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Solving the Syrian Puzzle

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
October 14, 2009

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Syria this year has been in diplomatic high gear, holding more than six high-level meetings with the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and working to mend regional relations as well. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah paid a visit to Damascus in early October, prompting analysts to predict a potential turning point in regional stability (GulfNews). CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Mohamad Bazzi says these developments are welcome following years of isolation imposed by the Bush administration. Syria meddles in regional affairs through its support of militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Bazzi says, but "ultimately the leadership is pragmatic" and could contribute to regional stability. Yet Bazzi says on one issue, Iraq, significant challenges remain. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has accused Syria of allowing militants to transit through its territory, prompting both sides to sever diplomatic ties.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are stepping up their diplomatic engagement with Syria. What is this renewed outreach all about?

The Syrians are working on this double track: They're trying to improve their relationship with Washington, and at the same time trying to improve their relations with fellow Arab countries. After a period of isolation the Syrians saw the election of President [Barack] Obama as an opportunity to change their relationship with the United States. They tried over the years to reach out to the Bush administration in various ways; they were generally rebuffed. They tried to reach out directly and indirectly through some of the Arab powers to the Bush administration and that really didn't work out. Since the election of President Obama the Syrians had been waiting for an opportunity to engage with the new administration. They were pleased to receive George Mitchell, the special envoy, several times over the spring and the summer, and they were also pleased to receive other Obama administration officials, although the Syrians began to complain that there wasn't much movement with the United States.

So then the Syrians began to reach out to the Saudis; the Syrian-Saudi relationship was in trouble for a few years. This began with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was very close to the Saudis. Like many Arab states the Saudis blamed Syria for somehow being involved in this assassination. And then, [the relationship] deteriorated further in the summer of 2006 when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad accused many of the Arab leaders of being little men, or "half men," during the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. That was quite an insult, and many of the Arab leaders further distanced themselves from Syria and the Syrian leadership at that point.

But from Syria's perspective, what are they looking for? Is this simply about softening sanctions?

That's one part of the equation, to get Washington to soften some of its sanctions, but the Syrians are really resorting to one of their most effective strategies in the region: They want to keep all of their options open and to play friends and enemies off one another. Bashar al-Assad's regime realizes that its most important regional ally, Iran, could be threatened by new sanctions and could be further isolated by the United States and Europe if nuclear negotiations with Iran do not go very well. On the other hand, if things go extremely well, Tehran could manage to strike a deal with the West. Either way, the Syrians don't want to be left out. They're hedging their bets, reaching out once again to the Obama administration and trying to repair their relationships with Arab powers, especially the Saudis. The Syrians fear being left out of a regional deal. They also fear that if Iran is further isolated, they will be indirectly affected. They rely on the Iranians for aid, they rely on the Iranians for military support, and if the Iranians are really in trouble in the future, the Syrians would like to have other avenues to pursue.

[The Syrians] want to keep all of their options open and to play friends and enemies off of one another.

Some have argued that the Bush administration's approach of isolation was the right one. Elliot Abrams, a CFR fellow and former Bush administration deputy national security adviser, writes in the Weekly Standard that the United States should not negotiate with Syria given its support of terrorism and ongoing human rights issues. Is Abrams right?

I don't entirely buy the argument that Syria right now is a full-fledged rogue state. Syria does engage in meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and other places; it has influence over the Palestinian factions, especially Hamas, so Syria's engaged in meddling in the region. But that's the way that Syria has always derived its power in the region. Syria doesn't really have any significant oil; it has a very weak economy. So on the face of it, Syria shouldn't have much power at all in the Middle East. The way Syria exerts influence is by playing the regional dynamics extremely well, and by forcing everyone--all the other powers in the region and external powers like the United States and Europe--to deal with it.

The Syrians want to convince everyone that it's impossible to stabilize the region without their help, that a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian national reconciliation, a stable Iraq, a secure Lebanon--all of those solutions must go through Syria. And so we're left with this state that actually engages in meddling and that supports militant groups in the region, but ultimately the leadership is pragmatic. This is not North Korea; this is not an unstable leadership that will go down a path that's extremely self-destructive. The Syrians realize that they have all of these cards that they can play. They want to exert as much influence as possible, play off different factions, and ultimately just convince everyone around that they hold the crucial pieces to regional stability.

How does Israel fit into all this détente?

