In late May, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts traveled to Syria for the third time since becoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2009. A spokesman for the senator declared at the time that, although Kerry recognizes the “serious, longstanding disagreements with Syria,” including its support of international terrorism, “Syria can play a critical role in bringing peace and stability if it makes the strategic decision to do so.” It probably won’t however.
Syria does play a critical role in the Middle Eastern peace process. It has been at war with Israel repeatedly in recent decades and up to this very day, Israel occupies the Golan Heights which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to surrender. Syria funds Hezbollah and is indirectly response for stirring violence and uproar in neighboring Lebanon. Consequently, Syria has very little friends left in the region.
Syria sided with Egypt and Jordan during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War to fight Israel during the 1960s and 70s. Since, both Egypt and Jordan have normalized their relations with the Jewish state but not Syria. In fact, Syria’s ties with Egypt and Jordan worsened during the presidency Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) already, the father of the current leader, Bashar al-Assad. It was during his regime that Syria began to support terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Turkish PKK which nearly dragged the country into a confrontation with Turkey in 1998.
After the death of father al-Assad in 2000, there were high hopes that his son, highly educated and supposedly a moderate, would bring about a new era in Syrian foreign politics. Those hopes were quickly shattered when he further estranged Egypt and met personally with Hezbollah’s leadership in July 2007 — something even his father would never do.
During that same meeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was present: the only Middle Eastern leader al-Assad does get along with. Iran and Syria have consistently strengthened their ties in recent years, in spite of Western skepticism.
There are analysts who imagine that this alliance will never hold. Syria is an Arab state, they argue, secular and Sunni while Iran likes to stress its Persian identity, is a theocracy and overwhelmingly Shia. Both states would be united solely by the enemies they share: originally, Saddam Hussein; today, Israel and the United States. So when the coalition forces pull out of Iraq, Syria and Iran would inevitably clash with both supporting different Muslim groups.
This narrative ignores the fact that Syria only approached Iran after the ayatollahs took over. Despite the differences in religious persuasion, what’s always united the two countries is their fierce hatred of the West in general, Israel and the United States in particular. They both support terrorist organizations and both resisted the Israeli presence in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. The current president has only intensified the Iranian alliance with investments, trade accords and nuclear exchange agreements. All in all, this little axis of evil is likely to hold even as the supposed American threat becomes less apparent.
Kerry’s attempts to loosen the bond between Syria and Iran are admirable but likely doomed. As former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk testified before Congress in April 2008, “Just about every leader that has attempted to deal with President Bashar al-Assad has come away frustrated.”
The list includes Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The cause of their frustration is the disconnect between Assad’s reasonableness in personal meetings and his regime’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on understandings reached there. It is unclear whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of ability to control the levers of power. Either way, it raises questions about the utility of a policy of engagement.
Indyk, nonetheless, though it was worth the effort to try to negotiate anew and that is exactly what the Obama Administration appears to be doing. But what’s the point? Syria has consistently refused even to recognize Israel’s right to exist. It has repeatedly violated Lebanon’s sovereignty. And under President al-Assad’s leadership, the country’s ties with terrorism have only grown stronger.
There has been some goods news. Syria’s economy has grown impressively in recent years and its middle class is growing. Turkish diplomacy may be able to move Syria into the moderate camp while invigorating its secular, cosmopolitan society. Its trade relations with Iraq are improving, so hopefully there will be no political intervention once the United States withdraw. This appears to be mostly the work of Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, not al-Assad, though Dardari is said to be one of the president’s closest advisors.
Nevertheless, the time for American engagement hasn’t come yet. By treating Syria as a credible partner now, both Israel and the United States run the risk of appearing and wear and accommodating. Were just one of the two to start talking, as appears to be the case, that risks undermining an historic alliance that is already under pressure.