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Syria's Dangerous Gambits

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
November 12, 2007
The Nation

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For decades, Syria has played the role of a bad student at school, its leaders thinking that if you don’t cause trouble, no one will pay attention to you. The Syrian regime meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel and dominated its smaller neighbor, Lebanon. Syria’s gambits in a tough part of the world usually paid off: For a country that is not rich in oil and has little economic clout, the Syrian regime derived its power from its strategic position in the Middle East.

But today, Syria is on the verge of turning from a schoolyard bully into a full-fledged rogue state. On September 6 Israeli warplanes attacked a site in the Syrian desert, near the Euphrates River. Since then, the strike has been largely shrouded in secrecy, but Israeli and US intelligence officials have been quoted in news reports suggesting that Syria was in the early stages of developing a nuclear program with help from North Korea. In late October the Institute for Science and International Security—a Washington-based think tank led by former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright—analyzed commercial satellite imagery taken before and after the Israeli strike. It concluded that the Syrians were likely building a small nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s. The latest satellite images, taken on October 24, show that the Syrians quickly razed the site after the Israeli attack. “Dismantling and removing the building at such a rapid pace dramatically complicates any inspection,” Albright and his colleagues wrote, adding that “Syria may be trying to hide what was there.”

Western officials have known for years that North Korea helped Syria develop ballistic missiles. Syria also possesses chemical and biological weapons; they are the regime’s deterrent against Israel’s large nuclear arsenal. While there is no concrete evidence that Syria is trying to develop an extensive nuclear program, one thing is clear: the US policy of isolating Syria is making its leadership behave in unpredictable and more dangerous ways. Ostracized by the Bush Administration and shunned by some of its old European allies, Damascus is growing closer to Iran and North Korea.

Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighboring countries and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles. When Assad died in June 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, a soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist who had little experience in the hard-knuckled politics of the Middle East. While many dismissed the younger Assad as incapable of balancing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, Bashar has grown into the role of strongman over the past seven years.

After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the Bush Administration accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight US forces. In 2004, President George W. Bush imposed economic sanctions against Damascus and tried to isolate it. That policy accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which a United Nations investigation has implicated top Syrian officials.

In response to America’s cold shoulder, Assad’s regime became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its alliance with Hamas, Hezbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. Assad knows the United States cannot find a way out of Iraq without his help. But just to be safe, he keeps his connections to Hamas, Hezbollah and Sadr as potential bargaining chips that can shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.

Naturally, Assad wants something out of his trouble-making: his key goal is to preserve his Alawite minority regime that rules a Sunni-dominated country (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam). But the holy grail for Assad—as for his father before him—is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic terrain that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Assad has made clear that he wants to restart negotiations with Israel to recover the Golan. Some Israeli leaders are also keen to negotiate with Syria, and there have been reports in the Israeli press that when he was prime minister, Ariel Sharon approved secret talks in Switzerland between the two sides. Astonishingly, the Bush Administration has discouraged such dialogue at every opportunity.

In late November the Administration plans to host a regional peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. It would be a perfect opportunity to begin luring Syria away from Iran and North Korea. But Washington needs to do more than simply invite Syria to sit on the sidelines of yet another peace gathering; it should put the Golan as an important item on the agenda and push Israel to move ahead with negotiations. Syria has consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if every inch of the Golan is returned. In January 2000 President Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Hafez Assad and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land, about 100 yards wide, that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel. To achieve a final settlement, the United States must strongly push Israel back to negotiations with no preconditions.

There is even an Arab framework for resuming talks, and Syria has signed on to it. At their most recent summit in March, Arab leaders revived a five-year-old offer—initially proposed by Saudi Arabia at the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut—for a peace deal between Israel and all Arab states. The plan calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands captured during the 1967 war, the creation of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a “just solution” to the problem of more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees. Yet even without a regional settlement, Israel has much to gain from a deal over the Golan. It would mean not only a peace treaty with Syria, but an end of Syrian aid to what is now Israel’s most dangerous enemy: Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that did surprisingly well in its war with a far superior Israeli Army in the summer of 2006. Israel has exchanged occupied land for peace and security before: After the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt, Israeli forces withdrew fully from the Sinai peninsula and Israel was able to neutralize its most dangerous military rival at the time. In the end, it was a good bargain for Israel—and for the United States, which now counts Egypt among its most important strategic allies in the Arab world.

In addition to pressuring Israel on the Golan, Washington must also return its ambassador to Damascus (who was recalled after the Hariri assassination) and resume contact with Syrian officials. And the Administration should abandon its efforts to isolate Syria and drop its rhetoric of forcing regime change in Damascus.

Regime change is wishful thinking. Thanks to the Iraq War, Assad is now stronger than ever. When he first rose to power, he reluctantly promised economic and political freedoms. But now his regime’s most dominant message is security and stability. Last spring, six dissident lawyers, writers and human rights activists were sentenced to long prison terms for demanding reform. Sadly, many Syrians who might have wished for a new regime that promises openness and civil liberties are now willing to trade that away for the security offered by the Baathist dictatorship. To Syrians afraid of ending up like Iraqis, the US promise of democracy isn’t worth the cost.

Washington should give Assad something to work for—normal relations and serious negotiations over the Golan—and demand something in return. By restarting dialogue, the United States and Syria can find some common ground. For example, Syria favors a strong central government in Baghdad, while Iran does not. The Syrians are worried about the leakage that would be caused by a weak central state in Iraq. (Already, Syria is dealing with an influx of about 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, who are causing tremendous economic, social and security pressures.) That is one major area where Syrian and Iranian interests diverge—and Washington can take advantage of it.

Ultimately, Washington can squeeze more out of Assad in exchange for the Golan than it can by isolating him. If there are serious negotiations, the United States can demand that Assad stop meddling in Lebanon; deliver on internal reforms and liberalization; abandon unconventional weapons; and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel.

But the first step must be to end Syria’s isolation and to prevent it from joining the club of bigger, badder rogue states. If the regime still behaves badly, then it will have something to lose.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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