Obama's Opportunity in Syria

February 13, 2012 Topic: Security Region: IsraelSyriaTurkeyMiddle East

Obama's Opportunity in Syria

A Syrian civil war presents a host of problems and challenges. But Washington can be grateful for the possibility of improved relations between Israel and Turkey.

The Syrian civil war—for surely that is what it is—has yet to play itself out. But some of its ramifications are already manifesting themselves. Perhaps the most important is the new agreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas to name Mahmoud Abbas as interim prime minister, thereby ending the stalemate that has plagued the two sides since they formally agreed to a unity government nine months ago. Hamas has pulled its staff out of Syria and cannot be sure that it will be welcome elsewhere in the region. A deal with the PA shifts its status so that key personnel can operate as part of a unified Palestinian government.

Israel has asserted that it will not deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. Still, Israel will not simply jettison its security ties with the PA. Cooperation between the Israel Defense Forces and the Authority’s security apparatus has yielded the most solid of results: a drop in terrorist activity in, and emanating from, the West Bank. Even if Israel studiously avoids formal dealings with the PA, it is likely to do so only at senior government levels. Cooperation on the ground will likely continue.

If the new agreement is indeed implemented and lasts for a while—something that can never be certain given the animosity between Hamas and the PA—a key question is whether the Obama administration will attempt to alter its identification of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and whether it will be prepared to deal with a unity government that includes Hamas. No doubt many European Union member states, and possibly the EU itself, will rush to do so. So too will Norway, not an EU member, whose foreign minister has long advocated direct interaction with Hamas, and which has been a vocal advocate for Palestinian unity.

Lebanon offers the Obama administration a precedent: Washington maintains official diplomatic relations with a government that includes Hezbollah, which it also labels as a terrorist group. Indeed, it provides Lebanon with security assistance. Interestingly, Israel has never sought to dissuade the administration from maintaining relations with the Lebanese government. It is unlikely, however, that Jerusalem would sit quietly if Washington attempts a similar policy vis-à-vis Ramallah.

Should the administration indeed press for direct contacts with the unity government, and at the same time urge Congress to continue American aid to Palestine, which a unity government jeopardizes, Israel may do more than merely push back on Capitol Hill. The Netanyahu government may conclude that if America is prepared to deal with Hamas, despite previous assurances to the contrary, its promises with respect to Iran deserve no credence. Such a conclusion may further accelerate the increasingly greater momentum for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Accordingly, the administration should proceed with great caution before changing its policy vis-à-vis Hamas, even if a unity government actually does come into being.

Bad News for Turkey

The Syrian crisis may be prompting a more positive development that is of great importance to Washington: a slow, but steady, improvement of relations between Israel and Turkey. Having been misled by Bashar al-Assad once too often, and concerned about an even greater influx of Syrian refugees, particularly Alawites and Christians, Ankara is now the most forceful proponent of regime change in Damascus. But this development represents a major volte-face for Turkish diplomacy and an acknowledgement that its “neighborhood policy,” so highly touted by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is now in tatters. With the outcome of the Syrian civil war highly uncertain, and the possibility that the war will result in a government that is less friendly to Turkey, relations at some level with Israel offer an attractive alternative.

It is unlikely that the warmth that characterized Turkish-Israeli relations until the 2008–09 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza will be restored any time soon, even if Israel finally apologizes for the Mavi Marmora incident that left eight Turkish citizens dead. Still, business ties have never been completely ruptured and there are still air-traffic links between the two countries. Given the downturn in the Turkish economy—the International Monetary Fund predicts Turkish GDP growth of less than 1 percent in 2012—increased trade with Israel, as well as Israeli tourism, may be an attractive option. In addition, Israeli assistance against the radical Kurdish PKK, which is finding greater room for maneuver in a chaotic Syria, may be quite welcome in Ankara as long as it is not advertised too loudly. And any improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations will be highly welcome in Washington, which has been very uncomfortable about Turkey’s hostility toward the Jewish state and fears being caught in the middle should the two sides come to blows.

Don’t Wait and See

The events in Syria are, of course, highly unpredictable. At one extreme, Assad could miraculously remain in power, though few observers anywhere think he will. At the other extreme, the Islamists may seize the reins of government, though Syria’s various minorities will mightily resist such an outcome and bloodshed could continue for some time. There are a host of other scenarios that could also materialize.

Whatever happens, the fighting in Syria is having a major impact on the rest of the region, both for good and potentially for ill. The challenge for the United States is to be sufficiently agile to make the most of opportunities that have emerged in the region, and attempt to obviate those developments inimical to its interests. Whether the administration has the wherewithal to do so, especially in this highly charged election year, remains an open question.

Dov S. Zakheim was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001-2004 and recently completed his term as a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently published A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.