As a Middle East way station for terrorists, Syria can't be ignored. Candidate Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to engage Syria in contrast to President Bush's attempt to isolate it. Now a limited engagement has begun and it's time to ask what President Obama will give up as he tiptoes toward the likelihood of bazaar-like haggling with Damascus.
Obama's first serious feelers are out. He gave a nod of approval for trips last week to Syria by the heads of the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Howard Berman. With no US ambassador in Syria since 2005, their talks with President Bashar Assad probably revealed the hurdles that lie ahead for a workable US-Syrian relationship that could alter the region's dangerous dynamics and help Obama contain Iran.
The next logical steps would be visits by Middle East envoy George Mitchell and regional commander Gen. David Petraeus, and then reopening the US embassy. Ultimately, an Obama-Assad summit would seal a deal. But first, Americans need to know what critical US compromises might be on the table, given that Syria is still labeled by the US as a terrorist state.
The US has tried soft diplomacy before with Syria, under President Clinton and pre-911 Bush. Both attempts revealed a Damascus unwilling to give up ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, or to end its dark influence in Lebanon. The Assad regime, based on the rule of the minority Alawite tribe, needs the economic benefits of those ties and a perception of external threats to control internal dissent.
So what has possibly changed for Assad that would give Obama hope of a deal and allow only minimal US concessions?
For one, Turkey has befriended Syria to the point that it brokered indirect talks between Syria and Israel last year – before the Gaza war. Syria may believe that Turkey would be a more reliable geopolitical partner than Iran. And Saudi Arabia is pressuring Assad to drop ties to Iran as that non-Arab nation nears a capacity to build atomic bombs.
Syria's economic woes, driven in part by international sanctions, may also now threaten Assad's rule as may the spread of jihadi violence against his secular regime. And Assad may believe Israel is more ready to return the Golan Heights in a deal. Meanwhile, he sees a United Nations that won't tolerate Syria's heavy hand against Lebanon's budding new democracy and that may soon put a few Syrians on trial for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Obama should not sacrifice Lebanon's independence nor give up a US interest in cutting Syria off from Iran. But he can pressure Israel to give up the Golan in return for a peace pact and, along with Europe, offer economic benefits and security guarantees to Syria if it gives up support for Islamic radicals.
Both sides need to build up some trust before serious talks begin, such as cooperating in Iraq or sharing intelligence on radicals. Any grand bargain won't be easy, as Syria may still want to build an atomic capability (Israel bombed its nuclear plant only in 2007).
Assad has far more to sacrifice than the US does.