It appears that Robert Malley may be making a comeback. You’ll recall that when reports surfaced last spring that Mr. Malley had met with Hamas leaders, he was distanced from the Obama campaign. However, aides to Mr. Malley claim he was recently dispatched on behalf of president-elect Obama, who “plans to launch a U.S. diplomatic initiative toward Syria.”
Mr. Malley was deemed dangerous to the campaign due to his apparent anti-Israel bias, but at least on this count his position was identical to that of the outgoing Israeli government. Before Ehud Olmert announced his resignation, the Prime Minister started low-level peace talks with the Syrians in an effort supported by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and much of Israel’s strategic class, especially in the military establishment. The Bush administration warned against this exercise as it was apt to kick off a process that would break Syria’s isolation - a policy that the Bush team had crafted in multilateral consensus with partners like France and Saudi Arabia. The problem with Mr. Malley’s preferred policy in engaging Syria, therefore, is not that it will hurt our Israeli ally, but that it is damaging to US regional interests.
The purported goal in engaging the Syrians is to split them from Iran, an exercise American officials, Democratic and Republican, have been at it since the early 1980s. At this point, it should be obvious that were this issue susceptible to remedy, US policymakers would not still be at it a quarter of a century later. If the Obama White House believes that it can offer Damascus a package of special carrots not previously made available, the fact is that Syria doesn’t need Western “investment” when the Iranians and Qataris already have billions of dollars tied up with the regime. However, as experience counts for little regarding Middle East affairs, let us seek elsewhere to explain why engaging Syria is not strategically prudent.
As the pro-engagement crowd argues, the goal of trying to wedge Syria away from Iran is to return it to the so-called “Sunni fold,” which includes, most importantly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The problem, however, is that over the last several years Damascus has alienated the Sunni powers, especially Saudi, whose King Abdullah has suffered multiple insults at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When enmity becomes personal, as it often does in the Middle East, there is no telling how or when it is likely to be resolved. In other words, there is no Sunni fold for the Syrians to return to: the Sunnis are hardly eager to embrace an Arab regime that over the last four years has served as the Persians’ pitbull.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understood this; while the authors of the Iraq Study Group report, for instance, did not. Here is a brief excerpt from Bob Woodward’s The War Within wherein the wise elders chairing the bipartisan committee counseled engagement with Syria.
“The Saudis don’t talk to [the Syrians],” Rice replied. “So why would we go around our allies, the Saudis, who after all are much more important to the peace process?”
That response agitated James Baker. “These Arab governments fight each other all the time,” he said. “The real question is who is going to lead?”
To be sure, Arab governments do fight each other all the time. However, while none of them can be said to be entirely trustworthy US allies, some of them represent vital American interests and others do not. The Saudis fall into the first category; the Syrians fit the second. If a former US Secretary of State does not make this distinction, it is not only more than a little disquieting, it is symptomatic of Damascus Disease - the irrational desire of American policymakers to seek help from a regime that has consistently fought US interests since 1970, first on behalf of the Soviet Union and then, in the early 80s, in partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mr. Baker says that one of his great achievements with the Syrians was getting them to partake in Operation Desert Storm, in gratitude for which the Bush 41 administration turned a blind eye to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Unhappily, the Americans courted Syria’s collaboration only because the Egyptians were afraid of taking part without Hafez al-Asad lest he punish them in the arena of Arab opinion, as he did during the Camp David process. The former Secretary may think this is “leadership,” but in the Middle East it looks plainly like Washington playing the bagman in an extortion racket against an Arab ally.
Of course, Mr. Baker is hardly the only victim of Damascus Disease, as many other Secretaries of State have also fallen prey to the sickness. Warren Christopher made more than 30 trips to the Syrian capital to nurture a peace process between a state sponsor of terror and its chief victim. Madeline Albright went a dozen times. Even George W. Bush’s top diplomat, as late as 2003 went to speak with the Syrians. Colin Powell still insists that his negotiations with Bashar al-Assad were productive, even though it is common knowledge that Assad closed down neither the pipeline with Iraq nor the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as he promised the tractable Mr. Powell he would.
With so little to show for any efforts in engaging the Syrians, it cannot but seem strange that US policymakers continue to emphasize the exercise’s salubrious effects. In a panel this past spring at AEI, Mr. Malley explained that encouraging the Syria-Israel track was a staple of US foreign policy, which, while true, strongly suggests it is a venture doomed to failure. After all, if Mr. Bush’s four-year isolation of Syria is to be included in the roster of the outgoing President’s “failed” policies, what is there to say about a strategy of engagement that has foundered for almost four decades?
The question then is, are US policymakers fools or - insofar as they are foaming at the mouth to make concessions to a regime that targets American soldiers in Iraq, US allies and interests - merely cynical? If the latter, we at least know what Obama’s Levant policy will look like: - In the 90s, when the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations thought it was buying off the conmen in Damascus, instead it wound up with a strengthened Hezbollah, the consolidation of the Syria-Iran alliance, and the second intifada. It is in the interests of US national security to keep the regime in Damascus and its most vocal facilitator Mr. Malley, out in the cold.