A change in the United States' Middle East policy seems to be in the offing. The reasons for this expectation are the failure in Iraq and the defeat of President George W. Bush and the Republican party in the midterm elections, a failure that led to the immediate resignation/dismissal of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The bipartisan committee headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton that is examining U.S. policy in Iraq is about to publish its conclusions, and leaks indicate at least one central conclusion: "speaking to Iran and Syria" in order to change direction in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a close ally of Bush, even went as far as speaking not of "talks" with Iran and Syria but of "partnership" with the two. The issue of American-Syrian rapprochement took on an additional dramatic dimension this week with the assassination of Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel, with sources inside and outside Lebanon pointing at Syria as the main suspect.
Iran and Syria have had an alliance of shared interests and cooperation since 1979. When Syrian President Bashar Assad came to power, the nature of this relationship changed. It is no longer an alliance among equals: Iran is now the patron and Damascus is the client. Iran, a country with resources, power and an imperial legacy, is trying to attain regional hegemony and nuclear weapons. Syria still exercises influence on players who are smaller and weaker than it (Lebanon, Palestinian organizations and to a certain degree Hezbollah), but for the most part it feels threatened by the U.S., Israel, its Lebanese rivals and in part France. Iran, on the other hand, offers Syria sponsorship and protection.
The Iranian challenge
Iran presents serious challenges to Washington. The immediate challenge focuses on Iraq. The American occupation and the downfall of Saddam Hussein released Iraq's ethnic demon and reinforced the Shi'ite majority. The violent conflict that erupted between the Shi'ites and the Sunni minority, with its historical hegemony, is one of the main factors preventing a sustainable order - or the appearance of such an order, and an American exit from Iraq that will not seem like an embarrassing failure. Shi'ite Iran is seen as a key both to calming the Iraqi Shi'ites and to imposing a sustainable order.
Less immediate, but more important, is the issue of the Iranian nuke. It is clear to everyone that the ayatollahs are determined to have nuclear weapons. The attempts to consolidate international sanctions against Iran have not succeeded to date, and the chances of success seem slight. An American or Israeli military operation against Iran seems to many in the U.S. to be a bad or impractical idea.
Beyond these immediate challenges, it is clear Iran is trying to become a regional power by nurturing Shi'ite communities in several Middle Eastern countries, disseminating its version of radical political Islam and using terror. Iran is threatening friends and allies of Washington, starting with Israel and including Egypt, Jordan and the oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf.
Bush placed Iran on the axis of evil. But the message emanating from Blair's words, and perhaps from the Baker-Hamilton report as well, is that the attempts to threaten and isolate Iran have failed, and that trying to speak to Iran and to reach a deal on the above issues may be a good idea, even a necessity.
According to this logic, the U.S. would recognize the regime of the ayatollahs, promise not to undermine it, reach an agreement on the future of Iraq, try to keep Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and convince it to adopt a more moderate policy on Lebanon and Israel.
Syria is seen as a supporting actor in such a move. An understanding with Tehran would also lead to an understanding with Damascus. In such a case, Washington would cease its hostility toward Assad's government, and Assad would begin playing a more positive role in Iraq (closing the border to anti-American infiltrators), Lebanon (not rearming Hezbollah) and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (kicking Hamas and Islamic Jihad headquarters out of Damascus).
The chances of implementing a far-reaching step of this kind are not great. First, Bush will have to decide to take a dual risk: to agree in principle to a change in direction on such fundamental issues, and thus risk being humiliated because he both changed direction and failed. Second, he will have to choose a special envoy for the job. Baker is a natural choice. Would Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accept this expropriation of the core foreign policy arenas?
And finally, there is the move itself. Will Iran really agree to suspend its nuclear policy? Does the U.S. know how to conduct negotiations with a regime that combines Muslim extremism with modern sophistication?
Taking Syria from Iran
Because of that, and in light of the possibility that the conflict with Iran will continue, becoming the central axis of Middle Eastern politics and U.S. policy in the region, a secondary question comes up: Would the U.S. try to distance Syria from Iran, and is there a chance of success?
