Sunday, December 10, 2006

Syria May Be Key to Improvement in Iraq

Should the United States take the road to Damascus as a way forward on the Iraq conflict? Yesterday's Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article examining the speculation that engagement with Syria holds the promise of a breakthrough on improving American prospects in the Iraq deployment:

The Bush administration has spent the past six years shaking its fist at Syria because of Damascus's ties to Islamic extremists across the Middle East. But now Iraq's civil war is sparking calls for the U.S. to reach out to Syria, raising the possibility of a U.S. policy shift that could put Washington on a collision course with Israel.

Members of the Baker-Hamilton commission, backed quietly by a number of senior Bush administration officials, say it is critical for the U.S. to find a way of persuading Syria to abandon its close ties with Iran and drop its support for Hezbollah and other militants. They want the White House to offer Damascus a series of economic and political incentives, including America's help in pressuring Israel to relinquish the disputed Golan Heights.

The approach would be a high-stakes turnaround for the Bush administration that would be certain to anger Washington's closest ally in the Middle East; senior Israeli officials are already publicly objecting to the possibility of new U.S. overtures to Syria. But advocates of greater engagement with Syria argue that there may be no other choice. They say a decision by Syria to use its influence over Iraq's Sunni population to help calm the situation there -- paired with Syrian moves to end support to Islamic-militant groups like Hamas -- could significantly improve conditions in Iraq and across the region.

Securing Syrian assistance would come at a high cost, and so far the Bush administration has reacted coolly to the idea. Senior administration officials question both the intentions and the capabilities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom they deride as weak and untrustworthy.

These officials argue that Mr. Assad -- who took power in 2000 after the death of his father, strongman leader Hafez -- is unable to control his government or military firmly enough to ensure that a formal Syrian commitment to cut ties to Hezbollah or Hamas would be honored. "He's not his father," one senior official said.

The calls to engage Syria are alarming many Israeli officials, who fear Washington's need to extricate itself from the morass in Iraq may result in new American pressure for Israeli territorial concessions....

Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who drafted a good portion of the Baker-Hamilton commission's report, said that Syria is the key to the regional puzzle and that the U.S. can ill afford to ignore it. The panel, a congressionally funded group of five prominent Democrats and five leading Republicans, said in the report issued this past week that the administration's Iraq policy is failing and called for most U.S. combat troops to leave the country by early 2008.

In an interview, Mr. Djerejian said the aim of any future U.S. negotiations with Syria should be to persuade Damascus to cut off its aid and trans-shipment of Iranian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. In addition, Syria should be pressured to cajole Hamas into recognizing Israel's right to exist, a move -- however unlikely -- that could rejuvenate the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Djerejian said talks with Syria would have a second, important goal: driving a wedge between Damascus and Tehran, whose growing political and military alliance is sparking fears of an Iranian-dominated "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The U.S. is already making a broad push to enlist traditional Sunni Arab powers like Egypt in a coalition to offset Shiite Iran's growing regional power, but Mr. Djerejian said the effort is doomed to fail without Syrian involvement. Syria is controlled by members of its Allawite minority, a form of Shiism that is rejected as heretical by some Sunnis.

The heated debate over Syria reflects growing concern in Washington over the dire situation in Iraq, where a civil war has left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, along with nearly 3,000 American military personnel. The chaos there has sparked fears of a wider, regional conflagration.

I briefly discussed the notion of the Syrian card in a post on how Lebanon's recent turmoil may be signaling the failure of U.S. democracy promotion goals in the Middle East.

In that entry I cited the recent article in Foreign Affairs by Volker Perthes on "
The Syrian Solution." Perthes notes that Syria has an interest in preventing the complete breakup of Iraq and the extension of civil war to the Syrian homefront. Syrian dictator Bashir Assad favors regime stability and wants the United States to stop threatening the government in Damascus with regime change. A way forward may be to rekindle the Mideast peace process with Israel.

Yet, while Syria may be a key to progress in solving the Iraq crisis, relinquishing the Golan Heights from Israeli control is too steep a price. A strategic redoubt, the Golan is the base for Syrian military incursions into Israel. Tel Aviv has considered withdrawal in past negotions, but will not accept a complete return of the Golan to Syria in the absense of security and normalization measures designed to prevent another Israeli-Syrian war.

There may be a fallacy in seeing the path forward in Iraq through the lense of the Arab-Israeli peace process, however, and this is one critique of the Iraq Study Group. Abraham Foxman, in this weekend's USA Today, argues that the real problem in the region is the extremism of Middle Eastern actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria.

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