A Workable Approach to Engaging Syria
In the wake of the Lebanon war, the clamor for Western engagement with Syria has been growing. Both pundits and policy makers throughout Europe as well as all-important foreign policy experts in the U.S. - including, reportedly, the authors of the forthcoming report of the Iraq Study Group - have reached the conclusion that Damascus is a key to regional stability and that reopening long-dormant lines of communication is vital. The premise makes eminent sense, but if the resulting policy is simply a more polite way of asking Syria to alter its behavior, it is unlikely to bear fruit. Instead, what is needed is a serious give-and-take in which such changes are accompanied by reciprocal steps.
So far, that has not been the case. A plethora of European emissaries have journeyed to Damascus, inquiring whether their interlocutors would be willing to change their approach to Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Palestine in exchange for renewed dialogue. That, in a word, is to seek through engagement what the Bush administration has been trying to achieve through isolation. U.S. advocates of a policy change essentially propose the same equation: offering the reward of renewed talks in exchange for meaningful Syrian concessions. Unsurprisingly, past European envoys have returned empty-handed. Future American ones would fare no better.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is merely waiting for others to change their stance and adapt to new realities, confidently anticipating no less than a fundamental shift from the U.S. which, as a consequence of its latest regional setbacks - the deepening Iraqi quagmire, growing Iranian influence and assertiveness, continuing Hizbollah and Hamas resilience - will be compelled to beg for Syria's help. Nor is Syria likely to do anything of note so long as the investigation into the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - and the possibility of sanctioning the Baathist regime as a result - hangs over its head.
But just as the West's logic is misguided, so too is Syria's assumption that, in the absence of Western acknowledgement of its key role, it can play its spoiler role. Indeed the situation throughout the Middle East has deteriorated to the point where it threatens to engulf the Syrian regime as well. In short, it's not just the West that needs the stability Syria purportedly can offer. It's the Syrian regime itself.
Another haphazard attempt to reopen a dialogue devoid of substance carries the risk of putting off the Syrian regime and convincing it that the context is not yet ripe for genuine negotiations. Conversely, Western advocates of engagement are likely to be discouraged by Syria's response, which will only validate the view that Damascus is not serious in its calls for peace. Instead, a coherent approach must be agreed upon so that any engagement with Syria can yield concrete results.
First, some understanding should be reached regarding the UN probe into the Hariri assassination. If and when compelling evidence implicating Syrian nationals is produced, Damascus will be pressured to turn them over to the soon-to-be established international tribunal. In that case, the regime itself should not be targeted or made the object of sanctions; indeed, it is hard to imagine that the investigation - regardless of its outcome - will teach the world much about Syria and its Lebanon policies that the U.S. and France did not already know at the time when they backed the regime. If Damascus proves willing to turn a page in its relations with Beirut, the West should immediately do the same in its relations to Syria.
Second, if the West seeks to engage Syria, it needs to adopt a clear and balanced discourse. Firmness on the issue of Lebanese sovereignty is absolutely justified, but so too is firmness on the issue of the return of the Golan. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently claimed that the Golan Heights would forever remain in Israeli hands, Syrian officials were incensed not so much by the declaration than by the absence of any Western condemnation.
Third, proponents of engagement must be prepared to offer tangible quid pro quos. Damascus has no reason to alter its policies if it simply means acquiescing to a hostile regional order . U.S. officials who reject the notion of re-engagement argue that the only quid pro quo Syria truly wants is to be given a free hand in Lebanon. But regaining the Golan Heights and reviving prospects of an equitable economic agreement with the EU remain critically important to a regime that, both politically and economically, is in need of breathing space.
Fourth, in seeking Syrian concessions, the West ought to be realistic. Syria is not about to cut its ties to Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran or Iraqi insurgent groups - links it believes are its only assets in a delicate strategic tug of war with Israel and the West. Rather, it should be asked to use these relations to more constructive effect: to pressure Hamas to implement and impose a cease-fire; to persuade Hizbollah to maintain calm; to work with Iran and Sunni insurgent groups to promote a genuine Iraqi internal reconciliation.
Engaging Syria is fast on its way to becoming the new rallying cry. But fruitless engagement is liable to do more harm than good. If Europe and the United States are serious about wanting to modify regional dynamics - as well they should be - they need to be serious about how they go about it. That begins with being serious about what one does with Syria.
Peter Harling is a Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group.