Journal Essay

U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Syria: Balancing Ideology and National Interests

Mir H. Sadat, Daniel B. Jones

Summer 2009, Volume XVI, Number 2

Dr. Sadat, a Middle East and Southwest Asia specialist, is a faculty member in the School of Intelligence Studies at the National Defense Intelligence College in Washington, D.C. ( LTC Jones serves as a strategic intelligence offi cer in the U.S. Army. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.1
– Barack Obama
We never clenched our fist.2
– Bashar al-Asad

Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. military has been heavily relied upon to safeguard U.S. national security. The American political leadership has applied slogans such as the “war on terror”3 in order to legitimize the use of military power for the fulfillment of U.S. foreign-policy objectives. Vowing to shift from this strategy, then-Senator Barack Obama promised that, if elected, his administration would utilize all elements of national power and not just rely upon military solutions. On October 26, 2008, nine days before the presidential election, the U.S. military in hot pursuit of individuals involved in aiding the Iraqi insurgency launched a helicopter raid into Syrian territory along the Syria-Iraq border. Not only did this signify a violation of Syrian territorial sovereignty, it was used by the United States as evidence that Syria was a hotbed for terrorists and insurgents active in Iraq.4

One of the first agenda items for the Obama administration in which the role of diplomacy may outweigh that of the military is U.S. foreign policy toward Syria. It seems that the Obama administration is engaged in guarded but genuine diplomacy with Syria. As of March 2009, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, had not yet met with Bashar al-Asad or with other officials in Syria on behalf of the Obama administration. However, in March 2009, the highest-ranking Executive Branch representatives in four years met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.5

Situated between the current flashpoint of Iraq and the perennial hotspots of Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Iran, Syria is in a position to either advance or hinder U.S. goals in the Middle East. However, the United States has not executed a foreign policy toward Syria that benefits from this opportunity. America has been unable to develop and maintain a consistent position toward Syria. Instead, divergent impulses have guided American policy with regard to that state.

This paper examines the theoretical basis of U.S. foreign policy toward Syria and provides a brief evaluation of which approach would be more effective for the Obama administration. We start with an examination of the realist influences on foreign policy toward Syria during the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It proceeds to the idealistic influences of neoconservativism on policy toward Syria during the administration of President George W. Bush. The paper ends with a discussion of the potential for a return to realism or liberalism in foreign policy toward Syria during President Barack Obama’s administration. We recommend an overall moderate-realist approach mixed with liberal approaches in specific instances. A U.S. foreign policy based on idealism over national interests needs to be carefully reconsidered.


We will never negotiate with terrorists.6

– Ronald Reagan

According to realist theory, foreign policy is an amoral field that should be approached with pragmatic considerations of power as related to national interests, rather than the pursuit of idealistic goals.7 Marc Genest points out that the realist school of international relations dominated U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. It was no surprise that President Ronald Reagan took a realist approach toward Syria.8 Reagan saw conflict in the Levant as increasing the region’s vulnerability to the overarching threat of the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War.9 Despite Syria’s being included on the U.S. State Department list of sponsors of terrorism in 1979, the country was geopolitically too powerful to be snubbed by Washington, which sought to check Soviet expansionism in the Middle East.10 Rather than isolating or bullying Syria, even as its role in international terrorism became more pronounced during the 1980s, the Reagan administration remained engaged with the Syrian regime of President Hafez al-Asad.11

Although the Cold War framework was no longer predominant when George H.W. Bush became the forty-fi rst president in 1988, the framework continued to influence foreign policy until 1991. Syria remained a critical partner for maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East. Due to the stature of Damascus in the Arab world, it became necessary for Syria to be included in the U.S.-Arab coalition assembled to expel Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker recognized the necessity of working with Syria and courted the regime, traveling to meet Asad despite domestic criticism about allowing strategic concerns to override ideological ones.12 Robert G. Rabil, author of Syria, the United States, and the War on Ter ror in the Middle East, notes that during the first Gulf War, “When American vital interests [were] at stake, the United States [had] no compunction either to push aside or to overlook any reservations standing in the way of achieving its goals.” 13 This is consistent with realist theory, which predicts that states act in response to their vital needs, not in response to international norms or institutions. After Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait, President Bush did not order the overthrow of Saddam Hussein or attempt to redesign the Middle East. He wanted to return to the status quo ante.14

