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In late December, with Congress away on recess, Robert Ford was appointed the new U.S. ambassador to Syria, filling a six-year vacancy. Shortly thereafter, condemnations poured in from those critical of U.S. efforts to engage Syria. President Barack Obama was criticized for “sending the wrong message” amounting to “a major concession to the Syrian regime.”[1] Pundits and commentators expressed concern that such “appeasement” would compromise the influence and authority of the United States in the Middle East.

Five days later, the unity government of Lebanon collapsed after the resignation of 11 members of the pro-Syrian opposition bloc. Though the ensuing competition for power is widely expected to further empower Hizballah and undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon—two serious setbacks for U.S. regional policy—Washington finds itself lacking the necessary connections to alter the situation.[2]

Lebanon’s unraveling and the undiminished influence of the Syrian state clearly demonstrate that U.S. attempts to isolate Damascus have failed. Syria continues to occupy an important strategic position in the Levant, and it sits at the crossroads of a number of U.S. interests. Direct and honest engagement, which Ambassador Ford will hopefully foster, is the only way to satisfy U.S. foreign policy goals, rein in violent extremism, and encourage political reforms in that country.

A History of Hostility

During the past decade, U.S. relations with Syria have been primarily characterized by mutual distrust and antagonism. Washington’s hostility toward Damascus has been fueled in part by concerns that the Syrian government has supported violent political factions in both Lebanon and Palestine, interfered in the democratic functions of Lebanon, and actively undermined the stability of the new Iraqi state. In response, a number of prominent analysts and regional experts have called for direct engagement as the only effective means to reform the Syrian state. However, the continued isolation of Syria plays to interests of powerful groups with significant political leverage, including neoconservative and other rightwing “pro-Israel” organizations, their allied politicians, and Saudi backers.

Wonks at institutes like the  Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs (WINEP), and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have been amongst the most fervent hawks on Syria. Other parts of the “Israel lobby,” like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have also used their connections in Congress to prevent engagement with Damascus.

Rightist factions in the United States have been targeting Syria since well before the 9/11 attacks and the election of President George W. Bush. Back in February 2000, for example, David Wurmser published an article for the American Enterprise Institute entitled, “Let’s Defeat Syria, Not Appease It,” which called on the Israeli and U.S. governments to assist Lebanon to “take matters into their own hands, and Syria will slowly bleed to death there.”[3]

That same year, Wurmser and other likeminded ideologues assisted in the production of a strategy document co-published by Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum and Ziad Abdelnour's U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon that helped clarify the central role that hardline views of Israeli security have played in rightist anti-Syria advocacy. The study, entitled "Ending Syria's Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role?" called for the United States to force Syria from Lebanon and to disarm it of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. It also argued that "Syrian rule in Lebanon stands in direct opposition to American ideals" and criticized the United States for engaging rather than confronting the regime. Among the document's signatories were several leading neoconservative figures—many of whom would be given posts in the Bush administration—including Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, Michael Rubin, and Paula Dobriansky, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Ledeen, and Frank Gaffney.

No More Waiting

For many years, a shared conviction of the anti-Syria hawks had been that Syria would eventually recognize that to succeed and advance, it needs the blessing of the West. They in effect decided that there was no point in engaging the Assad regime. Instead, they opted for active enmity while awaiting the fall of the Baath.

However, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in the wake of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, conservatives saw a prime opportunity for “regime change” in another “rogue state,” and launched an intensive international political campaign with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria.

Shortly thereafter, WINEP featured an article by Dennis Ross—now a Mideast adviser in the Obama administration—which was entitled “U.S. Policy toward a Weak Assad.” The article argued that Washington should “avoid engaging with the Syrian leadership” in expectation of its imminent collapse.[4] Ross lamented President Bashar Al-Assad’s failure to recognize “the immediate value of cooperating with the United States,” and recommended that the United States passively enable regional forces to take down the Syrian leadership.[5]

In line with this advice, the Bush administration recalled its ambassador to Syria. It also began using Lebanon as a staging ground to empower Bashar Al-Assad’s purported enemies, particularly the Lebanese Maronite establishment, which they hoped to leverage as a counterweight to the overwhelming Shi’a support for Syria’s Lebanese ally Hizballah.[6]

The Bush administration’s heavy-handed approach failed to take into account the complexity, nuance, and local dynamics of the region. Instead of compelling Syria to change its policies, it produced a backlash that severely undermined U.S. regional goals. As local parties realized that strong relations with the Syrian state provided far greater security and benefits than adherence to American expectations, the pro-western coalition formed during the Cedar Revolution quickly disintegrated. Within a short span, the largest Maronite party—the Free Patriotic Movement—switched sides to join the pro-Syria opposition, followed by a number of smaller groups, ultimately ending with the defection last year of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, the darling of Western diplomats.[7]

