Syria's Cooperation with the West Remains a Challenge

[Wall Street Journal] Michael B. Oren - What are the real chances for moderating Syrian behavior and what price is the U.S. willing to pay for that change? And what risks does Mr. Obama take in reaching out to Syria? Syria was willing to maintain ties with Washington and engage in lengthy talks, but not to disavow those policies deemed vital to the regime's survival. Syrians had never made peace with the partitioning of Lebanon. The Syrians saw control over Lebanon's lucrative resorts, its robust free markets and unlimited access to the West as the cure-all for their moribund socialist economy. The need to preserve their primacy in Lebanon led the Syrians to support a then little-known Shiite militia, Hizbullah, which represented a practical means for maintaining Syria's Lebanese lifeline. Damascus became a perennial destination for U.S. Secretaries of State - Warren Christopher stopped there more than 20 times - who braved marathon discussions with Hafez al-Assad. But many hundreds of hours of deliberations could not move Assad to make genuine peace with Israel - even in exchange for most of the Golan - or to alter significantly any of his noxious policies. Bashar al-Assad backed the Hizbullah ambush that ignited the Lebanon War of July 2006. He supported Hamas' bloody overthrow of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza the following June and the firing of thousands of Kassam rockets into Israel that culminated in the most recent Gaza crisis. In addition, no Syrian action was more destabilizing - and potentially cataclysmic - than its attempt, aided by North Korea but ultimately foiled by Israel, to secretly attain nuclear capabilities. Throughout, Syria has remained a stalwart Iranian ally, resisting inter-Arab efforts to formulate united platforms on regional issues. This is the legacy of radicalism, subversion and ruthlessness with which President Obama must grapple as he sets out to place America's relations with Syria on fresh footing. Based on Syria's past and its recent behavior, there seem scant grounds for optimism regarding a breakthrough. Clearly, reconciliation with Syria is incompatible with a free and independent Lebanon and with a Damascus that still hosts Hamas' headquarters. Such obstacles should not deter the Obama administration from negotiating with Damascus and seeking to achieve a workable partnership, if for no other reason than to exhaust all possible diplomatic options. Yet the same hand that America extends in friendship should be ready to recoil, parry a blow or return one. The writer, a professor at Georgetown University and a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

2009-03-05 06:00:00

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