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What's Wrong with Diplomacy in Damascus

By Seth Kaplan | May 27, 2009

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo
by James Gordon (CC).

Washington won't change Syria's destructive behavior simply by sending diplomats to Damascus. The Obama administration has reversed former President George W. Bush's isolationist policies toward Syria, but has little to show for it. The government will need a more comprehensive approach to loosen Syria's ties to Iran and terrorist networks.

Four months into Washington's courtship of the Assad regime, Syria's leaders have shown no inclination to change. In fact, Syria has allowed more foreign fighters into Iraq this year than last, and has constructed a biological weapons facility on the very site where Israel destroyed a plutonium reactor in 2007. Reports of these events forced President Obama to renew sanctions against the country.

The United States must steer a more nuanced path to ensure that Syria stops acting as a conduit for foreign fighters traveling to Iraq. It needs to combine incentives with threats to get Damascus to change its policies, an approach that helped France convince Syria to modulate its behavior in Lebanon.

Syria seems willing to make major changes because of its increasingly vulnerable domestic situation. With its population rapidly expanding, the state can't create enough new jobs, leaving legions of young men unemployed and disaffected. Weak harvests, declining petroleum revenues, high levels of corruption, and the influx of Iraqi refugees are exacerbating Syria's many other problems. The state is running a sizable annual budget deficit.

All of this has forced President Bashar al-Assad to open up what was one of the most closed economies in the Middle East. Trade and finance has been liberalized, and foreign investment has been sought. Many—including some government advisers—even openly admit that some political change might be necessary in the coming years just to maintain the country's stability.

The regime's weakening financial base has also forced the government to break its diplomatic isolation at the expense of some long-standing policies. Last year, Syria recognized Lebanon after refusing to do so for over 60 years and took steps to help reduce the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

But the country's ethnic, religious, and ideological divisions complicate reform efforts. Like many of its Arab neighbors, Syria's very diversity dominates its political dynamics. Dealing with Sunni Arabs, Alawis, 11 Christian sects, Kurds, and Druze not only limits policy options but also inhibits risk-taking. Mounting sectarian violence doesn't help, nor do the recent assassinations of two prominent figures and a terrorist attack.

The challenge for U.S. policy is that Syria has depended on Iran and terrorist networks for years and will be reluctant to stop using them to achieve its objectives. Even when it has appeared to back off, Syria was just using indirect ways to maintain the status quo.

While Syria may have established relations with Lebanon and withdrawn its army, it continues to manipulate politics there from behind the scenes. No matter what it promises, it may continue to encourage fighters to use its territory to enter Iraq, so it can keep some leverage over the situation there. Such policies led the Bush administration to launch a military strike into Syria last year to try to disrupt the flow.

Instead of simply trying to convince Syria to change its behavior through dialogue or through isolation, the international community should design a sweeping plan that will prod the country to introduce substantial reforms.

Demands to dismantle the terrorist networks that Damascus hosts would surely top the agenda. The United States has long called for Syria to stop cooperating with al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. But it has never offered enough positive incentives to convince the Assad regime to do business.

In exchange for making changes according to a strict timetable, the West could help Syria improve its financial prospects. The European Union could reopen discussions on an agreement that would promote trade and modernize institutions—discussions that collapsed when relations soured over the issue of Lebanon. The United States could offer trade incentives, such as membership in the World Trade Organization, which Syria applied to join in 2001. Technical assistance to reform the courts and state administrative organs would complement these policies.

Offering substantial sums of money for these changes could help convince major power brokers to support Washington's plans, and cause them to pressure the Syrian government to act. The state's worsening budget deficit and its diminishing ability to buy the loyalty of its people make it especially vulnerable to such an approach. Syria actually has a long history of accepting cash in exchange for certain foreign policy dictates. Money might even encourage security forces and part of the ruling elite to seek an alternative to the Bashar al-Assad administration.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration needs to bring back more of Bush's sticks. Renewing the sanctions is a good start. More economic, diplomatic, and military pressure—including more raids—could be threatened, if Washington's most important demands were not implemented after a more attractive offer was on the table.

If Washington takes Syria's complex internal dynamics more into account, it can craft a persuasive package of incentives to achieve its goals—including the elimination of foreign fighters passing through Syria's territory.

Seth Kaplan is a foreign policy analyst and a business consultant to companies in developing countries. His book Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (2008), critiques Western policies in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, West Africa, and Bolivia, and lays out a new approach to overcoming the problems they face. This article is based on an essay appearing in last fall's Middle East Policy. For more information, see www.sethkaplan.org.


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