US President Barack Obama’s recent decision to appoint a new ambassador to
Damascus is further proof positive of the effectiveness of the strategy pursued
by Syria over the last half decade. It also showcases the sense that the current
US administration appears to be navigating without a compass in its Middle East
The appointment of experienced and highly regarded regional
hand Robert Ford to the embassy in Damascus is not quite the final burial of the
policy to “isolate” Syria. The 2003 Syria Accountability Act and its sanctions
remain in effect. But with Syria now in possession of a newly minted American
ambassador, in supposedly pivotal negotiations with Saudi Arabia over the
Special Tribunal in Lebanon, with its alliance with Iran intact, having repaired
relations with Iraq, and in continued, apparently cost-free defiance of the
International Atomic Energy Agency over inspections of its nuclear sites, the
office of President Bashar Assad could be forgiven for feeling slightly
Syrian policy appears to have worked. And since there are few more
worthy pursuits than learning from success, it is worth observing closely its
actions on the way to bringing about its resurgence.
standing was at its nadir in 2005: Assad was forced to abandon his country’s
valued and profitable occupation of Lebanon; the US was in control in Iraq;
Israel appeared to have turned back the assault of Damascus-based Islamist
terror groups. The future seemed bleak for the Assad family regime.
did we get from there to here? The formula has been a simple and familiar one,
involving the potential and actual use of political violence and the subsequent
offer of restraint.
Thus, Syria set out to successfully prevent the
achievement of stability in Lebanon. A string of murders of anti-Syrian
political figures, journalists and officials began almost before the dust had
cleared from the departure of the last APC across the border in 2005.
semicoup undertaken by Syrian-allied Hizbullah and its allies in May 2008 set
the price of further isolation of Damascus at a rate higher than either the US
or “pro- Western” Arab states were willing to pay. The process of Saudi-Syrian
rapprochement began shortly afterward.
It has now reached the somewhat
surreal stage where Damascus, which was almost certainly involved in the killing
of Rafik Hariri, is being treated as a key player in helping to prevent the
possibility of violence by Syrian and Iranian sponsored organizations in the
event of their members being indicted for the murder.
With regard to
Israel, the defense establishment and part of the political establishment
maintain an attitude of patience and forgiveness toward the Syrian regime. This,
to be sure, has its limits. Damascus’s attempt to develop a nuclear capacity was
swiftly and effectively dealt with in 2007. On two known occasions in recent
years, Israel has brushed aside Syria’s domestic defenses to engage in targeted
killings against senior military or paramilitary figures on Syrian
Yet the belief that Syria seeks a way out of the supposedly
stifling bear hug of the Iranians remains prevalent in defense circles and in
large parts of the political establishment.
This perennial article of
faith means that in the event of Syria’s feeling lonely, it need only raise an
eyebrow in Israel’s direction for the eager suitor to come running.
took place, for example, in October 2007, at a time when Syria had good reason
for feeling isolated.
The commencement of Turkish-mediated negotiations
with Israel helped in cracking the wall of Syrian isolation.
powers began to get on board the dialogue train, of course, the negotiations
could be allowed to quietly fade away. The latest indications are that the
defense establishment persists in its faith. The result is that Syria, as long
as it stays within certain limits of behavior, is able to domicile and support
organizations engaged in armed action against Israel, at no cost.
IRAQ, a number of regional analysts have suggested that part of the reason for
the Obama administration’s persistent and largely one-sided policy of engagement
with Damascus derives from the porous border between Syria and Iraq. The
maintaining of this open border by the regime as an artery providing fresh
fighters for the Sunni insurgency constituted a useful tool of pressure. The US
now wants quiet as it prepares to withdraw from Iraq. Once again, the simple but
effective methods of the protection racket appear to pay off.
broadly, Syria originally favored Iyad Allawi’s candidacy for prime minister,
but fell into line with big brother Iran’s backing of Nouri al- Maliki.
Relations with Maliki have now been repaired, despite Syria’s suspected
involvement in a series of bombings in Baghdad early last year.
with regard to its nuclear program, Syria has banned all IAEA access to the site
of the destroyed al-Kibar reactor, since 2008. This decision followed an initial
IAEA report concluding that the facility had similarities to a nuclear reactor,
and noting the discovery of uranium particles at the site.
last year, an IAEA report noted that “with the passage of time, some of the
information concerning the site is further deteriorating or has been lost
entirely. It is critical, therefore, that Syria actively cooperate with the
agency.” Critical to the agency, maybe.
Less critical, apparently, to the
WHAT LESSONS may be learned from this relatively comprehensive
list of interactions? What might an aspiring Middle Eastern regime or movement
glean from the Syrian experience of the last half-decade – all the way from the
hurried departure from Lebanon to the return of the US ambassador.
are two obvious lessons.
The first is that if you are in a confrontation
with the West, hang tough, because the West and its allies will eventually tire,
particularly if you are willing to raise the stakes to a level on which the
other side will not be willing to play. The currency Syria has traded in, with
subtlety and determination, is political violence.
Terror and the
sponsorship of murder – in Iraq, in Lebanon and against Israel – appear to have
come at no real cost and eventually to have paid dividends.
lesson is to maintain your close alliance with the big regional spoiler, but at
the same time express your willingness to dialogue with and maintain relations
with everyone else. This, it appears, will have the result that you will come to
be seen as an indispensable country. This status, however, will only last for as
long as you maintain your alliance with the spoiler – in this case, Iran. So on
no circumstances must this firm connection be put in jeopardy.
words, the Syrian success story teaches all aspiring family police states and
anti-Western regional movements that the sponsoring of violence against the West
and maintaining alliances with its enemies are the key to emerging from
isolation, punching above your weight and even, in the fullness of time,
establishing friendly and respectful relations with the West. QED. Lesson
As to why exactly the US, Israel and their regional allies
should find it beneficial to promote and reward this model as the exemplar of
political behavior in the region, the answer lies beyond the limited analytical
tools of this column. The writer wishes great success to anyone seeking to
figure it out. It continues to elude him.The writer is a senior research
fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, Herzliya.