Opinion

Why Syria will keep saying ‘no’ to Washington

The US must get real leverage before talking to its better-prepared and a tougher-minded adversary, Syria.

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Washington’s strategy of selective engagement with Syria has not produced any tangible results. The question is: Why does Damascus continue to do the opposite of what the Obama administration wants it to?

There are two reasons:

First, Washington still lacks real leverage in its talks with Damascus. To make things worse, Syria currently enjoys a relatively comfortable position in the region, partly because of Washington’s lack of a coherent Syria policy but also because of its own efforts to develop its military alliance with Iran, enhance its political relations with Turkey and Iraq, and restore its power-broker role in Lebanese politics.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason why President Obama’s strategy has failed is because Syria is not interested in what Washington is currently selling.

Consider: The chief US goal of selective engagement is to try to take away from Syria a number of cards it holds in the region (though not all of them, given the price it would take to do so), be it Hamas, Hezbullah, or its link to militants in Iraq.

But what Washington needs to realize is that Syria’s aggregate power and influence in the Middle East is defined by these very cards. Syria will not let go of any of these, primarily because these are what keep its regime going.

Simply put, Syria will not allow the United States to pick and choose (hence the selective part of the strategy) what it wants to negotiate on, precisely because a piecemeal approach, as currently advocated by Washington, puts the Syrians in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their adversaries, namely Israel.

Absent a comprehensive package from Washington, which would include Lebanon first and possibly peace with Israel and the return of the Golan Heights second, Syria will find it in its best interest to stall, keep its cards relatively intact, and refuse to engage in serious negotiations with the US.

Indeed, such an all-inclusive package – which Washington would be unable to (and must not) offer given its stated policy of support to Lebanon’s freedom – is the Baath regime’s only realistic long-term insurance policy.

Syria looks at its relationship with the US from a holistic perspective, while the US is currently viewing its relationship with Syria much more narrowly. Syria wants to completely overhaul the relationship and normalize it to ensure the survival of its regime, whereas the US just wants to bargain on a specific set of issues. It doesn’t take a genius to see that it simply won’t work because the two countries want different things.

One can understand why Obama is pursuing a strategy of selective engagement, given the setbacks of his predecessor’s policy of isolating Syria and the vast differences between the two countries on vital issues such as Lebanon. But US officials should keep this in mind as they talk to the Syrians: Syria will not lift a finger on any of the issues that touch US interests in the Middle East unless Washington recognizes first its hegemonic position in Lebanon and possibly its military return.

So what is the alternative? There is no easy answer, hence the very real and legitimate debate that took place on April 21 on Capitol Hill between members of Congress and US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman, following his testimony on Syria. As Washington contemplates a more viable strategy for Syria, it would benefit from taking note of an old piece of advice: Get real leverage before you talk to your better-prepared and tougher-minded adversary.

Bilal Y. Saab, a senior Middle East consultant with Oxford Analytica and Centra Technology Inc, is pursuing a PhD at the University of Maryland’s Department of Government and Politics.

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