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Forget Pelosi. What about Syria?

If Bush would turn down the rhetoric, he might hear something promising from Damascus

April 11, 2007|Robert Malley | ROBERT MALLEY, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, is the International Crisis Group's Middle East program director.

UNDERTAKING HER first major diplomatic foray, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got an earful. As she met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, she came under immediate, stinging attack. The White House condemned her encounter as counterproductive, asserting that it undermined U.S. policy aimed at marginalizing a so-called pariah regime.

The charge is, on its face, absurd. The European Union's top diplomatic envoy just visited Syria. Assad attended the recent Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Republican and Democratic officials have been traveling to Damascus for months. The Syrian regime is no more isolated in the world than the Bush administration is embraced by it. But the fuss about Pelosi's perfectly legitimate visit obscured a far more intriguing question: What should be done about Syria?

Over the last several years, the consistent response from Israel and the United States has been: Ignore it. It is difficult to recall the last time Israel rejected an Arab invitation to negotiate -- let alone the last time the U.S. actively encouraged it to do so -- but in this case that is exactly what it has done.

Israel spurns Assad's calls to renew unconditional peace talks, claiming that the Syrian regime has no intention of concluding a peace deal and is merely seeking to lessen international pressure and shift attention away from the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria may wish to regain sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the argument goes, but it desperately wants to restore its hegemony over Lebanon. To engage Syria now would reward its support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, its attempts to destabilize Lebanon and its funneling of jihadists into Iraq. Seen in this light, a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations is considered futile or, worse, damaging, an escape hatch for a regime that will respond only -- if at all -- to sustained pressure.

The arguments have merit, but the conclusion does not stand up to scrutiny. As any one visiting Damascus these days doubtless will notice, the regime is displaying a peculiar mix of supreme confidence and outright anxiety. Convinced that the regional tide is turning against the U.S. in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, Syrian officials sense that any American attempt to destabilize their regime is a thing of the past.

Yet America's defeat is not necessarily Syria's victory. Sandwiched between civil strife in Iraq and Lebanon, facing increasing sectarian polarization throughout the region, losing political legitimacy at home and confronted with acute economic problems, the Syrian regime is eager for renewed domestic popularity and international investment. What better than a peace deal with Israel and recovery of the Golan Heights -- with all the attendant diplomatic and economic benefits -- most notably normalization with the West -- to achieve those goals?

As for Syria's regional posture, this much can be said: Damascus will not cut ties with Hezbollah, break with Hamas or alienate Iran as the entry fare for peace negotiations. Syrian officials make clear that they will not forgo their few strategic cards ahead of a deal. But they are equally clear that a deal would change the entire regional picture -- the country's alliances as well as its policies.

If, as Israeli and U.S. officials assert, the regime's priority is self-preservation, it is unlikely to sponsor militant groups, jeopardize its newfound status, destabilize the region or threaten nascent economic ties for the sake of ideological purity once an agreement has been reached. Israeli and U.S. demands will not be satisfied as preconditions to negotiations, but there is at the very least solid reason to believe that they would be satisfied as part of a final deal.

Even assuming that Washington and Jerusalem are right and that Syria is more interested in the process than in the outcome, what is the downside of testing the sincerity of its intentions? To the contrary, the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian officials sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state's right to exist, and putting Syrian allies that oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position. It has gone largely unnoticed, but Assad has been at pains to differentiate his position from that of his Iranian ally, emphasizing that Syria's goal is to live in peace with Israel, not to wipe it off the face of the Earth. That is a distinction worth exploiting, not ignoring.

Rigidly rebuffing Syria is a mistake fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity. The U.S. says it wants to see real change from Damascus, and it takes pleasure in faulting visitors -- Pelosi only the latest among them -- for returning empty-handed. Syria's response is that it will continue to assist militant groups, maintain close ties to Iran and let the U.S. flounder in Iraq for as long as Washington maintains its hostile policy and blocks peace talks. It also could change all of the above should the U.S. change its stance. That's a message Pelosi can hear and one she can deliver, but not one she can do much about. Rather than engage in political theatrics, the president should listen.

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