Syria rocks under continued US bombing and reels under withering US sanctions. But why? Why are we still not friends with Syria?
Bashar al-Assad has long courted a relationship with the west. He has long been willing to act in a way that would make friendship possible. In his 2009 article entitled "Syria Calling," Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that then Senator John Kerry, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and who had just met with Assad, said that Assad "wants to engage with the West….Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States." Hersh says that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told him that "Syria is eager to engage with the West.”
Amongst the many "things he needed to do," the US would want him to prove himself in at least five areas: 9/11, ISIS, chemical weapons, Israel and Iran. He proved himself in all five.
Assad made sure that he made his support for the US clear in the wake of 9/11 by issuing a statement expressing Syria’s support for the US war on al-Qaeda. But his support went well beyond words. In Reporter: A Memoir, Seymour Hersh says that Assad went as far as "sharing with the CIA hundreds of his country’s most sensitive intelligence files on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamburg, where most of the planning for 9/11 was carried out.” Assad also provided the US with details about a future al-Qaeda attack on the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, which Hersh says that he confirmed was invaluable.
Al-Qaeda & ISIS
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are existential threats to the Assad government, and Assad was fighting against them for his survival. In a counterfactual unconvoluted world, that should make Assad our friend. And there was evidence as early as 2014 that Syria was directly cooperating with the US. According to reports at the time, US intelligence was passing Syria information on the location of ISIS leaders for the targeting of air strikes with the German intelligence agency, the BND, acting as middleman.
Despite repeated discredited reports of Assad using chemical weapons, Syria has long ago complied with US demands to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile. In September 2013, as a result of a plan negotiated by Syria, Russia and Iran, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moalllem, declared Syria’s willingness to acknowledge its chemical weapons, sign the international convention against chemical weapons, place its arsenal under international control and swear off any future development of chemical weapons. Assad followed that statement by sending a letter to the UN, declaring Syria’s intention to sign the international chemical weapons treaty. Once again, Assad went beyond mere words, and, on September 14, the US and Russia finalized an agreement on the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. According to The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), by January 2016, the destruction of those chemical weapons had been completed as promised.
Syria has for a very long time been trying to do the thing they needed to do to be accepted into a friendship with the west by entering into a peaceful settlement with Israel. Remarkably, as early as 1973, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father and president of Syria before his son, told Nixon that he accepted UN Resolution 242. He told the US that "If the Israelis return to the 1967 frontier and the West Bank and Gaza becomes a Palestinian state, the last obstacles to a final settlement will have been removed." Twenty years later, Assad favorably modified his offer even more. In Mythologies Without End, Jerome Slater reports that Assad told the US that a peace agreement with Israel would no longer require the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By 1994, meetings between Assad and Clinton resulted in joint statement that Syria was willing to begin peaceful relations with Israel, including full diplomatic relations. According to Slater, though, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin suspended the promising talks. Though the talks would eventually resume, in 1995, it was Rabin, and not Assad, who once again broke them off.
Assad would try again with a new Israeli prime minister. But Shimon Peres, like Rabin before him, would break off the talks.
Next would be Ehud Barak. In December 1999, Assad gave his latest version of a peace offering: he would sign a peace treaty if Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights. In early 2000, the Clinton administration drew up the draft of the treaty. In a remarkable story told by Patrick Tyler in his book, A World of Trouble, Assad sent his foreign minister to Washington to meet with Barak and Clinton. But when Barak’s plane landed, and the door opened, Barak would not come out: he panicked and told assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, “I can’t do it.” Indyk was stunned that Barak was backing out at the last second before the meeting. Barak had changed his mind, and Assad’s attempt at peace fell incomplete on the tarmac.
In June 2000, Hafez Assad died and was replaced by Bashar Assad. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, says that, when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, he asked for a resumption of talks with Israel. He told now prime minister Ariel Sharon that he would resume talks with no preconditions. Zunes reports that Sharon ignored him, and the US and Israel turned him down.
Bashar Assad would try again with Ehud Olmert. In July 2006, Syrian and Israeli negotiators actually began to draft a peace treaty. But when Syria requested that the talks be escalated to a senior level and become official, Olmert rejected the request and terminated negotiations. When Israeli officials later felt out the US about resuming exploratory talks with Syria, according to Haaretz, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent out the US answer to the possibility of friendship with Syria: "Don’t even think about it."
Seymour Hersh reports that Assad continued talks with the US into the Obama administration. Zunes said in a personal correspondence that the blame for the failure of those talks lays, not with Assad, but with Israel: "Nothing could happen, Zunes said, “without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do”.
In March 2019, when Netanyahu declared, and Trump formally recognized, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, their return became impossible. Slater points out that even that provoked no military response from Syria.
For Israel, one of the things Syria needed to do to change their relationship was to facilitate the driving of a wedge between them and Iran. What is seldom discussed is that Syria seems to have been willing to do even that.
In the 2006 negotiations, Israel made it a condition that Syria sever ties with Iran. Slater reports that senior Syrian officials told Israeli journalists that, in the context of a peace agreement, Syria would distance itself from Iran. In July 2008, Slater reports, Israel’s lead negotiator said that Assad was "increasingly open to a peace deal with Israel which could greatly weaken Iran’s influence in the Middle East."
So, while congress continues to ask Biden to justify bombing Syria without congressional approval, the real question is why is the US bombing and sanctioning Syria at all.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.