Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


The Road to Damascus
By Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson


Steven Simon is a Senior Analyst at the Rand Corporation. Jonathan Stevenson is Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Opportunity Knocks

On May 3, 2003, less than a month after Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The visit drove home the tough choices faced by Assad in the wake of Saddam's fall. On the one hand, Powell solicited Assad's support for the Bush administration's road map for Israeli-Palestinian talks; on the other, he demanded that Assad withdraw Syria's 20,000-strong "occupying force" from Lebanon and made thinly veiled threats about what might happen if Syria continued its support for Palestinian terrorists.

Six months later, the administration's pressure appeared to be paying off. In a surprising interview in The New York Times in early December, Assad disavowed past Syrian intransigence and implored Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return to the negotiating table. This was the first time Syria had ever independently proposed talks with Israel over the Golan Heights.

Yet in contrast to its recent handling of Libya — where Washington persuaded Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up Libya's unconventional weapons programs in return for better relations — the Bush administration has done little to explore whether fresh negotiations with Syria might bear fruit. In January 2004, for example, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns voiced general support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations but lodged no official U.S. response to Assad's overtures.

The administration's reticence stems from several factors. U.S. presidents are always reluctant to launch major foreign-policy initiatives during election years, especially in high-risk areas such as the Middle East. The history of previous negotiations on the Syrian track of the peace process, moreover, does not inspire confidence. It is hardly certain that either Syria or Israel will be truly prepared to make the concessions necessary for a quick, successful result this time around. And finally, the administration may believe that Assad's overture is in fact the initial dividend of its own hard-line approach, an approach that might produce even more movement on the Syrian side in the months and years to come.

All of these reasons make dramatic change in Washington's Syria policy unlikely in the immediate future. But it would be a shame — and a mistake — to ignore the possibility that Assad's moves represent a significant shift and to underestimate the current opportunity for engaging Syria. Given the importance of the issues at stake, and given the limited prospects that anything short of military intervention could change the Syrian regime, the question should be not whether threats of punitive action have already begun to nudge Syria toward conciliation, but whether adding some positive inducements to the mix could lead to even further movement down the road. If Washington is prepared to invest some diplomatic capital, the answer might well be yes.

Critics argue that Assad's recent gestures reflect merely a temporary tactical adjustment rather than a genuine change of heart. Even if they are right, they underestimate the extent to which pragmatism guides Assad's policies and the tightness of the strategic vise in which Damascus finds itself. So long as . . .