Talking to Syria: What About?
Talking to Syria: What About?
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Talking to Syria: What About?

Nine months into an engagement process with numerous bilateral meetings, the U.S.-Syria relationship is not going well. The administration has yet to even clarify what precise, workable objectives it seeks to achieve in talking to Syria.

Renewing and normalizing relations is not an U.S. goal in itself. Syria is widely seen in a skeptical Washington, as a spoiler that needs neutralizing, rather than a potential strategic partner. Fundamental issues such as Syrian support to Hizbollah and Hamas will haunt the relationship pending a comprehensive peace in the region, placing a clear limit on how far bilateral normalisation can go.

It is also hard to decipher how nice talk and tiny steps will help alter Syria's posture. The administration's ambition to drive a wedge between Damascus and Teheran is unrealistic: why would dialogue succeed where isolation and pressure foundered, without a compelling quid pro quo?

On the peace process, the U.S. has spent its energy and capital on the Palestinian track, displaying ostensible apathy to the Syrian one, despite two visits to Damascus by special envoy George Mitchell. Revived interest in Syria now would come at a cost to the Palestinians by suggesting a shift in priorities.

With respect to Hamas, the U.S. could have sought Syrian leverage with a view to hammering out a Palestinian national unity government -- had it not felt uncomfortable with that prospect.

If political progress in Lebanon was an aim, Washington was quick to forget it. The administration first accused Syria of obstructing the formation of a Lebanese government (or at a minimum not pressuring its allies enough to facilitate it). As soon as positive developments occurred, it shifted to claiming that Damascus played no role after all, thus failing to build momentum.

That leaves Iraq, which the U.S. conceives as the primary avenue for concrete engagement. Initial U.S.-Syria talks zeroed in on the issue of border security; a blueprint was about to reach the implementation phase when, in August, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki ascribed spectacular bomb-attacks to Syria. The deleterious climate no doubt justified a delay. But the U.S. decision to call off any further step defies all logic: how can such a mechanism fall apart the moment the kind of issue it was designed to address arises?

This decision also comes at a cost. Such talks are meant to build trust, before deeper cooperation can lead to serious results. Having supported, de facto, Maliki's unsubstantiated claims, the U.S. will enjoy little credibility when it attempts to raise more serious concerns. Besides, the U.S. saw tangible progress on the border issue as something to take to Congress to sell substantive moves toward Syria. Failure thus damages the whole engagement process.

Even if bilateral engagement boils down to merely restoring a functional line of communication between the two countries, Washington has opted for perplexing detours. It took nine months to choose an ambassador to Syria. By projecting an image of reluctance, Washington has dulled the move's ability to generate momentum, while blinding itself to internal Syrian dynamics during crucial early talks.

Another example is the administration's decision to task Mitchell with engaging in a "strategic dialogue" with Damascus. In so doing, it picked the person who has invested his critical efforts and credibility in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Washington couldn't have conveyed more clearly a sense that, while the U.S. seeks concessions from Syria, it has little interest in a deeper exchange of visions for the region.

Fruitful talks at a strategic level would help maintain a momentum that, if lost, will be difficult to regain. Initiating an effective line of communication would come at a time when the nascent relationship has already suffered unwarranted levels of misunderstanding and distrust. It makes it all the more necessary.

But the administration must start by setting realistic goals.

Washington can discreetly prepare to launch border security talks immediately after the Iraqi elections, neither undercutting Maliki in the run-up to the poll nor indefinitely holding this issue hostage to internal Iraqi politics. In Lebanon, the U.S. can forge an understanding with Damascus to encourage Beirut to refocus on domestic governance - thus insulating itself from the wider tug-o-war - and containing the risks of a new Hizbollah-Israel conflagration. The U.S. may also persuade Syria to restrain Hamas and extend more support to Mahmud Abbas, but that would mean adopting itself a more balanced approach to the intra-Palestinian struggle.

Ultimately, the administration must define its core objective. Regardless of other considerations, as long as Syria's environment remains unsettled and threatening, Damascus will maintain strong ties to Teheran. But it has also shown a desire to complement that relationship with others (Turkey, France, maybe Saudi Arabia) and broaden its strategic portfolio. Moreover, it has displayed discomfort at Iran's assertive agenda in Iraq and, more recently, Yemen. Reversing part of the Bush-era legacy, namely an Iran empowered and emboldened to the point of crossing red lines in the Arab world, is an aim that offers realistic common ground.

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