The Long Road to Damascus

The Long Road to Damascus

As the November 26 Middle East conference draws near, some are suggesting that a deal with Syria will lead to significant progress in the region. But Damascus may not be willing or able to help.

September was a rough month for Syrian President Bashir al-Asad. On September 6 rumors began circulating that the Israeli Air Force had carried out a strike against a Syrian military installation in the northeast of the country suspected of housing North Korean nuclear technology. Although now confirmed by Syrian and Israeli officials, the strike remains shrouded in mystery. Then on September 19, a massive car bomb ripped through a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, killing anti-Syrian parliamentarian Antoine Ghanem. Widely suspected to be the work of Syrian agents, Ghanem is the third member of Lebanon's parliament to be assassinated since last year. The assassination, which prompted the postponement of Lebanon's presidential elections, produced unanimous condemnation from the international community.

But September also brought news that the United States will invite Syria to its long overdue Middle East peace conference in Annapolis this month. The conference marks Washington's most concerted effort at restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process since the failed Camp David talks in 2000 and the Bush Administration's first serious attempt to date. Administration critics welcomed this surprise development after watching one missed opportunity after another slip by. Outside of a brief encounter between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Iraq Neighbors meeting in Sharm el Sheikh last May, the two countries have not had any high level diplomatic contact since Washington withdrew its Ambassador in February 2005. For his part, al-Asad told the BBC that Syria will not attend unless the Golan issue is on the table.

While the agenda of the November meeting is limited to bringing the Israelis and Palestinians closer to a final agreement, there is little doubt that the White House will be watching Syria's reaction carefully in order to judge whether opportunities for one-on-one talks on other critical issues lie on the horizon. On the issues most important to Washington, however, such as what Washington sees as Damascus' destabilizing policies toward Iraq and Lebanon along with its relationship with Hizballah, the two sides are unlikely to see eye to eye since Syria has little ability, nor perhaps the desire, to meet Washington even partway.

Syria is an old hand when it comes to flirting with Washington's diplomatic overtures in the region. In the 1990s, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made more than a dozen trips to the region in the hopes of securing a deal with Bashir's father, Hafez al-Asad. President Clinton held several meetings with him, even going so far as to meet with the senior al-Asad in Damascus in October 1994. One former senior U.S. official involved in negotiations with the Syrians described al-Asad's negotiating model during this period as holding out for everything and getting nothing.

A Syrian-Israeli agreement brokered by Washington appeared to be within reach in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, but Hafez's death in June 2000 brought his inexperienced son Bashir to the fore. The Clinton Administration's clock ran out soon thereafter.

The current administration has proceeded more cautiously than its predecessors. Under Bush, Syria went from being a useful broker during the administrations of President Clinton and the first President Bush to candidate-in-waiting for membership in the "axis of evil." In the heady days of 2003, many were left wondering if the White House's policy toward the al-Asad regime would be "next stop Damascus." But then the war in Iraq began to go from bad to worse and regime change lost its appeal and feasibility.

The White House has come under mounting criticism for its policy toward Damascus ever since the Iraq Study Group last December suggested that the U.S. try engaging Syria. In May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Damascus-a move that was widely criticized by the administration. Up until Rice's announcement last month the Bush Administration had only agreed to talk with the Syrians on issues stemming from the war in Iraq.

But even if the Syrians were to put aside their demands that every issue be put on the table and come to Annapolis, the administration is unlikely to get what it wants from Damascus. This is because policymakers and pundits alike have consistently overstated the ability of Syria to influence events in the region. True, al-Asad (even with the Hariri Tribunal hanging over his head) is stronger than he was in 2003, when the swift ouster of Saddam Hussein must have sent a chill down the palace corridors in Damascus. But on the issues that matter most to Washington, al-Asad can't deliver.

Iraq, of course, is at the forefront of everything the administration does these days. U.S. officials have repeatedly maintained that the Syrians are turning a blind eye as foreign insurgents stream across their borders into Iraq. But one hundred percent Syrian cooperation on the border-while welcome-will not move the United States any closer toward ending the violence or achieving its goals in Iraq. Only a political solution can do that. Stopping the forty or so foreign fighters that the U.S. military now estimates cross the border every month into Iraq is unlikely to significantly affect the war's outcome.

On the Syria-Iran-Hizballah nexus too, Syria's significance has been exaggerated. Syria may be in bed with the Iranians but no one disputes that the latter is clearly the stronger of the two. While Hafez al-Asad was credited with carving out a position for himself as go-between between Hizballah and Tehran, Bashir is widely seen as being in awe of Hasan Nasrallah and has little real influence over the popular Hizballah leader. Hoping that he will be able to stop the group from attacking Israel in a repeat of last summer's war is nothing short of wishful thinking.

Only in Lebanon has the regime demonstrated its ability to affect events on the ground. But ironically, this is the one issue where Washington and Damascus are the least likely to come to an understanding. Bush is unlikely to compromise on the one chance that a moderate democracy in the Middle East will take root under his watch. Saving Lebanon from slipping back under the control of its Mafia state neighbor has taken on new urgency for Bush, who recently announced he will be sending CENTCOM's Admiral William J. Fallon to Lebanon to assess how to help the struggling government defend itself against "radical elements." Many analysts speculate that Lebanon has now replaced the Golan Heights as the regime's first priority-meaning al-Asad too is unlikely to compromise on Lebanon. Much will depend on the results of the November 24 presidential elections, which could dislodge pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud once and for all.

None of this is to suggest that the Bush Administration should not sit down with the Syrians. On the contrary, they should have been invited to the table long ago. But after getting over the hurdle of deciding to sit down with its adversary, the Bush Administration's next step should involve an honest appraisal of what Damascus is and is not capable of accomplishing. Successful diplomacy requires not only knowing one's own strengths (and weaknesses) but also those of your opponent. For the Bush Administration, this means recognizing that Syria will not be able to fix what it broke in Iraq. Nor will Syria be able to meet all of Washington's demands overnight, not only because it may not be in their interests to do so but also because it might be beyond their capabilities. In today's Middle East, it seems there are no winning hands.


Sara Bjerg Moller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.