Hesitant They Stand – Syria and the US

My latest article in the Majalla. Published 17th January 2011:

Hesitant They Stand: The Obama Administration’s ambivalent relationship with Syria

By Christopher Phillips

Established when Syria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, relations between the US and the Levant country have been as influential for the Middle East’s stability as they have been problematical. After a historic low-point, which led the Bush administration to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, hopes to reset the past and start over arose with the Obama administration. Yet, nearly two years on skepticism has returned to Syria, amidst increasing tension in the region.

Like so many others, Syria welcomed Barack Obama’s accession to the presidency in January 2009 as a chance to reset its relationship with the United States. The previous Bush administration had seen bilateral ties between the two states plunge to new depths, with Washington imposing sanctions, withdrawing its ambassador and American forces even raiding Syrian territory from Iraq. Obama’s more positive approach was therefore greeted optimistically by President Bashar Al-Assad. Within a month of his inauguration, the 44 President appointed a new ambassador for Damascus and by June Middle East special envoy George Mitchell visited the Syrian capital, the highest-ranking US official for a decade. Against the backdrop of Obama’s address in Cairo in the Summer of 2009, and his renewed drive for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, hopes were high for a genuine thaw between Washington and Damascus.

Yet nearly two years on skepticism has returned to Syria. The promised new era of US engagement increasingly looks like a false dawn. Regionally, a failure to make any real progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has already lost the administration much credibility. Whilst Damascus welcomed Washington’s tough stance on Israeli settlements, Obama’s subsequent climb-down on the issue under pressure from pro-Israeli elements in Congress has raised questions over his ability to be an impartial mediator. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent refusal of a substantial arms package in exchange for a mere 90 day settlement freeze in an attempt to revive the peace talks has only served to humiliate the American President in Arab eyes.

In Syria Obama’s declining credibility has been further undermined by his ambivalent relationship with Damascus. On the one hand, high level diplomats such as Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffery Feltman and Senator John Kerry have made regular visits to the Syrian capital, a significant departure from the diplomatic boycott initiated by George W. Bush. On the other hand, key figures in the administration including Feltman and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been vocal at times in their criticism of Syria, most notably in accusing Damascus of arming Hezbollah.

Obama’s domestic political concerns have complicated matters further. Pro-Israel politicians on Capitol Hill successfully pressured the President to renew economic sanctions on the Ba’ath regime in May 2010. The same group also delayed the confirmation of Obama’s new ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, following Tel Aviv’s unsubstantiated claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with SCUD missiles. This deadlock was only broken in the Christmas 2010 recess, when the White House used a legal loophole to appoint Ford in a temporary position, a decision that could be overturned by the incoming Republican Congress within the year.

Yet as Washington’s ambivalence to Syria has faltered along, Damascus has strengthened its bilateral ties elsewhere. Partly as a product of the near decade of Bush-led isolation, and partly due to President Assad finally finding his diplomatic touch, Syria is now in a strong international position despite American indecision. Assad has patched up his relations with the major Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, after they had fallen out over Lebanon in 2005. He has similarly forged an alliance with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which has led to significant economic, political and military cooperation. The EU has ignored Washington’s caution and, led by France, offered Syria a long-awaited European Neighborhood Policy Association Agreement. On top of this, after a decade of stagnation, the economic reforms of Assad’s deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari are finally taking effect and the Syrian economy has shown consistent growth of over 4 percent in the last 3 years. Syria has thus maneuvered itself into a position where poor relations with America no longer have the crippling effect they once did. Sanctions and diplomatic scorn continue to be a nuisance they would prefer to avoid, but Washington’s leverage has been considerably undermined by its regional impotence on Israel-Palestine and Damascus’ diplomatic and economic success elsewhere.

2011 thus begins with US-Syrian relations a little better than they had been under Bush, but certainly nowhere near the full reset that Damascus and some in the Obama administration had hoped for. Moreover, there is little to suggest that relations will improve markedly in the coming year. Tensions over Lebanon look likely to increase with the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri—pending. Whilst Syria is now expected to avoid being implicated, most anticipate the indictment of its close ally Hezbollah, prompting a political crisis in Beirut. With much of Damascus’ recent rehabilitation within the international community resting on its perceived influence in stabilizing Lebanon, were its western neighbor to erupt into sectarian violence it is unlikely that Syria would standby. This could once again provoke the wrath of Washington which has long protested Syria’s meddling in Lebanon.

Similarly, the future of Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s reaction to it could prove an area of potential US-Syria difference. Should Israel lose patience with international mediation efforts and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself, another war between Tel Aviv and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is a real possibility. Alternatively, the IDF may strike South Lebanon preemptively. Whilst a recent WikiLeaks document suggested that Damascus is reluctant to join any war with Iran against Israel, an Israeli strike on Hezbollah may draw in Syria against its will. Indeed, other cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that the IDF already had plans to bomb a Syrian arms depot in the event of war with Hezbollah, as a warning against future arms supplied by Damascus to the Shia militia.

Syrian-US relations in the coming year may therefore be determined by Washington’s ability to influence its allies in Tel Aviv. Pro-Israel elements on Capitol Hill seem reluctant to allow Obama any Syria policy that is not tied to Israel and with the new Republican Congress determined to spoil White House policy, this trend looks set to continue. Much will thus rest on Obama’s determination to reign in any Israeli designs on a renewed conflict with Hezbollah, or to make a new drive for peace on the Palestinian or even Syrian track. Whilst Syria has maneuvered itself into a position where it can cope without strong relations with the US, that won’t prevent it from being reluctantly embroiled in a new conflict with Israel should one erupt. Once again, the emphasis is on President Obama to move things forward before they slide back into the abyss.


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