Although the conflicts that had dominated his predecessors’ involvement in the Middle East had passed, President Clinton followed a similar approach toward Syria. For Clinton, the dominant issue in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace process. Because Syria might be able to play a key role in achieving a lasting peace settlement, it once again was a powerful player that needed to be courted.15 Despite a skeptical U.S. Congress, the Clinton administration overlooked the possible inappropriateness of negotiating with a state that had been accused of sponsoring terrorism, that had violated Lebanese sovereignty, and that was suspected of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Syria might be able to play a key role in achieving a lasting peace settlement. According to realists, the world is a dangerous place with “competing states rationally pursuing interests.”16 The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Philip Wilcox, defended the Clinton approach: “Diplomacy is not always a pleasant business, and you do not always deal with people of perfect virtue, but the United States has interests and responsibilities in the world, and we are willing to engage with many different kinds of states to protect our own interests.”17 For the United States, it was realistic to overlook the authoritarian nature of the Syrian regime when it was in the U.S. national interest to seek its help.


Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. 18
– George W. Bush

When George W. Bush became the forty-third president in 2001, the United States made the fi rst significant shift in its approach toward Syria since designating it a sponsor of terrorism 21 years earlier. Despite Syria’s provision of valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda following the attacks of 9/11 and Syria’s expressed desire to continue this intelligence collaboration, the United States increased its demands for political reform of the Syrian regime before any cooperation would be allowed.19 In January 2002, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address, later known as the “Axis of Evil” speech, referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. He said the United States will “prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies.”20 Later, in April 2002, President Bush said, “Syria has spoken out against al-Qaeda. We expect it to act against Hamas and Hezbollah, as well. It’s time for … Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on.”21 Thus, any state in the Middle East having a conflict with America’s principal ally, Israel, became a target of the Bush administration in the eyes of the Arab world.

In May 2002, John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, advanced the portrayal of Syria as a “rogue state” in a speech entitled “Beyond the Axis of Evil.”22 This marked a shift from the moderate realist theory behind U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to an idealistic one based on neoconservativism, a combination of an extreme form of realism and altered democratic-peace theory. With bipartisan Congressional support in December 2003, the passage of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA) imposed new sanctions on Syria. SALSRA responded to the role Syria was believed to have played in supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and foreign fighters in Iraq.23

Stephen Zunes, author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, has declared that “the neoconservative unilateralist world view now dominates the Middle East policies of both Republicans and Democrats.”24 Like realists, neoconservatives agree the world is a dangerous place, but rather than a cockpit for amoral competition, they perceive it in terms of a “struggle between good and evil.”25 While neoconservatism is new to the academic arena of international relations, a 2008 article in Security Studies argues that neoconservativism constitutes a coherent and “explanatory theory of international politics.” It asserts that “evil regimes have to be opposed, and that the notion that stability follows engagement is a myth.”26

During the George W. Bush administration, “opposition through isolation,” rather than engagement, became the central tenet of the U.S. approach toward Syria.27 According to Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy from 2005 until January 2009, the Bush administration was effective in the temporary isolation of Syria but gained nothing strategic for the United States: “In the narrowest sense, the efforts to isolate them succeeded…. If you go more deeply than that and say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but what did that achieve? Did you get them through that policy to change their conduct?’ Then the answer is no.”28 William Rugh, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, describes the administration’s approach to Syria as one of “isolation and monologue,” as opposed to “engagement and dialogue.”29

The call for toppling the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq is the most visible manifestation of idealistic influences in neoconservative policies during the Bush administration. Regime change is perceived as the ultimate neoconservative goal for Syria, as elaborated by Charles Krauthammer, a leading neoconservative thinker and columnist. He suggests that once democracy, a driving value, is established in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria should be targeted for democratization.30 Krauthammer describes Syria as “a critical island of recalcitrance in a liberalizing region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border,” and recommends regime change.31 He calls “U.S. support for Arab dictators a cynical ‘realism’ that began with FDR’s deal with the house of Saud,” and suggests that the United States pursue democracy in the Middle East as an end in itself.32

