Engaging Syria: We’d Be Crazy Not To

Some world leaders are not exactly negotiating material. The recently deceased leader of Turkmenistan renamed the months and days of the week after himself and his family and tried to build a palace constructed entirely of ice. No one really tried to negotiate with him–he placed a ban on lip-syncing.

Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad is negotiating material. In fact, he has shown moderation and restraint in recent months beyond what could be expected from many of his regional counterparts. First, the recent Israeli air strike inside Syrian territory is almost a carte blanche for violent retaliation, yet there has been none. Instead, Syria has lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations — not exactly the behavior we would expect from a leadership knee-deep in a nuclear program. Second, Syria has welcomed nearly one million Iraqi refugees with access to free education and medical care. The United States refuses even to admit Iraqis who have collaborated with coalition forces. Third, despite U.S. economic sanctions, an International Monetary Fund report released in August shows Syria continues to make real strides in reforming its economy. The United States has much to gain from negotiating with the young president, such as cooperation on Iraq, peace settlement between Syria and Israel, and at least some leverage over Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet it continues its almost unconditional policy of isolation.

Efforts by the U.S. Congress to ban flights through Syria’s Damascus Airport is only the most recent manifestation of this political myopia. Congressional reports suggest that Damascus Airport is a “conduit for al-Qaeda.” It takes only a moment to draw the comparison with our own failures in transportation security. If the richest, most powerful nation in the world cannot secure its aircraft how can a middle-income country with an aging transportation infrastructure be expected to do so? Senator Lieberman’s references to Syria’s “sprawling domestic intelligence and security services” that should be equipped to deal with such security breaches prompts a rejoinder about the controversy over warrantless-wiretapping in the United States. A ban on flights would be a major blow to Syria’s tourism industry–an industry the new Syrian President has targeted for privatization and economic liberalization. If Damascus Airport is indeed a rest stop on the al-Qaeda superhighway, the answer should not be to ban flights but to coordinate with the Syrian regime to better monitor passengers and cargo. After all, the Syrian regime is a secular one that has its own bone to pick with radical Sunni groups.

Despite the necessity of improving relations with Damascus some hardliners in the Bush administration continue to insist on a policy that neither pushes the Syrian regime toward political reform nor benefits the United States strategically. Continued attempts to label Syria a “rogue state” while referring to Saudi Arabia as a “moderate Arab ally” and increasing military aid to the Egyptian state as the human rights situation there deteriorates, is impossible to square with stated U.S. objectives. Moreover it reinforces the already pervasive sense in the Arab world that U.S. policy in the region has nothing to do with democracy–and everything to do with propping up U.S.-allied autocrats.

The vast majority of accounts describe the Syrian President as a reformer who often loses out in policy contests to the hardline conservative elements in the Syrian Ba’ath party establishment. The Administration’s hostile policy toward Syria only emboldens these repressive forces, helping them make their case that the United States is out for “regime change” and that engagement is a losing policy. Without a doubt the United States will not find an ally in Bashar Al Assad like it has found in the Saudi Royal family. But why would it want to? Formal, friendly ties are worth little when they tarnish the reputations of both parties. The Saudis are condemned as “apostates” for collaborating with the United States while the United States is viewed as hypocritical for dealing with an undemocratic regime.

In hindsight many U.S. foreign policy decisions appear clearly disastrous; it is rare that we can see a policy as erroneous in real-time. The United States should seize the opportunity afforded by the young President’s restraint in responding to Israel by genuinely engaging with the Syrian regime. Recognizing this restraint as responsible, sensible policy also sends a message that negotiation, not aggression, is the law of the land. This may be a difficult message to relay to some leaders, especially President Bush who recently warned about a possible “World War III ” with Iran. Some suggest we’d be crazy to negotiate with people Ahmadinejad and Assad. But with the specter of WWW III on the horizon, we’d be crazy not to.

Shana Marshall is a PhD. student at the University of Maryland and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.