US Foreign Policy

How to Engage Syria, If You Really Have to

in Program

This article first appeared in Al Hayat on May 6, 2007

Syria, we are told lately, is ready to deal. A full return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would transform Syria from a spoiler to a stabilizing partner in the Middle East. This may be true, and peace itself is worthy enough a goal to reengage Syria.

We are also told that Syria has no grand design over Lebanon, and that a Syrian-Israeli peace will pave the way for a normalization of relations with Lebanon, insofar as an independent Lebanon has a strictly neutral government. Therefore, bilateral tensions over formalization of relations, the Hariri tribunal and continued Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs should not stand in the way of engagement as a Syrian-Israeli peace would radically change Syrian behavior.

Lebanese political and psychological apprehensions need not be the sole obstacle to purportedly promising diplomatic talks. If Syria is so ready to make peace with Israel because of the tangible political and economic benefits that would flow, then it could demonstrate its seriousness by putting an end to the ambiguity that characterizes Syrian-Lebanese relations.

Simultaneously with the restarting of peace negotiations with Israel, Syria should commit to the Quartet to demarcate its border with Lebanon, exchange embassies, and abide by resolutions 1559 and 1701. In exchange, the Quartet would encourage the resumption of peace talks, the United States would agree to suspend sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act and send back its ambassador to Damascus, and the European Union would commit to press ahead with economic and trade discussions. Syria’s refusal to do so would only be construed as a desire to continue using Lebanon as a negotiating card with Israel, even as Syria today can no longer guarantee the disarmament of Hezbollah as it could in the 1990s. More worryingly, Syrian obstruction could simply reflect a continued desire for hegemony in Lebanon, validating the worst fears of a deeply insecure Lebanese population. This is why dissociating Syria’s foreign affairs from its obligations towards Lebanon is a serious mistake. It is ironical but only fair for Lebanon to constrain Syria’s policy options after Syria did so in the 1990s.

On the other hand, the logic of unconditional reengagement (as opposed to dialogue on discrete topics such as Iraq) is deeply flawed, and carries risks and costs that its proponents dismiss too easily. Unconditional engagement would send all the wrong signals to Lebanon and Syria. Damascus is already attempting to reassert its influence in Lebanon. While it will not send back its troops, it seeks indirect domination of Lebanese politics by reinserting itself in the Lebanese game through its intelligence assets and friends in Lebanon and, thanks to international fatigue with the Lebanese crisis and the US need to stabilize Iraq, even hoping to gain foreign acquiescence as it did throughout the 1990s.
Syrian-Israeli negotiations are not cost-free for Lebanon. In the 1990s, the United States, concerned that Syria would leave the table, barely challenged its occupation and use of Lebanon as a card during the negotiations. Today, the delighted Syrian reaction to American and European visitors clearly shows that Syria derives supreme confidence from the mere fact of being talked to.

Indeed, should negotiations restart unconditionally, and as Lebanon’s political crisis deepens, Syria would present itself as a constructive partner in quelling the Lebanese crisis. Under the guise of mediating, it will strongly suggest to the United States ways to terminate tensions over Lebanon, including by helping to select a new president or a new government. This, however, would amount to giving it veto power over Lebanese politics. Would the United States agree to a Syrian veto on undesirable politicians or succumb to the Syrian-supported demand for a national unity government that would reverse all the gains of the current government (most importantly the seven-point plan that addresses all the underlying issues between Lebanon and Israel), reject UN resolutions calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament and provide a new political cover to the Shia movement to continue its military activities?
This will not happen unless the diplomatic process becomes more important to Washington and Israel than to Damascus. Even modest Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Israel could become reason enough not to challenge Syrian behavior in Lebanon. Given the climate in Washington, this kind of trade-off is not to be excluded. Lebanon depends on the international community to obtain from Syria a normalization of relations, something that even a Lebanese consensus adopted by Syria’s friends in 2006 has not achieved. Moreover, Lebanon will not be party to these negotiations and certainly cannot rely on its two tormentors, Israel and Syria, to defend its interests. The miniscule leverage Lebanon has over Syria would then evaporate.
Moreover, an end to the state of war between Syria and Israel will not necessarily translate into healthier Syrian-Lebanese relations. To the contrary, if Israel expects Syria to guarantee calm on its northern border, Syria will become more rather than less intrusive in Lebanese affairs. During the 1990s, the Lebanese were told that independence from Israeli and Syrian occupation would have to wait for a final settlement. The problem was that Syria did not intend to give up Lebanon, Israel would not necessarily require it, as it viewed Syrian domination of Lebanon as the only guarantee of a lasting peace and the containment of Hezbollah, and the United States would not champion it if this ran counter to both Syrian and Israeli wishes. This is why many Lebanese otherwise critical of the Bush administration remain deeply grateful that it did not succumb to the fallacy of stability and forcefully demanded a Syrian withdrawal in 2005.                     
Engagers also argue that the hurdles to peace will be easy to overcome since the basic principles have been agreed upon in the 1990s – 35 minutes would suffice, according to former President Clinton. But what if the peace process were so bumpy that Lebanon again becomes the place where Damascus flexes its muscles, as it too often happened in the 1990s? Worse, what if it proves inconclusive? Certainly, in light of previous disappointments, this cannot be excluded. Where would that leave Lebanon?

Without a modicum of certainty about the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations, reengaging Syria is tantamount to subordinating the sovereignty and future of Lebanon to the fortunes of the peace process, as if a founding member of the United Nations does not enjoy the unqualified right to be formally recognized by its often invasive neighbor.
 Before another congressional delegation or presidential candidate travels to Damascus in an attempt to extricate America from Iraq, Washington would do well to engage in a thoughtful discussion of the trade-offs needed to that effect. Lebanese sovereignty may well be the price that some would pay. But this is a discussion that needs to happen now, before perceptions are formed in Damascus.

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