Bush Under Growing Pressure to Engage Syria

While U.S. President George W. Bush appeared this week to reject suggestions that Washington directly engage the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pressure both here and in the region for Washington to work out some accommodation with Damascus is rising.

While never officially named to the "Axis of Evil,” Syria has received the same "silent treatment" as Washington has given its two surviving members, Iran and North Korea, since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

But Syria’s geostrategic relevance, particularly in the wake of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah and growing popular sentiment here for withdrawing the more than 140,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq, are making it increasingly difficult to reject appeals for a new tack.

"In all of the major challenges we have in the Middle East – Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran – things are more complicated without Syria’s cooperation," Edward Djerejian, who served as ambassador to Damascus under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently told the National Journal.

That reasoning is being made by Republican "realists,” such as Djerejian, who currently heads the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, as well as some of Washington’s closest European allies, notably Britain.

A number of prominent Israelis, including even cabinet-level members in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, who believe that Assad’s recent appeals via Germany’s Spiegel magazine and the BBC, as well as other media, for a peace agreement with the Jewish state should be tested, have also called for Washington to engage Assad, if for no other reason than to try to pry Damascus loose from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.

"Assad is very keen to get the Golan [Heights] back [from Israel], but he is even more keen to engage the United States," said David Kimche, a former head of Israel’s foreign ministry and president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, at a dinner here earlier this week sponsored by the New America Foundation.

"It is in America’s interest to wean away Syria from Iran’s embrace, [a move that] would also be appreciated by moderate Arabs" in the region, as well, he said, adding that renewed engagement between Washington and Damascus could also facilitate the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The fact that the White House cleared a meeting last month between former secretary of state James Baker, who heads the Congressionally-appointed task force, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in New York, has added to speculation that Bush may prove more flexible than he has to date, especially after next month’s mid-term elections.

Asked about his willingness to "work with" Syria, as well as Iran, if it would improve the situation in Iraq at a press conference Wednesday, Bush nonetheless echoed the administration’s customary mantra that both countries "understand full well" what they have to do to get back in Washington’s good graces.

"(O)ur message to Syria is consistent," he said. "Do not undermine the (Prime Minister Fouad) Siniora government (in Lebanon)… help Israel get back the prisoner that was captured by Hamas; don’t allow Hamas and Hezbollah to plot attacks against democracies in the Middle East; help inside of Iraq. They know our position," he declared, suggesting that all of these were preconditions for the kind of engagement that the critics have been urging.

Behind Bush’s latest statement, however, lies a familiar divide within the administration.

From the first days of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict last summer, the State Department was urging the White House to engage Damascus, particularly after Olmert reportedly asked Washington to enlist Syria in an effort to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah.

But hawks centered in the National Security Council, particularly Elliot Abrams, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, notably his national security adviser, John Hannah, and Middle East specialist, David Wurmser, successfully opposed such a move, and Olmert’s request was rejected.

Two months later, when an attack, apparently by Islamist militants, on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was repelled by Syrian security forces, the State Department’s Near East Bureau again reportedly pushed for some kind of opening to the regime, only to be checked by the hawks, most of whom have long favored a policy of "regime change" in Syria.

In their view, Assad is not only insincere in his recent appeals for a peace settlement with Israel, but his hold on power is weak and growing weaker. That weakness has made him so reliant on Iran that Damascus has effectively become a client regime of Tehran and should be treated accordingly.

Moreover, according to this view, engaging the regime would not only provide it a form of legitimacy which it doesn’t deserve, but would also undermine the moderate opposition in Syria and, even worse, discourage pro-western forces in Lebanon which would see it as a first step toward the re-establishment of Syrian hegemony over their country.

But these arguments appear to have been losing ground – at least in the public debate – in recent weeks as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated and demands, particularly among Republicans, for a "course correction" both there and in the region as a whole have mushroomed.

In the first place, Assad’s hold on power is seen as much more secure than the hawks have suggested. "It’s pretty clear to me that the regime is not on its last legs," according to Dennis Ross, Washington’s top Middle East peace envoy under President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and currently counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that has generally been hawkish on Syria.

Moreover, a growing number of experts believe that Syria’s relationship with Iran is tactical rather than strategic and hence much weaker than the hawks believe.

To the extent that the administration now sees Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. influence in the region, in their view, it should be willing to offer all kinds of carrots to begin prying Damascus from Tehran’s influence.

"The United States should convey its interest in a broader strategic dialogue [with] Assad, with the aim of reestablishing U.S.-Syrian cooperation on important regional issues and with the promise of significant strategic benefits for Syria clearly on the table," according to Flynt Leverett, who served as the NSC’s top Middle East expert under Clinton and for the first two years of the Bush administration.

"I remain absolutely convinced that Bashar wants to realign towards the U.S.," he noted recently.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.