While liberals call for engagement as a path toward democratizing hostile regimes, democratic-peace theory identifi es peaceful regime change as a path toward democratization. The pursuit of democracy has long been a goal of democratic-peace theory, based on the idea that democracies do not go to war with one another and that the spread of democracy increases peace in the international arena. This principle is exemplified in President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address: “They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrifi c scale.”33 The neoconservatives in the Bush administration exploited democratic-peace theory to justify their actions against Iraq and potentially against other nations such as Iran and Syria.

Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf claims that the Bush administration “did not hesitate to let people know, through leaks and the like, that perhaps Syria was next.”34 Former CIA analyst Martha Kessler comments: “I don’t think you can understand what has been done with regard to Syria in the last several years outside of the context of a belief among many in this [U.S.] administration that this regime has to go.”35 This threat of regime overthrow underlies all relations between the United States and Syria.

Indeed, many U.S. actions can be considered as building the justification and setting the conditions for an overthrow of the regime in Syria. The 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut sparked the “Cedar Revolution” and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Since the Syrian government was linked to the assassination at the time, Washington appeared intent on holding Damascus responsible despite a lack of clear evidence to indict the Syrian regime or President Bashar alAsad.36 When the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah escalated in June 2006, Elliott Abrams reportedly “encouraged Israel to expand the war into Syria.”37

When Syria appeared eager to resume peace talks with Israel, the United States pressured Turkey not to mediate such negotiations and “weighed in on the debate in Israel against resuming talks with Syria.”38 Philip Giraldi, a former CIA offi cer, suggests that prominent neoconservatives such as Bolton and Krauthammer reasoned that Israeli air strikes in Syria on September 6, 2007, were targeting an active site involved in a nuclear-weapons program.39 However, when pressured to give concrete evidence for their claim, they failed to do so.40

While a U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the Asad regime in the near future is unlikely, the United States has taken a number of actions to isolate Damascus since the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency. In addition to the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, other bills have been passed that impose further sanctions against Syria and companies that conduct business with it.41 Shortly after the assassination of Hariri and the visit to Damascus by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in January 2005, the U.S. ambassador to Syria was withdrawn; the post remains vacant.42 In December 2007, Syrian opposition figures were invited to meet with President Bush at the White House.43 On February 13, 2008, President Bush signed Executive Order 13460, which expressed the intent to “address the threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States posed by certain conduct of the Government of Syria.” Later that same month , the order was used by the U.S. Treasury Department to designate Bashar al-Asad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf as an individual who had “benefited from the public corruption of senior officials of the Syrian regime.” Added to existing realist tactics, these idealistically driven Bush policies consistent with neoconservativism attempted to isolate Syria and build the framework for regime change, should the opportunity arise.

The degree to which neoconservative theory has influenced and determined foreign policy toward Syria is debated in the United States. However, the Syrian regime is less skeptical.46 On May 10, 2008, the Syrian state-owned newspaper Tishrin ran an editorial discussing U.S. threats of increased sanctions that claimed, “No doubt the administration of the neoconservatives, which dominates the American decision, is able to obtain a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Syria.”47 While the degree of its infl uence remains undetermined, it cannot be denied that neoconservatism played a major role in U.S. policy toward Syria.


Critics of both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations complained that the United States engaged too much with Syria, while critics of George W. Bush’s administration complained that the United States did not engage enough. This second position was reinforced in the 2006 Iraqi Study Group (ISG) Report co-chaired by George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, who defended cooperating with Syria during the first Persian Gulf War. The ISG report called for “a robust diplomatic effort” with all countries interested in the stability of Iraq, in particular Iran and Syria.48