Previous Israeli administrations were actually quite worried about Syrian influence being reduced in Lebanon because there are some Israeli officials who argued that Lebanon was more stable under Syrian domination. This is something that obviously angers many Lebanese, and the Bush administration did not buy into that. The Syrian military was forced out of Lebanon in 2005 after the Hariri assassination. Syria of course found new ways to exert influence over Lebanon, and it continues to exert significant influence certainly over Hezbollah and over the opposition parties that are allied with Hezbollah right now. And Syria has other economic influence, and probably an intelligence element to influence and other factors. Now, Israel--the administration of Ehud Olmert--began these negotiations with the Syrians over the Golan Heights. These were negotiations that were done under the auspices of Turkey. They didn't get very far but they were a positive sign, especially because Syria was being isolated by the Bush administration.

The Syrians want to convince everyone that it's impossible to stabilize the region without their help, that a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian national reconciliation, a stable Iraq, a secure Lebanon--all of those solutions must go through Syria.

The current Israeli administration, the [Benjamin] Netanyahu administration, has shown very little [interest] in negotiating or engaging with the Syrians either directly or indirectly. It might take some significant U.S. pressure and Western pressure on the Israelis to get them to sit down with the Syrians, even if it's again through Turkey, through indirect channels. There are advances for the Israelis to negotiate with the Syrians, whether they do it indirectly or not, because you have a much stronger Syrian leader. Bashar al-Assad actually has the strength to deliver a peace deal whereas [Palestinian Authority leader] Mahmoud Abbas really can't deliver a peace deal. And the issues are less complicated. The larger question is how much would they be willing to give up for their deal: Would they be willing to push out Hamas and completely isolate the radical Palestinian factions that are in Damascus? Would they be willing to cut off all of their ties with Hezbollah? And so the bigger question around this potential is, "What are the Syrians willing to give up in exchange for the Golan?"

Moving in the opposite direction are relations between Damascus and Baghdad. Iraqi leaders have accused Syria of allowing militants to transit into Iraq, and both sides have severed diplomatic relations. What's behind the rising tensions there?

The Syrians were surprised by how quickly relations with the Iraqi government deteriorated, especially after the bombings in late August [On August 19 a string of truck bombs tore through the Iraqi ministries of finance and foreign affairs, killing over one hundred people (CNN)]. The Syrians felt that they had a potential partner in Nouri al-Maliki. This was someone who had spent several years living in exile in Syria and Lebanon. Nouri al-Maliki has very close ties to Iran, so in many ways, the Syrians can't hope for a better government in Baghdad. But Prime Minister Maliki seems to have decided to focus attention on Syria and on the presence of Iraqi Baathists in Syria. For his own domestic reasons he's hoping to generate popular support within Iraq by focusing on this external enemy, on this external alleged meddling by the Syrians. The Syrian regime was surprised by how quickly events moved, by Iraq withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus and the Maliki government accusing Damascus of harboring the masterminds behind the suicide attacks in Baghdad. And now the Iraqis continue to insist that Syria must hand over a number of exiled former Iraqi Baathists, and Damascus is asking for evidence to back these allegations. So they're at something of a standoff.

The Syrians are probably going to wait for the results of the next Iraqi elections to see what happens, to see if Nouri al-Maliki remains the prime minister, in which case they would need to reach out once again, possibly through Iranian intermediaries to calm tensions with Maliki. The Syrians are very interested in having a good relationship with the Iraqi government. Iraq is their neighbor. They have 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria that pose a tremendous strain on the social structure of Syria, so it's in Syria's interest to have a good relationship with Baghdad.

How does the chill between Baghdad and Damascus affect U.S. plans to draw down?

Over the past six years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have accused the Syrians of going through phases of allowing militants and insurgents to cross the border from Syria into Iraq. And the claim comes and goes depending on the overall political situation. When there's tension between Iraq and Syria, or when there's tension between the United States and Syria, then that claim is usually resurrected. The Syrians insist that they've invested resources and manpower in clamping down on the border. They also say that it's also a very difficult border to control, and there's some truth to that. The Syrians really don't have the same kind of technology and manpower that the United States has to control borders.

Have they allowed people to cross at different times in the past six years? They probably have, if they've felt that it furthers Syria's political interests in Iraq. But overall this claim is difficult to judge because the border on its own is difficult to control, and also because the Syrians have gone through periods where they've experienced some backlash from these militant groups. There have been sporadic bombings in Damascus and around Damascus. Over the years it had been blamed on Islamic militants. Syria has a very bad history with Islamic militants going back to the early 1980s when Hafez al-Assad cracked down quite brutally on the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. So the Syrians are particularly sensitive about this topic, and in some ways dealing with Islamic militants for them is playing with fire.

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