The U.S.-Syria Relationship: A Few Questions | Middle East Policy Council
The U.S.‐Syria Relationship: A Few Questions. Joshua Landis. Director at the Center for Middle East Studies, as well as an associate professor. A potential military strike by Western powers on Syria now appears to be a. However, the attack did unfold amidst a series of army strikes on Jobar, which is On the U.S. side, at the forefront of the rhetoric has been Vice . to international relations, the primary interest is not humanitarian but geopolitical. Multiple Framework Contract "External Relations" – Committee of the Regions ( 0) How has the Syrian conflict escalated from peaceful protests to a full scale civil war? In September , armed opposition clashed against regime forces in Jihadists have been successful in recruiting a large number of fighters, from .
Given the state of world affairs, 'legality' is likely not a determining factor for a strike on Syria. Are we seeing a repeat of Iraq in ? The situation today with Syria is different than it was in in Iraq, for many reasons, despite some passing similarities. In Iraq, the U. In Iraq, there was no active state of conflict that was leading to a spiraling humanitarian catastrophe and the potential use of WMDswhile in Syria there is not just a violent conflict, but also WMDs have been used by somebody even if the culprit is not yet clear.
What should be noted, however, is that both Iraq in and Syria inare in complex environments, and any removal of government or sustained military intervention would have dramatic unforeseen consequences. It seems like the media debate in the U. What is the real motivation for the United States and other powers?
As with all things in this world when it comes to international relations, the primary interest is not humanitarian but geopolitical. This is not absolute, however, and it could be argued that Turkey has been insisting on humanitarian intervention from an early stage.
However, the regimes not peoples in the Gulf, most notably Saudi Arabia, are exclusively concerned with dislodging Syria from the Iranian orbit, and severing connections between Syria and Hezbollah. Humanitarian concerns are a by-product. And for the United States, something similar is at play. As noted above, if this was about humanitarian concerns, action would have been taken long beforedeaths had occurred.
However, these strikes if they occur, will be about sending a message and asserting America's position in the Middle East, given the red line that Obama drew. Ultimately, it may tip the scales in the rebels favor or improve the United States' negotiating position vis-a-vis Iran.
The chemical weapons attack in a morbid way, opened a door of opportunity for Western powers with GCC support to do something limited without a full-scale intervention. Will military intervention solve the Syrian conflict? Military intervention no matter how small or how big will not solve the Syrian conflict.
In fact, it could very much exacerbate the situation on the ground even further if that can be imagined. What is being reported currently is that the U. More than anything this will be intended to send a message to the regime and weaken its capabilities.
Briefing on Syria Meeting and U.S. Strategy
Yet, it would not be a fatal blow. And it would not necessarily tip the scales in favor of the rebels. It may in fact mobilize certain parties to support the regime, if there are civilian casualties from the intervention. The solution to the Syrian situation has to be political, if it is going to lead to stability or peace.
Yet, if the military intervention escalated and led to the removal of the Syrian regime, that would still not be the end of the conflict. After the Soviets were booted out of Afghanistan, the country devolved into a civil war for five years until the rise of the Taliban in Somalia has only recently stabilized somewhatmore than 20 years after the assassination of its leader, President Siad Barre. And neighboring Lebanon, took 15 years of conflict to reach an end, which was brought about by ironically Syrian military intervention which committed its own crimesthat produced a -- audible gasp -- political settlement.
What could potentially go wrong? The potential for disaster following military intervention in any country is great see Black Hawk Down, Iraq, Afghanistan and the list goes on. Yet, in Syria it could be apocalyptic. Here is a list of what that could entail: Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, and Iraq leading to civil strife and attacks on governments, and counter-attacks on populations; and - World War 3.
What could potentially go right? It may seem that what is written above is slightly alarmist and that's true. Many things can go wrong most of which, to be honest, are hard to predict as they will be unforeseen consequences or as Donald Rumsfeld, ironically calls them, unknown unknowns. Firstly, if they are limited in scope, they can be completed in one day, reducing the risk for a military entanglement and civilian casualties.
The U.S.-Syria Relationship: A Few Questions
Secondly, if they are from the air, there is limited risk for casualties on the side of the intervening forces. Thirdly, an attack that is forceful and hits Syrian military positions, will send a message to Assad that there is a limit to what he can do, which thus far has not been the case, and may entice him to reach a political settlement.
