The only thing worse than talking to Syria is not talking

by Ted Kattouf
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WASHINGTON - The United States and Syria began to disagree about Iraq well before the invasion began, and matters only got worse. The Bush administration was displeased that Syria allowed UN-embargoed Iraqi petroleum to travel through its borders, and that they subsequently permitted the shipping of military materiel from Eastern Europe to Iraq.

For his part, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad cautioned visiting US officials that while the American military could certainly topple Saddam, US overall efforts to pacify and reform the country were doomed to failure in a manner that could destabilise the entire region. The United States wanted some pre-war logistical help from Syria but was refused. Meanwhile, even after the war had begun, Syria continued to permit military materiel and even Arab volunteers to go to the aid of Saddam's regime, while temporarily harbouring several senior regime members.

The Bush administration, immediately after the war, repeated and enlarged a sweeping set of demands for changes in the Syrian regime's behaviour without defining what Syria could hope to gain in return. The regime resisted these demands even though the United States was at the zenith of its power in Iraq and some hawks within the administration were already leaking reports that Syria could be "next." These events rendered moot the real cooperation that the United States and Syria had forged in identifying and sidelining al-Qaeda operatives.

Four years later, the country that the United States accuses of being the main conduit for foreign fighters and particularly suicide bombers in Iraq has had no real dialogue with the US on the border situation. It is too bad. Both the United States and Syria have much to gain and little to lose by a serious, sustained dialogue. The Assad regime has begun to recognise that the violence and instability in Iraq are creating opportunities for anti-regime elements in Syria to begin mounting attacks of their own, such as occurred at the US embassy a year ago. Kurdish nationalism is another issue troubling the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, many Iraqis continue to fall victim to suicide bombers and other nihilistic vigilantes.

Besides this lack of trust, the main obstacle to a serious US-Syrian dialogue about the Syro-Iraqi border is the Bush administration's unwillingness to initiate a broader dialogue with Syria, i.e., one not restricted to border infiltration and humanitarian issues. The Syrian regime has demonstrated that it can do a better job of controlling its border with Iraq when it wishes, although no Syrian government is capable of sealing the border altogether. Nor would it be desirable for it to do so since Syria hosts upwards of 1.3 million Iraqi refugees who have nowhere else to go (the US has taken in fewer than 1,000 Iraqi refugees). But the Assad regime right now has little or no incentive to police the border more vigorously at least not for the sake of the United States when it is offered only vague hints of better bilateral relations.

The US administration often claims that a broader dialogue with Syria would be a mistake since the Assad regime would seek to reassert its hegemony in Lebanon and insist on an end to the UN Security-Council's authorised investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, in which senior Syrian officials could be implicated. Yet, the administration would find widespread domestic and international backing for refusing any such Syrian demands.

But there are many other issues where the United States could seek to find accommodation with Syria, including a willingness to explore an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement on a separate track from that of the Palestinians, and offering a roadmap for lifting most US sanctions against Syria. In the absence of such a dialogue, Assad is prepared to wait out this administration's term and try his luck with its successor.

With no realistic possibility of overthrowing the Assad regime or otherwise changing its unhelpful policies, the administration is denying itself an important diplomatic lever that could help save lives in Iraq, ameliorate Syria's disruptive regional role, and perhaps even lead to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Syria is hardly a great regional power or even as influential as when the late and wily Hafiz al-Assad ruled. But it does have allies in Lebanon, among the more radical Palestinian factions, and to a lesser extent in Iraq. Talking to Syria is not so much a reward for bad behaviour as it is a realistic approach that, according to the Baker-Hamilton Commission, is in the best interest of the United States.

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* Ted Kattouf is a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Syria. He is currently the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, www.amideast.org. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News (CGNews), 20 September 2007, www.commongroundnews.org.
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