What kind of relationship with Syria will Barack Obama inherit from President George W. Bush?
As the New York Times reported Friday, Barack Obama's election seems to have already improved negotiations in Iraq regarding a proposed agreement over the status of American troops there. But there are signs that the president will make relations with the country next door more difficult.
And in the twilight of his presidency, Bush has signaled a willingness to continue to press Syria hard all the way to the end. Barely more than one week before election day, the Bush administration approved a cross-border commando raid into the country, launched from Iraq. The purpose of the airstrike was to kill a targeted Al Qaeda leader, but the Syrian government alleged that most casualties were civilians.
While Damascus fumed in the wake of the strike -- shutting down the local American school and green-lighting street protests by citizens -- the Obama campaign's foreign policy shop refused all discussion.
Compared to Obama's stated preference for transgressing the Pakistan border when targeting Al-Qaeda leaders, the silence on the Syria raid became even more curious. Asked by the Huffington Post on Nov. 1 whether Obama approved of the attack, a national security flak on the Obama campaign responded: "We're just not commenting on Syria."
For its part, The Economist called the timing of Bush's raid into Syria "striking," given its proximity to the election, and further asked if Bush might be attempting to give Obama a "poisoned chalice" of poor U.S.-Syrian relations.
Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione is inclined to agree with that assessment, telling the Huffington Post: "Look, the cowboys are still in charge for another 70-odd days. I would expect more of this, since some of these people want to push the envelope as far as they can until their fingers are pried off the levers of power. We could see more of that, unless President Bush steps in and says, 'take your foot off the gas, it's over.'"
Cirincione said this desire is likely not the only force driving the continued aggressive stance toward Syria, however.
"There are basically three motivations," he said. "One is just the warriors going after their guy. Second is the more ideological officers and civilians who want to establish this principle: that we will cross borders at will. The third driver is, well, I wouldn't put it past some people around Vice President Cheney to try and intentionally poison relationships with Syria and Iran, and other countries that they consider our mortal enemies. I think all three of those are operating and are hard to tell from afar which was the principal driver in this case."
Some Americans might be surprised to learn that there are relations with Syria left to poison. But in recent months, there have been some signs that Damascus might be willing to play what Washington would consider a more "constructive" role in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart in 2007. And, perhaps more importantly, Israel has recently begun tentative peace talks with Syria, which are being mediated by Turkey.
At the same time, in Lebanon -- a country that was dominated by Syria for nearly three decades before its withdrawal in 2005 -- some citizens are worried that Obama might be willing to cut lenient deals with their old antagonist. According to American University of Beirut professor and journalist Rami Khouri, some in Lebanon "fear the next U.S. president will lower the commitment to Lebanon, and deal with Syria. ... So there is concern, yes."
Further complicating the status of Obama's future approach to Syria, Middle East expert Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress says the parallels to Pakistan go beyond Bush's cross-border raids. "Like in Pakistan, there's a great deal of internal uncertainty about who's actually in control of certain situations in certain parts of the country," Katulis said, citing a series of mysterious attacks, including that of a legendary Hezbollah operative staying in Syria as well as the recent sniper assassination of a close adviser to President Bashar al-Assad.
But Katulis added that the relationship Obama will inherit is not just up to Bush, either. "The clear ties and the hosting of terror organizations in Damascus has long been an item of concern to the Congress ... going back to 1980s," he said. "All of that is not easily overwritten by the swoop of a presidential pen."
Given all these complications, Katulis believes that Obama's opening moves with Syria will be cautious and measured. "The game is going to be to test their intentions, to better understand the strategic calculus of Syria. We already see a process in place. ... Some of the more pragmatist, career officers in the State Department have been keen on engaging Syria more and more over the last 18 months, on issues like Iraqi refugees. I suspect the Obama administration will build on those steps, and that it will not move in a very robust, 'grand bargain' sort of direction. At least until we can test the intentions of the Syrian regime."