The Road to Damascus

March 9, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Levant

The Road to Damascus

Some American officials are smitten with Syria, thinking it could help us realign the Middle East. But a closer relationship with Bashar Assad will not weaken the mullahs in Tehran.

An Israeli-Syrian peace deal is currently a very fashionable idea in Washington. It is said to be a (relatively) easy deal, compared to a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as other intractable problems in the region, such as those that afflict Afghanistan and Pakistan. Above all, it is assumed that progress on this front will have major, strategic effects on the eight-thousand pound gorilla nobody knows how to tame: a nuclear-armed Iran. Closer examination reveals there is very little reason to expect Iran's nuclear ambitions will be affected by anything Syria does, even if a deal with Damascus-which just tried secretly to build a nuclear bomb with the help of North Korea-can be worked out in the near future.

Among the advocates of a deal with Syria now are two influential U.S. politicians, former-Senator Chuck Hagel and Senator John Kerry. They have called for the United States to promote a peace deal between Israel and Syria, supporting moves by Turkey in this direction. A major reason? To "isolate Iran."  Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the New York Times that "Washington is abuzz with talk of a ‘strategic realignment'" that would result from splitting Syria away from Iran and "upend the status quo" of the whole Middle East. In an article written in the prestigious Foreign Affairs, the head of the Council of Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning for the State Department, Richard Haass, tackled the subject with Martin Indyk, the highly regarded former U.S. ambassador to Israel,. Much more cautious than other advocates, they realize in full that there is no substitute for dealing directly with Iran. However, they share with others the notion that a Syrian-Israeli deal would greatly concern Iran.

To suggest that such an effect on Iran is a bucket full of wishful thinking (or drummed up by those too keen to find a foothold for peace in the rough terrain of the Middle East) is not to deny that a good deal with Syria would have some nontrivial benefits on various secondary fronts. If Syria would truly agree to and implement a commitment to stop serving as a bridge for the delivery of arms to Hezbollah, it would inconvenience Iran. Iran would then have to find other, more taxing routes for resupplying Hezbollah (by air and sea). If Syria would stop allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq, it would somewhat diminish the ability of Iran to make mischief in that country. And closing the offices of Hamas in Damascus might well degrade somewhat the role of Iran in Gaza and the West Bank. However, it is hard to imagine why this would have any effect on the burning issue of the day: that time is running out for stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. It is this development that Israel considers a direct threat to its very survival and that is feared by the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians.

The notion that Iran would be "isolated" even if Syria became Israel's best friend, a member of NATO or some Turkish- (or French-) led Middle Eastern Union, is-to put it mildly-a fantasy difficult to fathom. China and India have great interest in Iranian oil, and Russia has stakes in major arms deals and in building nuclear reactors. There is no reason that whatever happens to or with Syria will affect these interests and lineups. Other Muslim nations feel an affinity to Iran that will hardly diminish even if secular, etatist Syria's relationship with Iran goes sour. Moreover, Syria would hardly be the first nation to find it beneficial to promise the moon and the stars in exchange for getting back a major piece of much coveted territory and being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and its associated sanctions-while making light of its obligations. In this case, that means still seeking to curry favor with Iran, say, by not fully closing its borders.

Those who seek strategic leverage in the Middle East must look to Tehran. There are no substitutes, easy back roads or shortcuts. Only if Iran can be persuaded, cajoled or otherwise made to give up its nuclear ambitions can Israel and other nations in the region feel much less threatened and much more ready to deal with other issues on other fronts. Furthermore, one must take into account that working out and implementing a deal with Syria will take a year or two at best; this is more or less the time many hold that Iran needs to build its first nuclear bombs. Focusing on Syria first is to squander time those who seek to advance peace in the Middle East just do not have.


Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at the George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale University Press, 2007).