Maybe you all can help me understand an idea that I’ve repeatedly encountered among various neoconservative Mideast watchers, with regard to the question of whether or not to engage Syria.
In a nutshell, the idea is that the best way for Washington to get what it wants–namely a Syrian regime that doesn’t threaten American or Israeli interests in the region–is to isolate Damascus, instead of engaging it with the aim of facilitating a peace agreement between Syria and Israel.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is out of touch with recent historical experience. With the exception of the first few months after the Hariri assassination–which witnessed a Syrian withdrawal of troops, etc.–the tough isolationist policy toward Syria did not seem to reap many lasting benefits. As tough as things got for Damascus during the dark days of 2005-08, the regime never showed any signs of buckling and Bashar al-Assad eventually emerged more popular than ever (just as Hezbollah did after the 2006 war).
The second problem with this idea is its odd shortsightedness. Here’s an excerpt from a Hudson Institute event featuring Lee Smith, Jeffrey Feltman, and Elliott Abrams, in which the latter expresses this idea very directly:
MR. ABRAMS: The Bush administration did not favor, at the time it began, Syrian-Israeli negotiations because they let Syria out of the box we had carefully constructed for Syria. Syria was – in that period, if you go back to, for example, the number of European foreign minister visits over a 12-month period, very, very, very small. Syria was quite isolated. And the price it paid for the break in this isolation was zero.
Now that’s mostly a criticism of the government of Israel; much less so a criticism of the government of Turkey in the sense that if two governments want to negotiate and they ask you to facilitate, I think your culpability is a great deal less than if you are the author of this engagement. There was no point – there was nothing to be gained by criticizing the Turkish role and I don’t believe the United States ever did criticize the Turkish role. The problem, I would say, was trying to figure out what Israel or the cause of peace or the Syrian population or the Lebanese population or the Iraqi population gained from this. And I think the answer is nothing. (Download the entire transcript here)
Andrew Tabler also recently made a similar argument (i.e. with respect to Israel letting Syria out of the box) in an event hosted by the Middle East Institute, saying:
“I think it’s also quite ironic that… for all the talk about regime change during the Bush administration, it was actually Israel that saved Syria in that debate.” [NB: Tabler does not actually argue in favor of isolating Syria.]
Am I missing something here? Do these folks really believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that a few more years of uninterrupted isolation would have brought the Syrians to their knees, and that had it not been for the Turkish-brokered peace talks, the Bush policy would have been a success? This strikes me as a very peculiar position.
In my opinion, if you’re going to be against an engagement policy, you need a better reason than: “It lets Syria out of the box.” You can argue that the Syrians aren’t democratic enough to be friends of the United States, or that they shouldn’t be “rewarded” for working against American interests, etc., but these are not particularly convincing reasons either.
At the end of the day, if the goal of the U.S. policy toward the Assad regime is to end the state of war between Syria and Israel, problematize the Syrian-Iranian relationship, and create lasting stability in Lebanon, how would this goal not be best achieved by directly pursuing a Syrian-Israeli peace deal? Tell me what I’m missing, people.