Reshuffling the Cards? (II): Syria's New Hand completes a two-part International Crisis Group series published this week on that country's evolving strategy, examining the motives for new directions in foreign policy since 2008 that have enabled Damascus to take the initiative after years of isolation. Paradoxically, however, little has happened in relations with Washington since President Obama took office, despite hopes generated by his election.
"Syria is convinced it has taken the first steps and that the burden is on Washington to do its part; the U.S. believes Syria has halted some hostile action, expecting recompense while continuing to engage in other unfriendly activity", says Peter Harling, Crisis Group's Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Project Director. "As a result, each side has tended to see significant value in its own goodwill gestures while criticising the other for not doing more".
On the defensive from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq onwards, Syria began to show uncharacteristic pragmatism in 2008. It accelerated economic reforms, resumed indirect peace talks with Israel, normalised interaction with Lebanon and adopted a more balanced policy toward Iraq. There was nothing preordained or inevitable in these steps. Each reflected a cautious, deliberative process in which the regime assessed the impact of one before undertaking the next. Each involved at times contentious internal debates on how best to defend national interests. All pointed toward a more powerful, assertive President Bashar Assad.
Understanding Syria's domestic decision-making process, as well as the factors that prompted the outcome, can help the U.S. design a process of engagement revolving around concrete, achievable objectives in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine.
Today, the most realistic measure of success is not whether the U.S. and Syria achieve a quick breakthrough. At best, that will have to await real progress toward Israeli-Syrian peace. The test, rather, is whether they can move the relationship far enough so that it might withstand crises that, almost inevitably, will arise. In the absence of a joint security framework, more violence in Iraq could produce a downturn in bilateral relations. The investigations into Syria's alleged nuclear program and presumed role in a string of assassinations in Lebanon could serve as other flashpoints.
It is still early. President Obama has not personally invested himself in the Syrian file, the Israeli-Syrian track could revive, both the U.S. and Syria continue to profess their shared desire for a new page and, in terms of atmospherics at least, the improvement in bilateral relations is notable. But little has been done with the opportunities that have arisen.
"It always was unrealistic to expect that the mere initiation of engagement would overcome years of mistrust, divergent conceptions for the region and conflicting alliances", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East & North Africa Program Director. "A productive process is needed, not necessarily dramatic results. Right now, we don't even have that much".
Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1602
The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.