Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria’s New Hand
Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria’s New Hand
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Report / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria’s New Hand

Syria typically, and at times justifiably, brings to mind stagnation and immobility. Yet, over recent years, change has been afoot.

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Executive Summary

Syria typically, and at times justifiably, brings to mind stagnation and immobility. Yet, over recent years, change has been afoot. In 2008, it agreed to Turkish-mediated talks with Israel. It built ties with the Iraqi government after long depicting it as the offspring of an illegitimate occupation. It began to normalise relations with Lebanon, after years of resisting its claim to sovereignty. It accelerated economic reforms. These steps fall short of being revolutionary; some were imposed rather than chosen and reflected opportunism rather than forward thinking. Still, by Syrian standards, they are quite remarkable, especially in contrast to recent fervent militancy.

In a companion report with identical policy recommendations published on 14 December 2009, Crisis Group analysed the factors behind Damascus’s strategic evolution. Here, it explores in detail the mechanism, extent and limitations of these adjustments as well as challenges faced by the Obama administration if it wishes to exploit and solidify them. Only so much can be done in advance of genuine progress in Israeli-Syrian negotiations. For reasons Israeli, Syrian and American, that could be some time in the making. In the interim, Washington and Damascus should move beyond their tactical interaction by heightening the level of their engagement, broadening its agenda and quickly focusing on joint steps on Iraq.

There was nothing preordained or inevitable in Syria’s moves. Each reflected a cautious, deliberative process in which the regime carefully assessed the impact of one step before taking the next. Each involved at times starkly diverging views about how best to defend national interests. All pointed toward a more powerful, assertive President Bashar al-Assad, who must nonetheless contend with competing power centres and divergent outlooks, while suggesting the growing weight of a generation of insiders he has methodically put in place. Occasionally, there was backsliding, indicating the shift from greater militancy to more pronounced pragmatism is susceptible to negative changes in the regional landscape or to blowback from Syria’s allies and so is anything but irreversible.

Barack Obama’s election had little if anything to do with the evolution. The changes were initiated while the Bush administration was in office, when many Syrians were wagering on John McCain’s victory and for reasons almost entirely independent of the U.S. Still, the triumph of a man who had promised to make engagement a foreign policy leitmotif gave rise to hope that the bilateral relationship would more rapidly to a sounder footing and that the two sides might find ways to work together on regional policies.

So far, that has not been the case. Each side has its own explanation. Syria is convinced it has taken the first steps – in Iraq and Lebanon in particular – and that the onus is on Washington to do its part. Damascus expected the administration to reverse at least parts of the Bush-era legacy, reestablish normal diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador, show greater flexibility on sanctions, push for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks and, more broadly, propose a partnership on regional issues where Syria claimed it was willing to cooperate. It says that without a minimal common vision, it is not about to simply do America’s bidding. It feels it is being asked to prove its worth, not treated as a worthy partner.

The U.S. sees a traditional Syrian pattern repeating itself – halting some hostile action and expecting recompense while continuing to engage in unfriendly activity (such as allowing some insurgents to slip into Iraq or arming Hizbollah) and counting on a blind eye. Besides, the young administration believes it has more pressing matters, must contend with a sceptical Congress and even more sceptical regional allies (notably in Lebanon and Iraq) and fears that renewing the Israeli-Syrian track at a time when the Palestinian track is at a halt risks jeopardising any chance of breathing life into the latter.

As a result, each side has tended to see significant value in its own goodwill gestures, while essentially dismissing the other’s. The U.S. has indeed engaged, repeatedly dispatching officials to Damascus. But it has stopped well short of initiating a thorough strategic dialogue with Syria in which views of the region’s future are exchanged. Nor, on the issue of arguably greatest immediate concern, Iraq, has it implemented a bottom-up approach designed to build trust and produce tangible results. Instead, it cancelled security talks on that subject as soon as that country’s prime minister – alleging Syrian complicity in a tragic series of bomb attacks – chose to oppose them. Syria, for the most part, has done what it does best: sit and wait. It has refrained from putting forward its own approach to successful engagement, let alone a vision for the region that might gain U.S. buy-in.

It always was unrealistic to expect that the mere call for or initiation of engagement would overcome years of mistrust, divergent conceptions for the region and conflicting alliances. Right now, a productive process is needed, not immediate, dramatic results. But there is not even that.

It is still early. President Obama has not personally invested himself in the Syrian file, the Israeli-Syrian track could revive, both the U.S. and Syria continue to profess their shared desire for a new page and, in terms of atmospherics at least, the improvement in bilateral relations is notable. But they are not where they should be and little has been done with the opportunities that have arisen.

There also are potential clouds on the horizon. The international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri could develop in ways that that will significantly complicate management of the Syrian file; so too could the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Syria’s alleged nuclear program. Violence in Iraq also could produce a further downturn in U.S.-Syrian relations in the absence of a joint security framework. The situation at the Israeli-Lebanese border remains tense. The roots of the 2008 Gaza war are still unaddressed. A confrontation around Iran’s nuclear program could move the region in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

The most realistic measure of success is not whether the U.S. and Syria achieve a quick breakthrough. At best, that will take time and will have to await changes in the region and real progress toward Israeli-Syrian peace. The test, rather, is whether they can move the relationship far enough so that it might resist crises that, almost inevitably and always unexpectedly, will arise.

Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 16 December 2009

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