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Washington’s Policy of Isolating Syria Hurting U.S. Interests, says Council Special Report

June 25, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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Contact: CFR Communications, 212-434-9888, communications@cfr.org

Washington's attempt to isolate and undermine the Assad regime has largely failed, concludes a new Council Special Report. The Bush administration's policy of "new economic sanctions, a diplomatic boycott, and increasing contacts with the Syrian opposition," has not compelled Damascus to "change course and comply with Washington’s…demands."

Instead, the authors, Mona Yacoubian and Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace, advocate working with Syria where U.S. and Syrian interests may overlap. They argue that "the benefits of engagement with Syria are derivative of broader U.S. goals in the region:" seeking stability in Iraq and Lebanon, promoting peace and stability between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and heading off Iranian influence. They explain that "engagement with the Syrians would rely on a variety of diplomatic tools…balancing rewards for sustained cooperation with severe consequences for continued Syrianintransigence."

The report, Dealing with Damascus: Seeking a Greater Return on U.S.-Syria Relations,outlines the potential gains from engagement on these core issues:

Iraq: “The Syrians could agree to implement sustained measures to stave the flow of arms and insurgents, including tighter border controls and visa restrictions at the Damascus airport, in exchange for a significant infusion of U.S. aid to help provide for Iraqi refugees in Syria.”

Lebanon: “In the short term, the United States…should work with the Syrians and others to ensure the success of Lebanon’s Qatar-brokered political compromise between the governing March 14th coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition….While the longer-term implications of the agreement are still unclear, Syria’s willingness to work with the United States and its European allies to make sure that Lebanon does not fall back into crippling instability would serve as an important gauge of Syria’s intentions.”

Arab-Israeli process: “[Washington] should also support and seek a direct role in renewed Syria-Israel peace negotiations, both as a confidence-building measure to signal Damascus about Washington’s seriousness regarding engagement, as well as to tee up the next set of issues for discussion.”

Iran: “Syria’s national interests do not coincide completely with those of Iran. First, Syria’s ties to Iran put it at odds with its Arab allies, thus damaging its Arab nationalist credentials. Second, unlike Iran, Syria seeks to engage Israel…. Third, even in Iraq, Syria’s interests may diverge from Iran’s over the long run when an eventual U.S. withdrawal could turn Iraq into an arena of competition rather than cooperation between Syria and Iran. U.S. engagement with Syria on a variety of issues may leverage Syria’s divergent interests with Iran toward a greater convergence of interests with the United States....Furthermore, these benefits would most likely come following successful engagement with the Syrians on other issues (e.g., Iraq, Israel). In particular, movement toward a peaceful resolution of the Syria-Israel conflict would likely result in a distancing between Syria and its Iranian ally, by removing a key item from their shared anti-Western agenda—conflict with Israel.”

The report concludes that the United States faces two crucial choices regarding its policy toward Syria: “continued isolation or serious engagement.” Ultimately, the authors argue that conditional engagement is likely to further U.S. interests in the region.

Full text of the report, including recommendations, is available on the Council’s website at:http://www.cfr.org/publication/16449/dealing_with_damascus.html

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Mona Yacoubian is a special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace, where she provides analysis and policy advice on the Middle East and North Africa. From 1990 to 1998, Ms. Yacoubian served as a Middle East analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She was previously an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also held a year-long Fulbright scholarship in Syria. Ms. Yacoubian received an MA in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Scott Lasensky is a coauthor of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East (with Daniel Kurtzer, 2008). Formerly a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, he has taught at Mount Holyoke College and Georgetown University. A senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace, Lasensky received a Ph.D. in politics from Brandeis University. He recently received a Fulbright research grant for Israel and Syria.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives,  journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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