The hegemonic alliance with Damascus is a central element of Tehran's policy. Syria provides Iran with access to the heart of the Middle East: Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab conflict. An American-Syrian understanding would affect three arenas: Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Tehran's prestige would suffer a severe blow. The conservative-moderate Arab countries would benefit from a shot in the arm, and American diplomacy in the region would chalk up an impressive achievement after a period of failures. But is this a realistic step?
Several topics would be on the agenda of such a step:
b The bilateral relations between the U.S. and Syria. These relations are presently at a nadir. Bush and his administration consider Assad and his government a hostile entity that is assisting the anti-American "rebellion" in Iraq, supporting Palestinian and Lebanese terror, and trying to destroy Lebanon's sovereignty and the stability of Fouad Siniora's government. President Assad and his regime, on the other hand, believe Bush's U.S. is trying to bring them down. An American-Syrian dialogue would start by restoring the relationship to its 1990 level. Syria would then seek an American promise not to undermine the regime, an improved atmosphere and an upgraded relationship.
b The Lebanese issue. Here we can anticipate problems. Syria considers Lebanon a strategic asset and a legitimate area of influence, while the U.S. is determined to protect Lebanese sovereignty and the 2005 anti-Syrian "revolution." Syria wants the investigation into the Hariri assassination shelved, while the U.S. is determined to resolve it. Bush is an ideological president who considers spreading democracy an important mission. The establishment of the Siniora government was a very significant achievement for him, as was the "expulsion" of Syria from Lebanon. For him, having the U.S. recognize Syria's "special status" in Lebanon would be difficult and embarrassing. Naturally, the decision to establish a special court to investigate the assassinations of Hariri and Gemayel are serious obstacles.
b The Golan Heights and relations with Israel. Assad wants the Golan back. Unfortunately, he must be seen as working toward this end, whether through negotiations or an armed conflict. The U.S. favors the principle of "land for peace" but has no desire to reward Assad, at least not at this stage. If an overall American-Syria understanding is reached, Bush will probably change his mind. However, at the moment the clear message from Washington to Jerusalem is that the U.S. is opposed to a renewal of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
b Relations with Iran. Various Syrian spokesmen tell their interlocutors and the Western media that the alliance between Syria and Iran is not insoluble and that Damascus has been pushed into Tehran's arms out of a lack of choice, due to American hostility. These claims can be tested only by a U.S.-Syrian dialogue.
b The ongoing crisis in Iraq. The U.S. expects Syria first and foremost to hermetically seal its border with Iraq, and thus prevent the infiltration of weapons and fighters. More generally, it will want to see Syria as a partner in stabilizing Iraq, such that it can withdraw its forces without a sense of defeat and an authentic Iraqi government can function. Syria is interested in a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and wants to see a friendly government across its eastern border. Syria currently considers the Iraqi arena a lever for counter-pressure on the U.S. and cooperation with Iran. But in the long run, the Iraqi chaos may threaten Syria's stability as well.
All the above indicate it will be relatively easy from Syria and the United States to reach an understanding on the bilateral issue and Iraq. The Lebanese and Israeli-Palestinian issues will be much more difficult to resolve.
Israel has a profound interest in these issues. A dialogue between Washington and Damascus would arouse questions and fears in Jerusalem. Despite the friendship with the U.S. and the Bush administration, Israel would feel profoundly uncomfortable when the Golan is placed on the agenda during an American-Syrian dialogue. Washington is now signaling to Jerusalem that it does not want Israeli-Syrian negotiations to begin, but what about the opposite? The lesson for Israel is clear. Time is not a neutral factor, passivity does not lead anywhere, and one who does not take initiative, even on a different front, will find himself ultimately reacting to the initiatives of others.
Prof. Rabinovich is the president of Tel Aviv University, and in the past served as the Israeli ambassador in Washington and the head of the negotiating team with Syria.