US President Barack Obama’s recent decision to appoint a new ambassador to Damascus is further proof positive of the effectiveness of the strategy pursued by Syria over the last half decade. It also showcases the sense that the current US administration appears to be navigating without a compass in its Middle East diplomacy.
The appointment of experienced and highly regarded regional hand Robert Ford to the embassy in Damascus is not quite the final burial of the policy to “isolate” Syria. The 2003 Syria Accountability Act and its sanctions remain in effect. But with Syria now in possession of a newly minted American ambassador, in supposedly pivotal negotiations with Saudi Arabia over the Special Tribunal in Lebanon, with its alliance with Iran intact, having repaired relations with Iraq, and in continued, apparently cost-free defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency over inspections of its nuclear sites, the office of President Bashar Assad could be forgiven for feeling slightly smug.
Syrian policy appears to have worked. And since there are few more worthy pursuits than learning from success, it is worth observing closely its actions on the way to bringing about its resurgence.
Syria’s regional standing was at its nadir in 2005: Assad was forced to abandon his country’s valued and profitable occupation of Lebanon; the US was in control in Iraq; Israel appeared to have turned back the assault of Damascus-based Islamist terror groups. The future seemed bleak for the Assad family regime.
How did we get from there to here? The formula has been a simple and familiar one, involving the potential and actual use of political violence and the subsequent offer of restraint.
Thus, Syria set out to successfully prevent the achievement of stability in Lebanon. A string of murders of anti-Syrian political figures, journalists and officials began almost before the dust had cleared from the departure of the last APC across the border in 2005.
The semicoup undertaken by Syrian-allied Hizbullah and its allies in May 2008 set the price of further isolation of Damascus at a rate higher than either the US or “pro- Western” Arab states were willing to pay. The process of Saudi-Syrian rapprochement began shortly afterward.
It has now reached the somewhat surreal stage where Damascus, which was almost certainly involved in the killing of Rafik Hariri, is being treated as a key player in helping to prevent the possibility of violence by Syrian and Iranian sponsored organizations in the event of their members being indicted for the murder.
With regard to Israel, the defense establishment and part of the political establishment maintain an attitude of patience and forgiveness toward the Syrian regime. This, to be sure, has its limits. Damascus’s attempt to develop a nuclear capacity was swiftly and effectively dealt with in 2007. On two known occasions in recent years, Israel has brushed aside Syria’s domestic defenses to engage in targeted killings against senior military or paramilitary figures on Syrian soil.
Yet the belief that Syria seeks a way out of the supposedly stifling bear hug of the Iranians remains prevalent in defense circles and in large parts of the political establishment.
This perennial article of faith means that in the event of Syria’s feeling lonely, it need only raise an eyebrow in Israel’s direction for the eager suitor to come running.
This took place, for example, in October 2007, at a time when Syria had good reason for feeling isolated.
The commencement of Turkish-mediated negotiations with Israel helped in cracking the wall of Syrian isolation.
Once other powers began to get on board the dialogue train, of course, the negotiations could be allowed to quietly fade away. The latest indications are that the defense establishment persists in its faith. The result is that Syria, as long as it stays within certain limits of behavior, is able to domicile and support organizations engaged in armed action against Israel, at no cost.
ON IRAQ, a number of regional analysts have suggested that part of the reason for the Obama administration’s persistent and largely one-sided policy of engagement with Damascus derives from the porous border between Syria and Iraq. The maintaining of this open border by the regime as an artery providing fresh fighters for the Sunni insurgency constituted a useful tool of pressure. The US now wants quiet as it prepares to withdraw from Iraq. Once again, the simple but effective methods of the protection racket appear to pay off.
More broadly, Syria originally favored Iyad Allawi’s candidacy for prime minister, but fell into line with big brother Iran’s backing of Nouri al- Maliki. Relations with Maliki have now been repaired, despite Syria’s suspected involvement in a series of bombings in Baghdad early last year.
Finally, with regard to its nuclear program, Syria has banned all IAEA access to the site of the destroyed al-Kibar reactor, since 2008. This decision followed an initial IAEA report concluding that the facility had similarities to a nuclear reactor, and noting the discovery of uranium particles at the site.
In November last year, an IAEA report noted that “with the passage of time, some of the information concerning the site is further deteriorating or has been lost entirely. It is critical, therefore, that Syria actively cooperate with the agency.” Critical to the agency, maybe.
Less critical, apparently, to the Syrians.
WHAT LESSONS may be learned from this relatively comprehensive list of interactions? What might an aspiring Middle Eastern regime or movement glean from the Syrian experience of the last half-decade – all the way from the hurried departure from Lebanon to the return of the US ambassador.
There are two obvious lessons.
The first is that if you are in a confrontation with the West, hang tough, because the West and its allies will eventually tire, particularly if you are willing to raise the stakes to a level on which the other side will not be willing to play. The currency Syria has traded in, with subtlety and determination, is political violence.
Terror and the sponsorship of murder – in Iraq, in Lebanon and against Israel – appear to have come at no real cost and eventually to have paid dividends.
The second lesson is to maintain your close alliance with the big regional spoiler, but at the same time express your willingness to dialogue with and maintain relations with everyone else. This, it appears, will have the result that you will come to be seen as an indispensable country. This status, however, will only last for as long as you maintain your alliance with the spoiler – in this case, Iran. So on no circumstances must this firm connection be put in jeopardy.
In other words, the Syrian success story teaches all aspiring family police states and anti-Western regional movements that the sponsoring of violence against the West and maintaining alliances with its enemies are the key to emerging from isolation, punching above your weight and even, in the fullness of time, establishing friendly and respectful relations with the West. QED. Lesson learned.
As to why exactly the US, Israel and their regional allies should find it beneficial to promote and reward this model as the exemplar of political behavior in the region, the answer lies beyond the limited analytical tools of this column. The writer wishes great success to anyone seeking to figure it out. It continues to elude him.