Syria's place in the U.S. agenda

Diplomacy: The world watches nervously, hoping the nations can once again work out differences without bloodshed.

April 20, 2003|By Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The recent tension in U.S. relations with Syria quickly raised the specter of another war to follow the Iraq war. Although the possibility of such a war is very small, the fears are real in many quarters in the Middle East and around the world.

For even aside from the genuine U.S. concerns about aspects of Syrian foreign policy, at issue are pervasive fears about American intentions and about the shape of American foreign policy after the military victory in Iraq.

Just as the surprisingly easy toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had empowered those who want to use America's military might to pursue American objectives, the quick demise of Saddam Hussein's regime has reinforced the same tendency.

The immediate grievances leading to the tension with Syria are important enough to deserve pursuit but certainly not enough to raise the specter of war. Syria, as did many other states, opposed the war on Iraq but it also surprised many by supporting U.N. Resolution 1441 demanding immediate Iraqi compliance with previous United Nations resolutions.

Syria has been accused of helping Iraq, including perhaps supplying night-vision equipment, and also of harboring former Iraqi leaders and scientists. These are important issues that the United States will no doubt continue to pursue as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell makes his way to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The tone of the relationship in the coming weeks will be important not only in setting American priorities in the Middle East but also in addressing concerns that the United States is implementing a unilateralist policy to remake the Middle East beyond Iraq.

Many in the Arab world also fear that rising tension with Syria will make it more difficult to focus on Arab-Israeli negotiations which most, including the United States and Britain, want to revive.

In the past three decades, the Syrian-U.S. relationship has been as complex as Syria's relations with Iraq. Although Syria is ruled by the secularist Arab nationalist Baath Party, it has been at odds with the Iraqi Baathists for decades. In fact, the Syrians' mistrust of Saddam Hussein was so strong that theirs became the only Arab country to side with the non-Arab Islamic government of Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Syria pulled another surprise by joining the U.S.-led coalition to liberate Kuwait. That created a new American-Syrian relationship that helped Syria survive the loss of its Soviet patron after the Cold War ended. It also opened opportunities for Arab-Israeli negotiations; Syria and Israel were brought together to negotiate in the Madrid process immediately after the 1991 gulf war.

Although the 1990s were characterized by episodes of competition between the Syrian-Israeli negotiations on one hand and the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the other, the general sense was that a negotiated settlement was obtainable. That helped reduce the tension between the United States and Syria despite Syria's military presence in Lebanon and its support for the Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, which was under Israeli occupation.

By the end of the 1990s, the situation had changed. The Israeli-Syrian negotiations collapsed even before the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations did in July 2000. And Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanese territories. Syria, which has remained on the U.S. State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism," continued its support for Hezbollah, which continued to attack Israeli targets, especially in a disputed border area, Shebaa Farm. This increased the tension between the United States and Syria even before the heightened focus on terrorism that followed the tragedy of Sept. 11.

Until his death in June 2000, Syrian President Hafez el Assad had managed to forge stable relations even with his enemies through a cautious policy that understood the limitations of Syrian power.

Both Israel and the United States have found predictable ways to manage their relationship with Damascus even when they strongly opposed Syria's policies.

When Bashar Assad became president after his father's death, both hope and concern existed. The hope derived from the man's youth, his education in Britain, and his apparent understanding of the need to reform. The concern derived from the understanding that he needed the old guard even more to survive and that he lacked his father's experience.

In the months since, both tendencies have been confirmed. After initiating modest steps to open up the country economically and politically, the process has stumbled before its many obstacles. Given the decisions that Syria has made in the past three years, it has been hard to guess where it may be headed.

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