Syria Under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges
Syria Under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Report 23 / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Syria Under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges

Since the end of the Iraq war, Washington and Damascus have been locked in a dialogue of the deaf. U.S. policy has been reduced to a series of demands and threats.

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Executive Summary

Since the end of the Iraq war, Washington and Damascus have been locked in a dialogue of the deaf. U.S. policy has been reduced to a series of demands and threats. Syrian policy, with President Bashar still struggling to formulate and implement a coherent strategy, has been mainly wait-and-see – offering a few concessions and hoping to weather the storm while refusing to relinquish what it sees as trump cards (support for Hizbollah and radical Palestinian groups) so long as the conflict with Israel continues. Despite the current deadlock, however, the current regional situation presents an opportunity for an intensive, U.S.-led diplomatic effort to revive the Israeli-Syrian peace process and thereby achieve significant changes in Syrian policy.

The fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, Iran’s steps to address concerns about its nuclear program and Libya’s surprise decision to forsake its WMD efforts and seek normal relations with Washington undeniably have heightened pressure on Syria. Yet, unless the Israeli-Syrian conflict is resolved, whatever progress these developments might represent toward transforming the region will be both incomplete and reversible.

There are opponents of bilateral engagement in both countries. Many in the U.S. believe that Syria should be forced to change its behaviour without a quid pro quo; based on past experience, they fear that dealing with Syria before it has fundamentally altered its policies would provide its leaders with the breathing space they desperately want and convince them that the U.S. was not serious about a new approach. However, if past U.S. administrations arguably turned too much of a blind eye to Syria’s antagonistic behaviour, the current one is turning too much of a cold shoulder to its legitimate interests. Syria will not forsake its longstanding positions or its support for groups that engage in armed action unless others take serious steps to address its genuine fears and grievances.

On the Syrian side, too, are those who do not feel the urgency of engagement. Anxiety in Damascus was at its peak immediately after major combat ended in Iraq but it markedly decreased as the U.S. found itself facing mounting challenges there, and the Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap appeared to collapse. Though the prospect of U.S. military action has receded, Syrian leaders would be wrong to minimise how profoundly perspectives have changed in Washington. The emphasis on the fight against terrorism and suspicion of regimes viewed as being on the wrong side of that fight are unlikely to be diluted by time or token gestures. Syria’s tendency to respond to U.S. pressures piece-meal has both failed to satisfy the administration and convinced it pressure can work. Meanwhile, Syria potentially remains but one suicide attack away from major Israeli military action should one of the Palestinian groups it harbours claim responsibility.

A different approach is possible that addresses core American, Syrian and Israeli needs: for the U.S., an unequivocal break in any ties between Syria and organisations involved in terrorism and Syrian cooperation to stabilise Iraq; for Syria, recovery of the territories lost in 1967 along with steps to rebuild its economy; for Israel, normalisation with a key Arab country and at least a substantial reduction in the terrorist threat. Given mutual suspicion, the process would have to begin with confidence-building steps; but all would need to agree from the outset on the comprehensiveness of the ultimate agenda.

A direct, high-level channel between Washington and Damascus clearly is the preferred model. Should that not yet be feasible, other countries – France and the UK in particular – ought to use their ties to persuade Syria’s leadership to produce a package of sequential, reciprocal steps to be presented to the U.S.. Ultimately, President Bashar’s goal ought to be to work out with the U.S. a different strategic reality in the region.

This report analyses the state of the U.S.-Syrian relationship, describes a comprehensive strategy that would address U.S., Syrian and Israeli interests alike and spells out the steps each party would need to take. It is published simultaneously with another on Syria’s domestic policy challenges.[fn]ICG Middle East Report N°24, Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, 11 February 2004.Hide Footnote  The two subjects are interconnected. A strengthened domestic consensus, including renewed political legitimacy for its leadership, will make it possible for Syria to play a more effective and confident role on the regional scene. Conversely, what happens internationally affects Bashar’s domestic standing and ability to push through reform.

Amman/Brussels, 11 February 2004

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