escalation with the potential of engulfing the entire region. Moreover, in any effort to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, Syria matters a great deal because luring Syria out of the Iranian orbit would isolate Tehran and weaken its resolve. Syria matters in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because more than any other Arab state it provides not only a sanctuary for Palestinian radical leaders but is the keeper of the flame of the Palestinian national movement. In Iraq, Syria matters more than at any other time because the Bush administration desperately wants and needs to succeed there, and Syria can be extremely helpful in any campaign to stabilize the fractured war-ridden nation. For the Israelis too Syria matters because without peace between Israel and Syria, Israel will always remain insecure on its northern front. And finally, Syria matters in the so-called war on terrorism because it has the capacity to help in gathering intelligence and in reining in many of the radical Islamic elements.

One can argue about the extent to which Syria matters in the search for solutions to many of these conflicts that have swept through the Middle East and seem to be consuming it. But one cannot discount that Syria impacts directly and indirectly on all the region's major issues and, therefore, its constructive engagement has the potential to dramatically realign the forces behind much of what troubles the region.

Administration officials insist that engaging with Syria is tantamount to rewarding Damascus for its mischievous behavior and transgressions. I cannot say that Syria is totally innocent. But even if we were to assume that at least some of these charges are valid, would it still not make sense to sit down with Syrian officials and deal with these complaints? To suggest, as Secretary of State Rice recently has, that Syria knows what it must do to "qualify" for a direct dialogue with the United States which is the same as asking Damascus to first admit to the whole world that it is guilty as charged and then to accept Mr. Bush's terms of engagement. Regardless of its "sins," Syria would reject these terms because they would be a form of submission, which among other things, would weaken seriously its negotiating position. It is true that Syria needs economic aid, modern technology, and a host of other benefits that normalization of relations with the United States would offer. That said, the United States needs Syria just as much. Considering the ever-deteriorating situation in the region, Mr. Bush actually needs Syria more than the other way around.

The administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran and North Korea for more than six years has done nothing but embolden these nations to defy the United States and do so with impunity. Six years of concerted efforts to isolate Damascus has only pushed it into Iran's belly and instead of diminishing its regional role have made Syria more crucial to the search for solutions. The policy toward Syria must now be reassessed and President Bush must look at Syria as a part of the solution, not the problem; otherwise, he is simply compounding the region's problems. On more than one occasion, his administration has in fact worked with Syrian officials, especially immediately after September 11–sharing intelligence and tracking al-Qaeda operatives. No reason prevents cooperation between the two nations from being resumed unconditionally, particularly now that the Middle East has been thrust into so much turmoil and Syria's constructive involvement has become even more necessary. Syria will not readily abandon its ties with Tehran or Hezbollah once the U.S. initiates direct talks with Damascus but Syria's serious engagement will have a dramatic impact on the political wind throughout the region.

Along with the Iraq Study group, many political leaders, academics, and think tanks have recommended that the administration engage with Syria. Mr. Bush has not simply refused to heed these calls; he has also failed to come up with any alternative policy option to deal with Syria as an inseparable part of the larger regional picture. Damascus can wait this administration out, but it is highly doubtful that the Bush White House has the luxury of time in resolving any of the region's problems without Syria's active and constructive engagement.