Obama must consider where Syria’s loyalty lies

Reid Smith Contributor
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Speaking on Valentine’s Day before the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of bringing new harmony to the to the wearying ballad of Arab-Israeli peace efforts.

However, after a year of proposals, overtures, offers and suggestions, Clinton was compelled to acknowledge a growing impatience with the stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

Despite Iran’s hardening nuclear stance, the Secretary stressed that the administration’s priority remains “efforts to advance a comprehensive peace in the Middle East—one that brings peace for Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese, as well as the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.”

While discontent may be the first step in the progress of man or nation, the Obama administration must navigate a Levantine minefield on the road to a comprehensive peace accord. Meanwhile, tempers have reached a boiling point.

On the same day Secretary Clinton spoke before the assembled host of Muslim representatives and Western think-tank types about the importance of regional détente, the Lebanese reported firing on Israeli warplanes that had violated their airspace. In show of loyalty, officials in Tehran and Damascus eagerly rattled their sabers.

Of course, this may seem like business as usual in the Middle East where anyone who isn’t perplexed, insulted or otherwise outraged, clearly isn’t paying attention. However, the escalating war of words has led some analysts to consider whether a rhetorical flare-up is about to turn hot. Simmering allegations that Israel’s Mossad spy agency may have carried out an assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mahbouh last month in Dubai have done little to cool tempers.

Such rumors of looming conflict have currency. Last week, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, publicly blamed Israel for “spreading an atmosphere of war,” and warned that his county would not hesitate to strike deep into Israeli territory if provoked. Minister al-Moallem stated plainly that a conflict would be “all-out,” regardless of whether “it hits southern Lebanon or Syria.” Five years after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to wipe the blood from his hands and withdraw his troops from Lebanese soil, the two countries are again bound by their common foe.

Days before the Lebanese army used anti-aircraft fire to drive Israeli warplanes out of Southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, Prime Minister Saad Hariri voiced concerns about the intensification of Israeli threats and promised to support Hezbollah if war were to break out with the Jewish state.

Hariri, son of the late prime minister, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Having been unable to secure his parliamentary victory without the support of Hezbollah, he is now beholden to them. Beyond their political capital, the U.S.-designated terror organization maintains leverage through its weapon cache and semi-autonomy. As of now, the national army cannot freely enter Hezbollah-controlled areas in Southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley in central Lebanon. Hariri’s recent support for the formidable non-state actor has further reinforced its self-determination.

Hezbollah’s domestic strength has kept Israel on its toes, and gained the Islamist movement a unique panache across the region. Party leadership has capitalized on this limelight. When he’s not taking phone calls from Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has kept busy in the press. He recently stated that Israel cannot afford an unwinnable war and blithely threatened an eye for an eye with the Jewish state. In so doing, he tendered his homeland as a theater of war. Beyond existing support from Iran and Syria, Nasrallah now commands the prime minister’s blessing. Sadly, it seems that the Lebanese body politic is so fractured that it can only unite behind an external threat.

The Israelis have bared their teeth and responded in kind. Defense Minister Ehud Barak cautioned that the stalled peace process could lead to a regional conflict. Compounding that statement, the ever-belligerent Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, threatened that should war break out, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his family would “lose the regime.” The Israeli Air Force has since proudly unveiled its newest surveillance drone—the world’s largest Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). With the subtlety of a sledgehammer covered in sandpaper, a commander with the Israeli Air Corp commented that the massive drone—which can comfortably fly to Iran—would “reach anywhere that the Israeli air force needed to reach.” Further ramping up tensions, Israel’s no-nonsense Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tirelessly resisted pressure to halt the expansion of West Bank settlements, and recently announced a controversial plan to add two major religious shrines in the contested region to the country’s national heritage list.

The usual suspects are marching in familiar rhythm to the beat of the drums of war. Israel’s leadership seems confident and may push for a persuasive victory to reassert military deterrence. Hezbollah seems more than willing to oblige. Ahmedinejad has taken every opportunity to chime in on behalf of his proxies, indicating that Iran is still…well…Iran.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its close ties to the Islamic Republic, Syrian compliance has been volunteered as a possible solution. And while the matter of Arab-Israeli peace ultimately hinges on the question of Palestine, gaining President Assad’s cooperation appears to be the Obama administration’s only hand to play. However, since Dr. Kissinger famously remarked in 1975 that “no peace is possible without Syria,” it would be difficult to tally how many unsuccessful attempts have been made to leverage the Arab nation. Now, President Obama must try again.

Last week, William Burns, the nation’s most senior Foreign Service officer, held talks in Damascus with the country’s head of state, and Robert Ford, the current deputy chief of mission in Iraq, received an ambassadorial nomination to represent U.S. interests in Syria. Such steps will formally reopen diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been suspended in 2005. On Tuesday, eight years after being lumped into the axis of evil and five years since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the U.S. State Department lifted an advisory that warned travelers about visiting Syria in hopes of warming relations.

While the renewed dialogue may seem encouraging, it is important to remember that Syria has been welcomed back without offering any real concessions in return. After years of bullying Lebanon, supporting Iran and turning a blind eye to foreign combatants who would slip into Iraq, Assad seems to have successfully waited out the West. If nothing else, the Syrian president will have the pleasure of discussing the latest U.S. overtures with his counterpart from Tehran when Ahmedinejad visits Damascus on Thursday.

Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Valentine’s Day highlight persistent U.S. efforts to broker a solution in the Middle East. With war on the horizon, the question remains whether the United States can stop the conflict before it starts. Despite the administration’s commitment to “a new era of diplomatic engagement,” misplaced illusions of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement based on a constructive relationship with Syria are scattered about Levant. At present, Syria enjoys a close relationship with Iran and has provided financial and military support to both Hezbollah and Hamas. The question remains whether these relationships are worth more to Syria than their potential reemergence as a regional power, and their freedom from economic sanctions currently levied by the U.S.

So, while diplomacy is useful and Syria seems willing to engage, President Obama must now consider where Syrian loyalties lie, what their friendship will cost and what it may gain. With the stage set for war, he does not enjoy the luxury of time to reach this conclusion.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. His graduate work at American University’s School of International Service was focused on the politics of Shi’a majority in Iraq.