Meanwhile, the Syrian government entrenched itself and flourished, adapting to the sanctions imposed by the Syria Accountability Act of 2004 by developing new domestic industries (producing an annual growth rate of five percent since the implementation of sanctions), powerful support and influence in Lebanon, and key strategic capital with both Iraq and Iran.[8]

Facing Multipolarity

The anti-Syria groups and the western diplomats who followed their lead failed to recognize a growing new reality in regional and global power dynamics—namely, the ascension of alternative poles of power and influence. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, the U.S. “unipolar moment” had passed. Though the Syrian state undoubtedly suffered as a result of its cool relations with the West, it left the regime with no alternative but to ally with other outsiders, forming a formidable opposition bloc consisting of Iran, Syria, and powerful actors in both Palestine and Lebanon. 

As Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson have noted in their recent book The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, it can be “perfectly rational for challengers to seek to route around American power (rather than confront it directly). The ultimate goal is not to win a conflict per se; it is to create a world in which American power is increasingly less relevant to what happens.”[9] Syria and its current allies have found an alternative power hub to rally around, and the consolidation of their power has strengthened, not weakened, Syria’s bargaining hand. The failure of U.S. policy in Lebanon, despite the uniquely favorable circumstances created by the “Cedar Revolution,” is clear evidence that Syria’s regional power matters more than the distant might of the United States.

Meanwhile, Syria has found itself in a pivotal position in almost all Middle East political crises. “Start with Syria” was the advice of negotiator Aaron David Miller to the incoming Obama administration, and with good reason.[10] Control over Syria’s border with Iraq is pivotal for peace and stability in that fragile country; Syria’s strong relationship with Iran provides the most accessible avenue to influence the Iranian government; and the authoritative position commanded by Damascus in Lebanon and Palestine are an essential factor for eventual peace with Israel. According to a number of Syrian sources, all of these components are open for negotiation, along with a number of the domestic reforms requested by Washington and a number of international bodies.[11]

Obama and Engagement

With the coming of the Obama administration, advocates for engagement anticipated that a new era of negotiation and careful deliberation would replace the stubborn entrenchment that had typified relations during the Bush Administration. Obama summarized his position succinctly: “There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us and we think that there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues. … [B]ut, as you know, I’m a believer in engagement and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front.”[12]

Immediately after taking office, the Obama team began serious discussions with Syrian leadership on the long list of U.S. demands, including tightening the border with Iraq, ending material support for Hizballah and Hamas, and re-entering peace negotiations with Israel. While the opening of communication channels has undoubtedly been a positive step forward, it still lacks a fundamental component of comprehensive engagement: mutuality. U.S. demands are still held as preconditions for eventual compromise, rather than as part of a meaningful dialogue. Though the Obama administration did open communication channels with Damascus, it has yet to abandon the unilateral bias of the previous administration.

This approach fails on two fundamental levels. First, it operates on the assumption that U.S. support and acceptance are sufficient benefits to incentivize change, a notion that has been clearly falsified by the emergence of opportunities afforded by alternative power centers. Second, and more importantly, it relies on different rules for each party, an approach which fundamentally undermines the Washington’s own projection of strength and resolve. As Weber and Jentleson note, “it is no longer possible for a presumptive world leader to propose the legitimacy of one principle … for his or her own country, [and] another for everyone else’s.”[13] They rightly identify that success must be based on “binding Americans to the same principles and rules that they ask others to observe, and redressing unbalanced bargains.”[14]

Remarkably, rightwing organizations have leveraged the failures stemming from insufficient engagement into an argument for scrapping engagement altogether. In June 2010, the American Enterprise Institute held a conference on the subject, condescendingly titled “Bashar’s Syria at Ten: Does the Eye Doctor See Straight?”[15] Its panelists, moderators, and keynote speakers all extolled the many benefits of “enforced isolation” in accelerating the downfall of the Assad regime. A similar conference at the Hudson Institute the previous year covered the same topics, and produced the same conclusions.[16] More recently, the appointment of Ambassador Ford had the blogosphere in a frenzy over the “legitimacy” such a move affords to a state ostensibly on the verge of collapse—a common refrain since the younger Assad assumed power over a decade ago.[17]

Instead of dictating terms, the Obama administration must learn from the mistakes of the past and capitalize on its tentative steps forward by embracing a policy of comprehensive engagement. As many prominent individuals within the Syrian government have repeatedly suggested, the Syrians would likely prefer strong relations with the West over its current ties to the “rejectionist front.” Their present alliances are borne of necessity, not underlying ideology. But it is only through a serious consideration of the Syrian state’s immediate requests—the easing of sanctions and banking restrictions, facilitating the return of the Golan Heights, and greater cultural and business interaction—as well as those of Western policymakers, that the United States has any hope of bringing the “rogue state” back into the fold.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web and Foreign Policy in Focus.