George W. Bush never included Syria on his list of countries making up what he described as an “Axis of Evil,” but it was clear that he considered the regime of Bashar al-Assad a security threat that needed to be isolated and punished. In April 2002, shortly after his Axis speech and at a time when the United States still seemed willing and able to take down hostile regimes, Bush said the time had come “for Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on.” He later accused Syria of sponsoring Palestinian terror groups, assassinating politicians in Lebanon, and doing little to prevent jihadists from crossing its border with Iraq to attack American troops there. Bush pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005. He imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the country. And in October 2008, as one of his last major acts while still in office, he approved a helicopter raid on a Syrian village near the Iraq border where a senior al-Qaeda operative was purportedly sheltering.
Now, only three months into his presidency, Barack Obama has radically reversed his predecessor’s policy of isolating Syria and is instead reaching out to Assad as part of a broader U.S. policy of engaging with America’s enemies, including Iran. In March, the United States sent two senior envoys—State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council—to Syria for talks. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, has been received at the State Department after being shunned for years. And a State Department spokesman said Syria can play “a positive role in the region by trying to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East.”
Assad, for his part, says he would like to meet Obama and is open to resuming indirect peace talks with Israel, which were suspended during the war in Gaza. He’s sat for a series of interviews with Western newspapers. A photo of one such interview, helpfully made available by the Syrian government press office, depicts Assad rocking back casually, a warm and delighted smile on his lips. The image is the Middle Eastern dictator’s equivalent of a sweater vest, and the message is the same: trust me.
Part of this apparent thaw between Washington and Damascus is driven by necessity. The peace talks Israel opened with Syria in 2007 made America’s cold shoulder policy less tenable. But there’s more to it than that. American policy-makers see Syria as a lever that just might readjust the balance of power in the Middle East by weakening Iran and undermining Israel’s enemies. Syria is Iran’s primary ally and gives Iran a foothold on Israel’s doorstep through Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Peeling Syria away from Iran would help isolate Iran, a regime Israel considers a mortal threat, and would cut off support to militias with which Israel has fought three wars in the last three years.
“The ultimate goal is to change Syria’s behaviour on a variety of issues—on its interference in Lebanese internal affairs, on its support for Palestinian terrorist groups that oppose the Palestinian Authority, on, most importantly, acting as a land bridge between Iran and Hezbollah, where Hezbollah gets all its arms,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with Maclean’s. “Those are the ultimate United States goals, and there is a view that this really requires a kind of strategic reorientation on the part of the Syrian regime, away from Iran and Hezbollah and toward the West.”
These were America’s goals when Bush was president as well. In fact, as a deputy national security adviser to the former president, Abrams played an important roll in shaping this strategy. But at the time, Bush believed Syria could be muscled into co-operation, and he probably nursed a faint hope that the regime might be overthrown outright. Looking back at this policy today, Abrams says the United States succeeded in isolating Syria for a time, but accomplished little strategically. “In the narrowest sense, the efforts to isolate them succeeded,” he says. “If you go more deeply than that and say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but what did that achieve? Did you get them through that policy to change their conduct?’ Then the answer is no.”
According to Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, Obama is now engaging Syria because Bush’s efforts to isolate and confront the regime failed. “George Bush had run his non-engagement policy into the ground,” he says. “Non-engagement wasn’t working. We’ve got to go back to realism.” Landis cautions that while realism suggests the United States should talk to Syria, it’s not realistic to expect Syria to turn away from Iran. Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, has told him as much. Syria and Iran share too many interests—in Lebanon, in Iraq, and regarding Kurdish minorities in both their countries.
Similarly, Landis says, Syria won’t sever ties with Hezbollah. The militia and political movement affords it substantial influence in Lebanon, a country Syria considers part of its sphere of influence (if not a de facto province), and one that it needs as a gateway to the wider world. The drive from Damascus to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea is a short one through Lebanon. Without this outlet, the Syrian capital is snookered behind Lebanon’s coastal strip.
Magnus Norell, a specialist on Hezbollah and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, agrees that Syria is unlikely to be “flipped,” or made to turn against Hezbollah. Lebanon is simply too important to Damascus. He thinks the most that can be hoped for is that Syria reins in some of the more radical Palestinian organizations it arms and sponsors, including Hamas. Landis believes something similar is possible with Hezbollah. Syria won’t cut its ties to the movement, but perhaps it will try to persuade Hezbollah that it is not in its best interests to go to war with Israel. These would be positive steps, but they hardly constitute a strategic realignment of the Middle East.
Why, then, is President Obama investing energy and political capital reaching out to Syria? Why is Israel open to talking to Damascus, even as it fights wars with Syria’s proxy militias? It is a measure of just how intractable many of the conflicts in the Middle East are that the one between Israel and Syria—despite the problems outlined above—arguably remains the easiest to solve. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require painstaking negotiations about borders, degrees of sovereignty, and refugees. Lebanon will not make peace with Israel until Syria does, and the situation is complicated by the fact that it is Hezbollah, not the Lebanese government, that controls Lebanon’s border with Israel.
The outlines of an agreement between Israel and Syria are comparatively more straightforward. They hinge on the Golan Heights, which Syria lost during the Six Day War of 1967. The fact that the current frontier between Israel and Syria is quiet leads many in Israel to think they could safely withdraw from the Golan without facing the rocket attacks that marked their withdrawals from both southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Twice before, in 1996 and 2000, the two countries have come close to a deal.
“There have always been and there are now people in the Israeli military who think this is something that is quite attractive to look at,” says Elliott Abrams. “Because if there were a deal with Syria, it’s reasonable to think there would then be a peace treaty with Lebanon. And then Israel is at peace with all its neighbours. They also believe that the real threat now is Iran. So if you could do a deal that separated Syria from Iran somewhat, certainly the Israeli military thinks it’s worth doing.” Abrams, however, like Landis and Norell, is skeptical that a deal is imminent. He does see a silver lining to even the beginnings of engagement between Syria and the United States, though, because it will make Iran nervous and rattle Palestinian terror groups who will worry about finding their Damascus headquarters shut down one day.
Even if that day isn’t imminent, a shift is occurring regarding Syria’s relations with the United States and Israel. Syria is edging in from the cold. The United States, meanwhile, is changing the way it deals with countries in the Middle East it doesn’t like. George W. Bush believed freedom could be brought to dictatorships through force, isolation, and the support of non-governmental democratic movements. His successes in the Middle East were limited. His hard line arguably helped force Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon, and Iraq and Afghanistan now have a greater chance at democracy than would have been possible without America’s intervention. But he didn’t transform a region that remains mired in illiberal dictatorships. Obama believes these dictatorial governments should be engaged and can be persuaded to change their behaviour. It’s too early to judge whether Obama will have better results than Bush. But so far his tactics could scarcely be more different.