Fourthly, it is unlikely that the Syrian regime would retaliate, for a short strike on positions, against Israel, knowing that they cannot afford to fight a war on so many fronts and thus far they have yet to retaliate to any Israel air strike.
Finally, the systematic destruction of Assad's air capabilities could be instrumental in limiting civilian casualties by the regime in the future. All of this is one possibility of what could occur. Let's cut to the chase -- should I support or not support military intervention? There is no clearcut answer. Ultimately, military intervention should not be supported as a solution to the Syrian conflict.
The Vietnamese negotiated with the U. The Lebanese negotiated with each other. The United States has paid a high price for the failure to mend relations with Syria and continues to pay a price for not having an ambassador there. One, it has paid a particularly high price in Iraq for its refusal to cooperate on military matters and border security. Two, Washington pays a price for having no intelligence sharing with the Syrians on al-Qaeda and broader security matters.
Three, Syria is emerging as a central hub of regional diplomacy; America should have someone there to play the game and represent U. Beginning inU. The Iraqi resistance was growing more violent and capable by the day. The United States needed close intelligence sharing, joint border controls, and Syrian cooperation in order to stanch the flow of foreign fighters infiltrating across the border.
Cooperation would have saved many Iraqi and American lives. He offered military cooperation but insisted that the United States first stop demonizing Syria and seeking to isolate it.
Syria would work with the United States to interdict foreign fighters crossing the border but only if relations between the two countries were correct and polite.
U.S. Department of State
President Bush's diplomats turned up their noses at engaging with Damascus. They were impervious to pressure from the U. President Asad was told that he "knew what he had to do" and that "Washington would not bargain with terrorists. The Syrians would take care of security on their own. Asad replied, "Syria is not a charitable institution. General Petraeus asked his political leaders for permission to go to Damascus himself on several occasions, but his remonstrations fell on deaf ears.
It should be noted that al-Qaeda has made almost no successful attacks in Syria. American soldiers and Iraqis paid a very high price for Washington's ideological intransigence on the Syrian issue.
We will never know how much sooner the war in Iraq might have been brought under control had Syria been engaged. Of course, President Bush's refusal to work with Asad must be seen in the context of his grander plans for change in the Greater Middle East. He was intent on pulling Lebanon out of Syria's sphere of influence, where it had remained since the s, when Hezbollah emerged as a lethal fighting force and helped Syria drive both U.
This was a major victory for Syria. An important wing of the Republican Party had been looking forward to the day that it could avenge its losses in the s, drive Syria from Lebanon, and destroy Hezbollah. Some even dreamed of replacing the government in Damascus. For them, cooperation with Syria would have meant deferring, or even forgoing, their ambitions to control Lebanon and cut Syria down to size.
President Obama has found improving relations with Damascus more difficult than he expected. Although he nominated Robert Ford, a well-respected career diplomat, to be ambassador to Syria in FebruarySenate Republicans have blocked his confirmation.
They disagree with the policy of reengaging the Syrian government. America has been without an ambassador in Damascus since Februarywhen it blamed Syria for the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. It remains to be seen whether the threatened indictment of Hezbollah members — but no Syrians — by the special tribunal created to try the Hariri case will diminish opposition to engagement with Syria.
Obama's failure to push through the confirmation of his ambassador has brought efforts to resume military and intelligence cooperation to a standstill. During the first months of his administration, several meetings took place in Damascus between high-ranking U. These joint military conferences were an effort to draw the contours for possible future military cooperation and fixing the border.
Such cooperation would lay the groundwork for the resumption of intelligence sharing that had been cut off in April Having an ambassador in Damascus and maintaining civil relations with Syria serve the interests of the United States more than those of Syria.
President Bashar al-Asad has publicly stated that he is prepared to sign a peace agreement with Israel, and the two countries have come close on at least two occasions in the last 10 years. What is preventing a deal from going forward, and how might the obstacles be overcome? First, let me respond to why a deal has not been signed, even though all sides say that they came very close in This may be an over-simplification, but I believe it boils down to a question of balance of power.
Syria is too weak. Israel does not believe it will achieve sufficient security gains by giving back the Golan, and there would be significant internal opposition. Israelis have occupied the Golan for almost 45 years now. More than a generation of Israelis have been born and brought up there, making it hard to think of leaving. Just recently, a new advertising campaign to attract additional settlers to the region was begun by the Israeli government.
