CAN Syria be the cornerstone of a new Middle East? Washington is abuzz with talk of a “strategic realignment” that would split Syria from Iran and upend the status quo in the Middle East. This must be a pleasing prospect to the incoming Obama administration: visionary, and in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s reflexive hostility to Syria. But is it a real possibility, or foreign policy alchemy?
On its face, the notion seems crazy. Syria has been nothing but trouble for years — funneling killers into Iraq to oppose coalition forces, assassinating its opponents in Lebanon, arming Hezbollah to attack Israel, and starting a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea. Nor does Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, seem cut out for the role of a 21st-century Anwar Sadat. Insecure in his own palace, erratic in his statements and crude in his stewardship, Mr. Assad seems more likely to be the victim of a coup than a champion of peace.
Nonetheless, the foreign-policy establishment in Washington has come up with a framework to bring him back into the diplomatic fold. It would involve returning the American ambassador (who was recalled from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri); ratcheting up American involvement in the Syria-Israel peace talks being mediated by Turkey; requesting that Syrian security forces take part in patrols with Iraqi forces along their border; abandoning efforts to pursue a United Nations tribunal on the Hariri murder; and directly engaging Iran on a new diplomatic track.
These are bold ideas, and the payoff is proportionately exciting: an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and peace between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Such a situation would isolate Iran in the region, deprive Hezbollah of its mandate (what would it do if Syria and Lebanon were at peace with the Zionist enemy?) and rob Palestinian rejectionists of their most reliable sponsor, giving them more incentive to negotiate with Israel.
Unfortunately, like most epic foreign policy visions, the reality is more complicated. To begin with, there is the false premise that the Bush administration has indulged in a petty and harsh policy toward Damascus that edged President Assad into a defensive crouch. Rather, the reverse is true. From the day Colin Powell started at the State Department in 2001, American officials have tried to coax, cajole and, as a last resort, threaten Syria into better behavior; all entreaties have met with rejection.
Equally untrue is the idea that a grand bargain with Damascus is a revolutionary new idea. In fact, President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, traveled more than 20 times to Damascus. More recently, the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, recommended that the United States “engage directly” with Syria.
Yet Iran and Syria’s ties have only deepened. Indeed, Iran most likely had a role in financing Syria’s construction of the illicit North Korean nuclear reactor, remains one of the largest foreign investors in the country and conducts joint training with the Syrian military on advanced Russian-supplied weaponry.
It is not inconceivable that the regime in Damascus might throw its supporters in Tehran under the bus in exchange for prestige, cash and a free hand in Lebanon. But it is unrealistic to expect President Assad to dispose of Hezbollah and Hamas in the same way. Mr. Assad — broadly disliked at home, a member of a mistrusted Alawite minority, comically inept at managing his country’s resources — can maintain his grip on power only as long as he is seen as a vital instrument of Israel’s defeat.
Herein lies the fatal flaw of this transformational vision. It assumes that Syria’s leaders want Syria to become a normal state, when in fact, it is essential to the regime’s survival that it remain a pariah. Mr. Assad and his mafia have made an art of extorting subsistence assistance from the outside world, most recently by holding out prospects for better relations with the West and Israel. But a new Middle East would mean the end of Mr. Assad, which is why he will always turn back to Iran, and why the road to peace in the Middle East will never run through Damascus.
Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.