04/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Understanding Syrian Rapprochement: Optimists Versus Cynics

As part of Hillary Clinton's Middle East excursion this week, the Obama administration dispatched two emissaries to Syria (Daniel Schapiro from the National Security Council and Jeffrey Feltman from the State Department), marking the first high-level diplomatic overture to President Bashar Assad since 2005. However, underlying the prospect for renewed diplomacy with Damascus is the universally accepted possibility that Assad will merely feign peace efforts without ever following through -- for which he, and his father before him, are notorious. Thus, in terms of Syrian rapprochement, the foreign policy community may be boiled down into two factions: the optimists and the cynics.

The optimists view rapprochement with Syria as being worth the effort, even if the attempt follows precedent and backfires. The 'Syria track' is an optimal precursor to any "Grand Scheme" peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, both of whom are, for the time being, under either inchoate or hopelessly divided governments. Rather than the erstwhile, duplicitous dictator of the Bush years, this sanguine crowd sees Assad as somewhat of a changed man. Indeed, Assad is cognizant that, despite Iran's largesse, Syria's economy continues to languish behind those of more open, capitalistic nations. And he has expressed an interest in opening the economy to more tourism, foreign investment and international aid.

Meanwhile, the cynics think that Assad's untrustworthiness, due to his failure to respect past commitments, precludes any possible peace now. They believe that he only plays along with "peace processes", with no intention of actually following through on a deal, to buy time or reposition himself politically -- and they often cite specific occasions in the past when Assad or his father led Western and Israeli diplomats along in humiliating diplomatic goose chases. Thus, the cynics refuse to accept that anything has changed or that Assad is in any way willing or even capable of giving up his Iranian "sugar daddy". To the cynics, attempting reconciliation with Assad at this point would be a perverse 'faith-based' effort of sorts -- which in this context involves pathetically submitting oneself to the caprice of a tin-pot dictator.


An example of the current optimist approach may be found in Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who recently met with Assad and other Syrian officials. Kerry is confident that improved ties with Damascus are indeed possible; however, he has also been careful to issue all the necessary caveats, by noting that any rapprochement process will no doubt be arduous. As a member of the sanguine camp, Kerry has emphasized the fact that, though Syria will not easily cut off its current ties to the Islamic Republic, the door was already opened late last year in Turkish brokered talks with Israel, against Iran's wishes.

Kerry, speaking at the Brookings Institution Saban Center this week, highlighted the economic carrots America can offer Syria, while also addressing the cynic's claim that Assad is only resorting to his usual diplomatic legerdemain. According to Kerry, "we have financial incentives to offer Syria that have much greater value to them than cost to us. It is telling that, even as global markets are in freefall, Syria is opening a stock market for the first time. Loosening certain sanctions in return for verifiable changes in behavior could actually benefit US businesses. And the sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks."

Kerry was hosted at the Saban Center by Martin Indyk, a former Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of state for near east affairs under Bill Clinton. Indyk, like Kerry, readily acknowledges that rapprochement attempts with Damascus could very well become vapid theatrics with no salient end; however, unlike the cynics' view, he sees plenty of possible rewards in the process itself, regardless of whether anyone seals the deal. Namely, talks between Israel and Syria could "spook" the Iranians; compel Hamas to be less hard-line towards Israel; and promote Lebanese independence as well as spur Hezbollah to join the peace process.

In response to Indyk's sanguine silver lining perspective, one notable cynic, the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, has responded, well, cynically...: "Put simply, while the peace process expanded Hafez Assad's options, the same process reduced Israel's. That goes double for his son, who would enter into a peace process with his father's achievements as a baseline from which to seek further concessions. Indyk may believe that the mere resumption of a process without a serious expectation of a peace deal is some sort of achievement, but he fails to consider how it puts Assad in the enviable position of never having to engage that process with even minimal good faith. Which, in turn, amounts to an inducement for bad faith. How either the United States or Israel might benefit from this is a mystery."

Syria cynics tend to take umbrage at the supine position inherently required for peace overtures towards Assad. In the past, Assad has capitalized on such attempts by painting the U.S. and Israel as weak, thereby solidifying his own clout at home where he, as an Alawite, rules over a vast Sunni majority. Moreover, the linchpin for Syria-Israeli dealings is the Golan Heights, a small chunk of Syria that Israel has controlled since 1967. Unfortunately for the optimists, the political climate in neither Syria nor Israel is in any way conducive to cutting this Gordian Knot. Cynics insist that Assad cherishes his satrapy over Lebanon far more than the prospect of regaining control of the Heights, and will thus not be easily compelled to fall for this bargaining chip.


Moreover, Israel's recently elected Likud party prime minister-designate Benyamin Netanyahu is a champion of the cynic camp. During the campaign, he expressly rejected the possibility that Israel would relinquish the Heights. Though he has yet to form a coalition government, and is unlikely to attract the moderates and leftists of Kadima and Labour, his designate position is enough to stall or forego implementation of the 'Syria track'.

In prepared responses before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton said, "the President-Elect believes that we must never force Israel to the negotiating table with Syria, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel's leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests." Thus, unless this policy is altered, the Obama administration's rapprochement efforts could very well be in vain.

Despite the sanguine goals of the U.S., or even Assad (though that is the big question), if Netanyahu maintains his past hard-line, anti-reconciliation position, all peace attempts may merely be pushing on a string. This would signal a cynic victory. But then again, the new administration's foreign policy clout is yet to be truly tested. For the optimists, Netanyahu's victory is not a 'game changer', but rather, a mere speed bump.