Substantial financial incentives are being offered to those who move there. Syria is not a major threat to Israel, even with a beefed-up Hezbollah and a new friend in Turkey. It is a nuisance, but not more. Only very heavy pressure will convince Israelis to make the difficult decision to repatriate its 20, settlers and allow theoriginal inhabitants of the Golan who were expelled in to return to their land and homes. Of course, the number of Golani refugees who militate for the return of their land has grown due to natural increase to more thanThis pressure could come from a change in the regional balance of power.
It could come from U. But neither is on the immediate horizon, which makes the prospect of Syrian-Israeli peace seem a distant hope. Who was at fault for the failure of the Syria-Israel talks in ? At first, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak blamed Syria for walking out of the negotiations, but more recently, a very different picture of what actually took place has emerged in the memoirs and other published accounts of the peace process.
They suggest that Israel scuttled a deal that was very close to being finalized. Prime Minister Barak wouldn't take the last step for reasons that he has yet to explain. Perhaps he didn't believe it was politically feasible; perhaps he thought it a bad deal.
He also had the reassurance that Washington would provide him political cover for walking away from it, which was indeed the case. Dennis Ross, the chief U.
Since then, however, a different story has emerged. Clinton recanted in his memoirs, writing that Barak got "cold feet. Uri Segev, a leading Israeli negotiator, said only a few months ago, We were very close to achieving a peace agreement with Syria in It would have happened, had we done what we promised to ourselves, the Americans and the Syrians….
The Syrians and Bill Clinton came out of there with the feeling that the Israelis did not meet their commitments. Frederic Hof, an expert on the Golan border area and George Mitchell's right-hand man in today's peace efforts, has demonstrated that, inSyria controlled land up to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee in the northeast corner. The failure to clinch a peace agreement has been extremely costly.
The Syrians were convinced that they had been badly used. Asad did not believe that he was merely being low-balled by the Americans and Israelis as a negotiating tactic; he was convinced the Israelis had been stringing Syria along in bad faith for the better part of a decade. Because they knew that by dangling the Golan before Syria, they could buy Syria's good behavior and win a compliant neighbor. It will be very difficult to rebuild trust. A second damaging effect of the failure in is that the two-state solution in Palestine may no longer be feasible.
The United States will remain committed to supporting Israel, but the costs of the special relationship will grow more painful for Washington. Third, Israel set a new and harmful precedent for dealing with its Arab neighbors: Rather than negotiating a comprehensive peace with Syria and Hezbollah, Barak decided to withdraw from southern Lebanon unilaterally.
This seemed a less expensive solution. It jettisoned a failing and costly occupation, while permitting Israel to remain in the Golan Heights, its major prize, where there had not been any violence for almost 30 years. By withdrawing from Lebanon, Barak also hoped to divide the Lebanese from Syria.
When Sharon came to power, he was pressured by the Americans to resume the Syria track and solve the Golan issue. Instead he opted for a cheaper solution that would placate the Americans and allow Israel to keep the Golan. Both withdrawals left major problems in their wake; the Arabs were not satisfied, as their core issues had not been addressed. Today the withdrawals are considered failures. They are used to argue against further concessions or return of land.
The unsettled issues in Southern Lebanon and Gaza have each rekindled wars. President Asad has suggested that he could bring Hezbollah to the negotiating table if Israel got serious about signing a peace deal with Syria.
Some analysts argue, however, that much has changed since and that Syria no longer has the same influence over Hezbollah. Syria has great influence with Hezbollah. It is fashionable to argue that Syria has lost its clout in the region since it withdrew its army from Lebanon in Many of the same people who suggest that we don't need to engage Syria also argue that the status quo works and that the United States can ignore Israel's continued occupation of the Golan.
But this is folly. The border disputes between Israel and its neighbors have been the source of most of the region's wars; they will be the source of more if left unresolved. Moreover, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a leading engine of resentment against America. Although Syria is weak in comparison to Israel, it is strong in comparison to Lebanon. To assume that Hezbollah can or will thumb its nose at Syria now that Syrian troops are no longer present in Lebanon is to misinterpret the nature of the alliance among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
The relationship is not based on coercion, but on common goals. Syria and Hezbollah have preserved their alliance, despite major challenges, over the last three decades because it is vital to their interests. Both Iran and Hezbollah have stated that they understand that Syria's primary national interest is to get the Golan back.
