The West wants to isolate Iran, weaken Hamas and Hizbullah. Syria wants to be brought in from international isolation. The time is right for Western engagement with Syria.
Assad’s cards are the strongest they have been since his ascent to power. He maintains close contacts with Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah - and is often the glue between Iran and the latter. As Western pressure on Iran increases, Assad knows his strategic value to the West increases. But this is a fragile position.
As soon as Iran acts it will be too late. Assad will be forced to go with Iran and the West will be more interested in combating the effects of Iran rather than preventing its threat. So Assad is trapped into a corner. He must push for peace or for war. He has a window in which to determine the future of Syria.
Assad knows the probable price of peace – the end of his support for Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah, limited democratization, recognition of Lebanese sovereignty and full relations with Israel. And, he knows the gains – strategic alliance with the West and Western-leaning Arab states, and the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. He is weighing these two and appears to be showing willingness to pay the price.
Is Assad a Jeffersonian democrat? No. A Machiavellian realist comparing the fates of Saddam and Gaddafi? Perhaps.
Benefits to the West
From the Western perspective, the prime benefit of engaging Syria is isolating Iran. The Iranians are threatening to go nuclear and remake the Middle East in their image. They have spent the last 27 years sending their emissaries throughout the Middle East - spreading their vision of Islamic revolution.
Much of this has been possible due to the acquiescence and sometimes overt support of the Syrian regime. As the US-led coalition plans its withdrawal from Iraq, the threat of Iran filling the vacuum is all too real. A pre-emptive attempt to confine Iran to its borders is the most sensible and realistic strategy to check the spread of Shiite radicalism and instability throughout the region.
Further, Syria’s eastern border with Iraq is the key entry point for Sunni fighters to enter Iraq and spread instability. Assad is the only power with the ability to control and limit this movement. Again, only engagement of Syria will achieve this essential Western goal.
The end of Syrian support for Hizbullah would have a devastating impact on the organization – resulting in a two-fold benefit: First it would give Lebanese democracy a better chance to stabilize. And second, it would remove Hizbullah’s capability to act with impunity in South Lebanon, which ignited the summer war.
The expulsion of Hamas' leadership from Damascus will effect a strategic realignment within the Hamas movement – strengthening its more moderate leadership in the Palestinian territories. This would encourage the moderates within Hamas to embrace the demands of the international community and reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A Syrian rejection of Iran and Hamas would also strengthen the role of Egypt in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This is a strategic interest of both sides of the conflict and the West. Israelis and Palestinians know that the mediation provided primarily in the past through Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been successful. And, from a Western perspective, the Egyptian government remains a key ally in checking Iran and the fight against extremism throughout the Middle East.
From a pro-democracy perspective, engaging Assad is also preferable. The continued bloodshed in Iraq has shown that democracy is best promoted in fractious Middle Eastern societies through pressurising existing regimes rather than sudden regime change. Assad can be squeezed at present.
I remember on a visit to Lithuania meeting with then Prime Minister Brazauskas. He had been head of the Communist Party but following the fall of the Berlin Wall he reinvented himself as head of the Social-Democratic Party. He was a leader. And the policies of the party he led were less important than the leadership itself.
Similarly, Assad has slowly absorbed the leadership principle. His key aim is to maintain his leadership rather than impose a dictatorship. Gradual reform through the pressurising of Assad from above and encouraging free-speech from below is the best means to get the democratic message through. So ironically, the best way to support democracy in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria will be through the engagement of a dictator in Syria.
The UK, US and Israel – democracies committed to combating terrorism – are most effective when acting together. Current UK-US policy in the Middle East is primarily focussed on stabilizing Iraq. Israel should act now or it could be left in a worse-case scenario where the West engage Syria as Israel watches from the sidelines and is forced into a less beneficial peace treaty.
Benefits to Syria
For Syria, the West and western-supporting Arab states are its natural sphere of activities. The ruling Baathist party drew its influence from Western political ideology. Syria borders western-looking Lebanon and Turkey. The French language is spoken by many. And, only 50 years ago, Syria was part of a single country with Egypt.
The realignment to Iran was more circumstantial than ideological. Following Syria’s implication in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Arab nations withdrew further support from Syria forcing her further into the hands of Iran. So, Syria is looking for an "extended hand" from the West.
Assad’s promises of reform - economic and political – have failed to bear fruit. The frustrated population of Damascus is desperate for legal versions of Microsoft Windows and for high-speed internet, for good hamburgers and chips with a crunch, for decent cars and disposable income. A strategic realignment with the West would provide Syria with these goods, satisfy the population and give Assad a quick fix to his failed policies
Syrians are also well aware of the price they paid for their Cold War misalignment. It has set them back decades. Assad knows the pros and cons of Western alignment. He studied in London – not Moscow! And Syrians look in envy at the Egyptian development that resulted from their realignment to the West in the 1970s. The world is drawing up lines again, and the thought of sitting on the anti-Western bench again is chilling for many.
Finally, Syria will regain the Golan Heights. This is a high price to extract from Israel. But Assad knows that with world pressure he can achieve this goal which eluded his father.
Assad needs a place to land in the West. The West needs Assad to isolate Iran, weaken Hamas and Hizbullah. Would engagement definitely succeed? Maybe. Would Assad be able to deliver? Perhaps. But, it is worth testing his intentions? Definitely. So engage Syria and isolate Iran.
Terry Newman currently works between Cairo and Tel Aviv as a political analyst and business consultant