American Realism and Engaging Syria
How is Syria becoming increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
Contrary to the neoconservative spin that depicts Syria as a member of a coalition of Islamist political movements and regimes, Syria is, in fact, a Western-style republic whose leadership is committed to a secular nationalist ideology of the Ba’ath (the Arab Renaissance) party.
The party was founded by Syrian Christian intellectuals in the 1940s and ruled Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Ba’athist doctrine promotes secularism, socialism and Arab nationalism.
Islamist political groups reflected the secularist trend in the country’s provisional constitution that ignited riots. The constitution was later amended and now insists that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be a main source of legislation.
The constitution and the judicial system in Syria — like Syrian society — is an amalgam of Ottoman influences and modern secular tendencies (imported from France) as well as Islamic values. Hence, not unlike in Israel, religious courts in Syria handle personal and family issues.
Christian Arabs, who compose 10% of the population, have played a prominent role in the political and economic life of the country, which also has small non-Arab minorities — including a politically restive community of Kurds.
If anything, the Syrian Ba’ath regime, especially under the rule of the current president’s father, has regarded Islamic fundamentalists, led by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement, as the main threat to its power. Between 1976 and 1982, the fundamentalists — who used violence, including terrorism, as part of a campaign to oust the Ba’athists — challenged the government.
The Ba’athists were able to suppress the revolt with considerable brutality, as demonstrated by their leveling of Hamah in 1982. It is not surprising therefore that the Syrian leaders have been very worried over the rising power of Sunni fundamentalist groups in the Middle East and, in particular, over the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda and its networks.
At the same time, the Syrians also recognize the danger that their growing ties to the Shiite fundamentalist regime in Tehran could help radicalize the Sunni majority in Syria. That explains Damascus’s interest in cooperating with Washington — an action that could help them kill two birds with one stone — fighting al-Qaeda and distancing themselves from Tehran.
What has been surprising is the failure of Washington to comprehend that reality, instead taking steps that made it more likely that Syria would work with Iran to secure its interests in the region while at the same time helping to strengthen the Syrian Islamist opposition forces that want to oust the Ba’athists from power.
Confronted with the threat of isolation and perhaps even “regime change” by Washington, Syria sees its partnership with Iran as a way of counterbalancing U.S. and Israeli power.
Assad knows that Iranian hegemony in the region or a growing conflict between an Iran-led Shiite bloc and an Arab-Sunni coalition would threaten his Ba’ath regime, led by members of the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of the Shiite denomination) that controls a majority of the Arab-Sunni population.
Hence Syria’s long-term strategic interests lie in preserving the status quo in the region, a goal it shares with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
An American administration that refrains from applying a Manichean and dogmatic-ideological framework through which it considers U.S. interests in the Middle East — in which it supposedly is leading a struggle against the Evildoers, the Axis of Evil or Islamo-Fascism — and recognizes that its relationship with movements and governments in the region has to consider first and foremost concrete U.S. national interests, would have to conclude that maintaining diplomatic ties with Syria — a leading Arab nation-state in the Levant, bordering Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Turkey — could help Washington advance its interests on many fronts including Iraq, Lebanon and peace with Israel.
Ending Syria’s political and economic isolation could create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria, as well as between Israelis and Palestinians, that could eventually lead to peace and security for Israel.
Syria could demonstrate its commitment to peace by closing down the offices of Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups and by forcing Palestinian leaders who reject peace to leave Syria. In return, Israel should respond favorably to Syrian entreaties to settle the dispute over the occupied Golan Heights.
There is a model for Israeli rapprochement with other Arab regimes: Israel achieved peace with Egypt in 1979 and has enjoyed good relations with Jordan since 1994. There is no reason why a similar accord cannot be struck between Syria and Israel.
In a more general sense, a decision by Syria to distance itself from Iran would ensure that the balance of power in the region does not shift still further in Tehran’s favor.
Should Iran’s power continue to grow, that could lead to a regional war between the Arab-Sunni governments and an Iran-led Shiite bloc that would be devastating to the region and a threat to U.S. interests.
Every effort should be made to encourage Syria to end its partnership with Iran and to join the moderate Arab camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Editor’s Note: This feature is excerpted from the Independent Policy Report, “A Diplomatic Road to Damascus: The Benefits of U.S. Engagement with Syria” (Oct. 2007), with permission of the Independent Institute.