Engaging Syria: Redefining Syria’s Role in the Middle East

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By Emile El-Hokayem – The evolution of Syria from US ally to enemy was at once unexpected and inevitable. Thanks to strategic policy choices and its geographic location, Syria is enmeshed in all the conflicts in the Middle East. While Syria is not the ultimate threat to either the region or US interests, it has proven intransigent and belligerent on a number of issues of great importance to the international community.

US interests regarding Syria are not limited to Lebanon. There is emerging evidence to suggest that Syria is attempting to organize proxies within the Iraqi insurgency, while Syria’s alliance with Iran (and Hezbollah) makes that country a key player in Levantine politics. While Western powers hope to drive a wedge between the two countries by restarting the peace process, Syria is not likely to give up an alliance that puts it on the political center stage. Given these circumstances, the return on a policy of unconditional engagement with Damascus is unclear.

So what about Syria’s interest in Lebanon? Is it uniquely motivated by the desire to recover Israeli-occupied Golan Heights? Or is there a more complex calculation driving Syria’s attempts to reassert its role? Nowhere has Syrian influence been as visible and disruptive as in Lebanon. After occupying (and stabilizing) Lebanon for 15 years, heavy-handedness and mismanagement of Lebanese politics has created deep resentment against Syria. Lebanon’s transition from Syrian domination to full independence has been a strenuous process for its people and its politics. The upcoming Lebanese presidential elections will be a momentous test for the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations. These elections carry the possibility of better relations between Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the world. The prospects for such a positive outcome are dim, partly because Syria fears that a victory for its Lebanese and foreign opponents will weaken its hand internationally.

The Syrian desire to maintain a dominant say in all matters Lebanese amounts to a de facto veto right on Lebanese affairs. So long as Syria refuses to normalize relations with Lebanon by delineating the border, exchanging embassies and ending its interference in Lebanese affairs, it will be difficult to overcome Lebanese suspicions of Syrian intentions.

The continued importance of Lebanon to Syria has many dimensions. Much of the daily interaction between Syria and Lebanon is the product of strong and old societal ties. Inevitably, both countries will share privileged relations in the future. Today, however, Syria sees Lebanon as a convenient battlefield for its conflict with a number of foes, including the United States, France, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It also sees Lebanon as a threat because it no longer revolves in Syria’s orbit, thanks to major policy changes such as the development of an autonomous foreign policy.

In examining whether the US should engage Syria, one should consider why Syria has failed to participate in any attempts to obtain Syrian cooperation on Lebanon-some of which have offered attractive incentives. Damascus has rebuffed all offers because it is still hoping for a complete reversal of fortunes in Lebanon.

Syria continues to await renewed international recognition of or at least acquiescence to its central role in Lebanese affairs. In due time, Syria believes international fatigue with the Lebanese crisis, new leadership in the US and Europe, and sheer steadfastness will reward its obstinacy. In the short term, it means that instability in Lebanon is seen as more harmful to the governing coalition and its foreign allies than to Syria and its allies in Lebanon. The logic of unconditional reengagement is tantamount to subordinating Lebanese sovereignty to the fortunes of the peace process, Syria’s cooperation on Iraq, or fluctuations in the Persian Gulf.

Keeping Syria in the cold is not a long-term solution to the region’s problems, nor is the threat of further coercion. If Syria considers peace with Israel and normalization with the West in its best interest, then it could demonstrate its seriousness by ending its disruptive role in Lebanon. Restarting the peace process between Syria and Israel will require strong US diplomatic leadership. Simultaneously with a US-Israeli initiative to restart peace negotiations, Syria should commit to demarcate its border with Lebanon, exchange embassies, and abide by relevant UN resolutions. Syria’s refusal to do so would demonstrate its continued desire to use Lebanon as a negotiating chip with Israel, although Syria can no longer guarantee the disarmament of Hezbollah as it could in the 1990s. In exchange, the United States would agree to suspend sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act and send its ambassador back to Damascus while the European Union would commit to press ahead with economic and trade discussions. Dissociating Syria’s foreign affairs from its obligations towards Lebanon is a serious mistake. After many years of Syrian domination, it is only fair that Lebanese considerations should now constrain Syria’s policy options.

Photo Credit: OpenDemocracy (

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