How to Manage Assad
The Bush administration thinks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is bluffing. Its policy of cutting off most contacts with the Syrian government and tightening the screws of sanctions is meant to signal that the United States has superior strength and a superior will. At some point, the reasoning goes, the Syrians will realize that resistance is futile, and they will give up the charade of virulent opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East. But a visit to Damascus early this month that included an hour-long discussion with Assad left me unconvinced that his regime can be scared straight.
The Syrian government may overestimate its centrality to Middle East politics and its diplomatic weight, but it knows how to stay in power. The rest of the Middle East has been swept up by discussions of social and political change, economic development and foreign direct investment; Syria's leaders are preoccupied with security and stability. Rather than opening up, they are hunkering down. Six weeks after Assad won reelection with 97.6 percent of the vote, flattering portraits with adoring messages still festooned most billboards and large flat spaces in Damascus. This authoritarian government is not searching for a new playbook.
For all of Assad's power, though, he does not wield it in ways familiar to Western audiences. Syrians believe that Assad has inherited his father's distrust of the written word and relies on verbal instructions to subordinates. Lacking a common frame of reference, bureaucracies often work at cross-purposes or wander aimlessly.
Assad now speaks fluent English -- in contrast to a discussion we had three years ago -- and he exhibits other signs of cosmopolitanism. For example, he distinguishes Syria's "important" issues from its "urgent" ones -- one of the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," a friend of his assured me. Assad's father drove Western diplomats to distraction with marathon meetings and drawn-out negotiations; the son puts a more professional gloss on things, but he seems content to wait out the Bush administration and resume building a bilateral relationship with the United States in 2009. In our meeting, Assad took pains to sound accommodating on Lebanese sovereignty and forward-leaning on negotiations with Israel -- which he referred to by name. Only Iraq looms as a major strategic threat in his calculus.
The American policy is to give Syria plenty of distance: There is no U.S. ambassador in Damascus, and American diplomats are barred from regular contacts with their Syrian counterparts. Syrians are standoffish as well. Journalists in Damascus whisper that a fear of appearing like supplicants keeps not only Syrian officials from visiting Washington but unofficial envoys as well.
While Syrian officials often talk about their centrality to "finding solutions" in the Middle East, the government's record as a regional spoiler is far more impressive. Still, Syrian cooperation is worth seeking for at least three reasons.
First, despite all of their differences, the U.S. and Syrian governments share a variety of interests. Neither wants to see Iraq descend into chaos or break up, and neither wants an ascendant jihadist movement in the Middle East. Alliances have been founded on more slender reeds.
Second, there is little evidence to suggest that a cornered Syria is a more pliable Syria. The pervasive security apparatus, robust patronage system and utter lack of political alternatives suggest the Syrian government can remain in power indefinitely. The United States is not about to invade Syria, and while U.S. pressure can reduce Syrian economic growth, a quick look around Damascus makes clear that economic growth is not the government's highest priority.
Third, the cost of engaging with Syria is time and jet fuel -- and little else. The United States and Syria could -- and should -- embark on a series of parallel (if initially uncoordinated) efforts to pursue common interests. Over time, trust could be built to expand joint pursuit of shared goals. If it doesn't work, the United States can walk away without harm to its pride or prestige.
Indeed, it is the apparent fear of failure among U.S. officials that is hardest to understand. A few months ago, a senior American official told me that the United States was reluctant to talk with Syria because we know the Syrians would seek unacceptable U.S. concessions in Lebanon. How do we know that? Why could we not say no?
The problem comes down to this: The Bush administration is seeking to "fix" relations with Syria, and all it sees is bluster and defiance coming out of Damascus. The prospects are indeed poor. But if the U.S. strategy were instead to "manage" Syrian actions with the confidence that comes from overwhelming U.S. strength, the possibilities would be broad. The United States is a strong power, and it should act like one.
The writer directs the Middle East program at theCenter for Strategic and International Studies.