They do not oppose this. That is why inwhen an ailing Hafiz al-Asad flew to Geneva to sign a peace agreement, neither Iran nor Hezbollah sought to torpedo it. Syria has said that the strategic environment in the region will change with peace. It will ask Hezbollah to move in tandem with Syria and to reposition itself in Lebanon and the region should Israel agree to a comprehensive peace.
Syria will not move against Hezbollah or abandon it. Syria needs good relations with Lebanon's Shiite community, which provides it with influence inside Lebanon. It will need these good relations to continue, but it will not need Hezbollah to act as an anti-Israel militia. The two will need each other even when peace is signed with Israel.
They will not break over that issue. Hezbollah is dependent on Syria for many things, not least of which is arms. Its missiles and military resupplies come across the border from Syria. There is no other dependable route for them to reach southern Lebanon. Israel and the United States patrol the air and sea around Lebanon. They have good intelligence and the means to interdict large military imports from every direction but Syria. So long as the Golan issue is not resolved, Syria will seek to strengthen Hezbollah as an independent fighting force that can pressure Israel.
This means keeping the Lebanese government weak. Lebanon will remain hostage to the festering Arab-Israeli conflict. Syria remains very powerful in Lebanon. Do you think war is on the horizon? If so, will Syria get involved militarily? I do think that war is on the horizon — perhaps not the immediate horizon, but it will come sooner or later so long as the casus belli of Israeli occupation of Syrian land is not resolved.
Syria has not surrendered on the Golan issue. Bashar al-Asad has made it very clear that if the issue cannot be solved diplomatically, there will be more resistance. He is raising the stakes. During the war, the firepower of Israel and Hezbollah was extremely lopsided. Hezbollah was able to launch only 28 tons of ordinance at Israel, despite using 4, rockets.
What is more, these missiles had little guidance; most landed far from their targets. Israel bombed Lebanon with 7, tons of explosives, much of it guided by sophisticated systems. This is a to 1 ratio. Hezbollah took a pounding, which is why Hasan Nasrallah was quick to apologize to Lebanon and explain that he had neither wanted nor intended war. All the same, both Iran and Syria were gratified by Hezbollah's professionalism and fighting prowess.
Its low-tech missiles and anti-tank weapons worked better than anyone expected. Hezbollah and the Syrians argue that the war shifted the balance of power in their favor just as it significantly undermined Israel's deterrence. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have a strategy for the future: Asad has made it clear that, if Israel doesn't choose peace by returning the Golan, Syria will remain committed to changing the balance of power.
He will keep stocking up on and improving Syria's and Hezbollah's missiles and air-defense systems. He is determined to reverse the perception that Syria is weak. A number of Syrian officials have explained to me that they do not believe Israel will engage in serious negotiations before there has been another war.
Do you believe that Syria will participate directly in the next war? Syria will try to stay out of any war, as it has in the past, knowing that it will pay a very high price for direct combat with Israel.
In the war, most of Syria's industrial sites were bombed. But President Asad understands that he must be willing to go all the way in order reassure his allies and push the Israelis to reconsider their assessment that Syria is weak. If Hezbollah's powers and war plan are to be enhanced, it must have the strategic depth that only Syria can provide.
This means greater Syrian involvement and, of course, risk. In JanuarySyria stated that it would come to Hezbollah's defense if Israel attacked its ally and that Israel would know war within its cities. Israel, for its part, warned President Asad that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah "by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself. At the same time, the border between Lebanon and Israel has been quiet for four years, longer than at any time in recent history.
In no small part, this is because of the heightened mutual threat. Because Hezbollah hurt Israel init has gained an important deterrent effect. Likewise, Hezbollah is not eager to undergo another bombing. How long Israel can be convinced not to go after Hezbollah, one can only guess. In the past, Israel has been quick to carry out preemptive strikes against enemies it believes are trying to shift the balance of power.
Hezbollah has been acquiring new and better missiles. Looking back over the past 10 years, what would you say were Bashar's three greatest achievements? First, I think everyone would agree that Asad's greatest achievement is that he is alive and in charge of Syria. He survived President Bush.