Talks With Iran And Syria Will Not Be An Easy Ride
Talks With Iran And Syria Will Not Be An Easy Ride

Talks With Iran And Syria Will Not Be An Easy Ride

A central recommendation of the Iraq Study Group appointed by the US Congress – to begin talks with Iran and Syria – was among the first casualties of President George W. Bush’s cavalier pick-and-choose response. But for those who wish to take the group’s report seriously, the advice raises difficult questions: what should engagement look like and what might it yield?

Talking to those the US recklessly snubbed would be progress in itself, though it risks being spectacularly short-lived. There is a touch of naivety in the hope that sitting down with Iranian or Syrian officials will suffice to persuade them to alter their policies. The belief that engagement is the ultimate reward the US can offer its foes is the flip-side of that other costly delusion – that isolation is the decisive penalty the US can inflict on them.

Damascus and Tehran want a different relationship with Washington. But at a time when they believe the US seeks to weaken them, they are unlikely to bend to its requests. Syria will not restrain Hamas and Hizbollah – two of its few remaining forms of leverage – before resolution of its conflict with Israel is in sight. It will not stop interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, at least as long as it believes the only alternative to a subordinate, pro-Syrian government is an assertive, anti-Syrian one. And it is fanciful to expect Iran to help stabilise Iraq while the US tries to undermine the Islamic republic.

The real question is not whether to engage. It is whether the administration can undertake the fundamental policy revision required to recover from the unmitigated disaster it has created in the region. Is it prepared to eschew its rigid ideological framework, restore priority to the search for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and work towards a regional framework that provides both collective security assurances and guarantees against interference in others’ internal affairs? If yes, then not only does it make sense to engage Iran and Syria – it becomes an essential part of this new strategy.

Neither side should expect an easy ride. Some in Syria may aspire to resume political dominance in or economic pillaging of Lebanon, or escape fallout from the international probe into Rafiq Hariri’s murder; Iran may want a free hand in developing nuclear capacities and extending its regional influence. All these will remain US red lines. Washington, meanwhile, may hope – unsuccessfully – that Tehran halts its nuclear programme and, along with Damascus, severs ties to Hamas, Hizbollah or violent Iraqi groups.

Yet the gap between ideal objectives hardly exhausts the question. Rather than a set of mutually incompatible demands, a more convincing attempt at engagement would begin by seeking to define a common end-state for Iraq and the region that is nobody’s first choice but with which all sides can live. Washington should insist the Hariri probe continue, that Lebanon’s sovereignty be preserved and that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.

But it can also make clear the investigation’s goal is to deter future Syrian misconduct, not destabilise the current Syrian regime; that a sovereign Lebanon need not be a pro-western, anti-Syrian one; that success in Iraq means a non-aligned state, devoid of US bases; that a peace process with Israel aimed at a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines will resume; and that Iran’s nuclear rights will be respected if it agrees to unfettered international monitoring.

For their part, Syria and Iran could use their ties to militant groups to persuade Hamas to impose a broad ceasefire and Hizbollah to maintain calm; and press Sunni insurgent and Shia militia groups towards genuine Iraqi reconciliation.

There is little need to imagine the alternative to a policy of engagement. We are living it. Syria and Iran will face the threat of increased isolation. They will fight back. Iraq will sink into ever more deadly civil war. Lebanon again will pay the price for the folly of others. Israelis and Palestinians will resume their bloody confrontation. The US has virtually no chance of winning such a regional tug-of-war, and absolutely no chance of winning alone.

But engagement is not a friendly chat; it is a strategic choice. If the idea amounts to politely asking what up to now has been curtly demanded, better not even to try. If, however, it involves seriously rethinking America’s posture in the region, and contemplating a process of give and take, then engagement – by no means assured of success – is, at least, worth the effort.

Contributors

Former President & CEO
Rob_Malley
Former Project Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser

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