On April 23, 2008, the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Southwest Asia/Gulf project and the Stanley Foundation co-hosted an event titled Syria: From Isolation to Acceptance? Speakers included Andrew Tabler, editor of Syria Today and former Fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs; Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation; and Emile El-Hokayem of the Stimson Center.
The debate centered upon current US policy towards Syria, Syria’s own foreign policy and the merits of engagement.
Tabler, a resident of Damascus, described the political, economic and security landscape in Syria today. He noted that the process of economic reform is facing daunting challenges. He also offered a ground-level assessment of the impact of US policy, arguing that US efforts to isolate Syria had yet to pay off. He also commented on the Syria-Iran alliance, noting that the lackluster performance of several joint Syrian-Iranian ventures may indicate more tension in the relationship than usually assumed.
Hokayem argued that the current US policy of isolation is not only multilateral, consensual and incremental, but that it is, in fact, the only feasible one. He laid out an argument for why Syrian engagement under current circumstances will cost the US and its allies more than what they would receive in return. He argued that the Syrian regime, by seeking renewal of talks with Israel, was really hoping to force the United States into sitting at the table and agree to a series of quid pro quo at odds with US interests in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. Syria, Hokayem argued, is playing for time and delaying any major decision to 2009 in the hope that a different US administration will engage Damascus on terms more beneficial to Syria.
Contrasting Hokayem was Levy, who argued that not only should the US formally engage Syria, but that it is already being engaged by important regional players, including Turkey, Iran and other countries and that Syria’s isolation by the United States comes at too high a price in a very volatile region, especially as polls show significant popular distrust of the United States and popular endorsement of America’s enemies in the region. Levy noted that Syria plays a pivotal role in the region, particularly at Israel’s northern border, and engaging it would significantly reduce tensions and force the various players to reposition themselves away from a confrontational posture. He also argued that engagement does not equal endorsement.