Following the release of the ISG report, the British newspaper The Independent ran an editorial claiming the report constituted “realism’s revenge over the neoconservative fantasy that democracy could be created through the barrel of a gun in one of the most complex regions on earth.”49 In March 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced she would meet with Syrian diplomats to discuss the stabilization of Iraq, prompting Foreign Policy in Focus to suggest that pragmatic realists within the State Department had gained a dominant voice over neoconservative elements of the Bush administration.50 Rice’s meeting with Syrian officials in May 2007 during the Expanded Iraq Neighbors Ministerial Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, was the first high-level diplomatic exchange between the United States and Syria since contact was cut off in 2005.51 Subsequently, Rice met with Syrian officials on the margins of another meeting of the same conference in Ankara in November 2007.52

While the White House insisted Rice’s meeting with the Syrian officials did not constitute a “change in policy,” some foreign-policy specialists disagreed.53 Upon an invitation from Rice, Syria participated in the Middle East peace conference at Annapolis in November 2007. Syria continues to be of strategic importance to sustaining regional stability. The long-term impact of the Iraq War on the political stability of the Middle East is uncertain; however, there is little doubt that it has been far more difficult and costly than any neoconservative advocates of unilateral military action expected. Based on the U.S. public’s dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, another such war, this time with Syria, would be almost impossible to justify. The departure of several leading neoconservative figures in the Bush administration, primarily from senior leadership in the Department of Defense, and a refocused Department of State opened up opportunities for the pragmatic influence of realism on U.S. foreign policy toward Syria.54

A Third Approach?

What we should be doing is reaching out aggressively to our allies but also talking to our enemies and focusing on those areas where we do not accept their actions.55

– Barack Obama

Realists and neoconservatives have jockeyed for dominant positions in determining U.S. foreign policy. Yet liberalism continues to offer alternative prescriptions for achieving resolution to conflicts in the Middle East. According to Genest, liberalism argues that states cooperate more than they compete “because it is in their common interest to do so, and prosperity and stability in the international system are the direct result of that cooperation.”56 The expansion of political and economic interdependence establishes incentives for this cooperation by averting military confrontation and encouraging negotiations and diplomacy as a means to resolve conflicts.57

While most realists consider regime types largely irrelevant to national interests, democratic-peace theorists agree with neoconservatives that the transformation of autocratic regimes into liberal democracies is a worthy goal. The two theories vary regarding the mechanisms for making that transformation. Neoconservatives manipulated democratic-peace theory to advocate realist policy by using America’s military power to overthrow dictators, whereas neoliberals prefer to engage autocratic regimes and bring about political, economic and social liberalization through establishing interdependence in the global economy.

The neoliberal approach appears to be favored by members of the European Union (EU). In 2004, shortly after the United States announced an embargo on all exports to Syria, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman announced a shift from Britain’s previous position:

While Britain has similar objectives and concerns to the U.S., Britain’s approach to Syria is based on a policy of critical and constructive engagement [that] permitted Britain to encourage and support reform in Syria.58

A spokesman for the EU foreign-affairs commissioner echoed a similar statement: “While the European Union shares America’s aspirations for Syria, ‘we do not share the same tactical approach.’”59 France has gone beyond such rhetoric by receiving both President Bashar al-Asad and Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari in Paris; President Nicolas Sarkozy has traveled to Damascus for talks.60 In late 2008, despite the U.S. embargo, France engaged in a number of business ventures with Syria that were expected to facilitate foreign direct investment by international banks in Syria.61 Thus, while unilateral U.S. sanctions have resulted in a loss of trade and investment in Syria, U.S. adversaries and even allies are eager to fill the economic vacuum left by American companies.

While starting as a “marriage of convenience,”62 the Syria-Iran relationship dates back almost three decades. In 1980, the regime of Hafez al-Asad denounced the Iraqi invasion of Iran, which sparked the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Since 1988, Syria and Iran have maintained a strong bilateral relationship and have had convergent foreign policies pertaining to Lebanon and Iraq. Western diplomats in Iran believe Syria is unlikely to break out of Iran’s orbit as long as the United States retains its hard line against Syria and/or Syria’s regional interests.63 Syria has been exploiting the paranoia in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States and the EU over Iran.64

For many years now, Iran has been far from Syria’s sole partner; EU members have been engaging Syria through European companies that have signed lucrative contracts. In addition, Syria is enjoying a “growing relationship” with Russia and is pursuing arms deals with Moscow.65 Thus, the effectiveness of U.S. policy in isolating Syria through sanctions has proven to be ineffective and has resulted in terms of trade with Syria that are unavailable to U.S. companies under existing U.S. legislation. Nonetheless, the Syrian economy has suffered from the recent global financial crisis and falling oil prices, as well as from U.S. sanctions.

The Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, notes the irony: while the United States lists Syria as supporting terrorism against Israel and destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq [as reasons for refusing to engage Syria], these countries, on whose behalf Washington speaks, are in direct or indirect talks with Syria.66

In September 2008, Syria “appointed an ambassador to Iraq for the first time since the early 1980s.”67 U.S. unilateral isolation of Syria has only served to prevent the United States from affecting Syria’s interactions with other regional and global players.

However, Ambassador Kattouf notes that the United States has “been effective in keeping Syria from applying to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which I’ve never quite understood because WTO membership would actually require Syria to reform its economy. Even before the Hariri assassination, we blocked the WTO application of Syria.”68 Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born academic with specialization in Syrian politics, argues that for the United States to call for Syria to open up, while blocking its WTO application, sent an inconsistent message to Syria.69 Washington halted Syria’s application for WTO membership and pressured the “EU to postpone its association agreement.”70 Both measures would have “required the opening up of many different aspects of the Syrian economy and society.”71 Liberals criticize the neoconservative approach because persistent isolation of the Damascus regime gives the United States little leverage to encourage incremental liberalization in Syria.

According to Volker Perthes, author of The Political Economy of Syria under Asad and Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change,

The regime has yielded little on demands for reform; there has been some cautious economic liberalization, but dissent is still being suppressed, and corruption has, according to all available accounts, increased tremendously. 72

Bashar al-Asad has been unable to implement a number of domestic reforms due to entrenched interests within the Syrian bureaucracy.73 Therefore, he has sought to use “international economic agreements — particularly an association agreement with the EU — as a lever for impelling greater transparency and spurring policy reform.”74

Based on an interview with the United Kingdom’s The Guardian in February 2009, Bashar al-Asad appears to be a proponent of engagement.75 Nonetheless, as Perthes points out, engagement with Syria is complex:

Syria’s willingness to cooperate with the international community will depend on whether its ruling elite see the return of Israeli-occupied territory as a possibility. As long as it does not, the current leadership will choose noncooperation and rhetorical confrontation, even at the cost of continued isolation. But if it does, the Asad regime will try to demonstrate that it can be a reliable partner in the search for regional stability. As Asad has made clear, peace is still Syria’s preferred “strategic option.”76

Based on a realist long-term strategy, the United States may consider engagement as a means to regional stability and security. An American engagement should “re-engage Syria by pushing for new peace talks with Israel.”77 During the Obama administration, this perspective could have a fundamental role in guiding U.S. policy toward Syria.


The neoconservative approach has resulted in putting the Syrians in a defensive posture. Kessler asserts that during the Bush administration, Syria was convinced that it was on a

White House hit list [and that] this conviction was a driving force behind a number of Syrian actions… [such as] withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, … repeated efforts to open talks with the United States, and a softening of Syria’s approach with regard to negotiating with Israel.78

As long as Syria remained targeted by the United States for regime change, it was in Damascus’ interest to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq.79 The Bush administration later realized that it is in the U.S. national interest to elicit Syrian assistance in stabilizing Iraq.

Due to apparently disengaged U.S. foreign policy toward brokering a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel, Washington has had no influence on the process of Near Eastern negotiations.80 According to Perthes, Western powers cannot dismiss Syria’s role:

By taking into account legitimate Syrian interests, they could persuade Asad to work constructively with the Lebanese government and with international efforts to stabilize Lebanon, withdraw support from forces trying to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and prepare his own country for diplomatic re-engagement and eventual peace with Israel. All this would also separate Syria’s agenda in the Arab-Israeli conflict from that of Iran.81

Syria has shown willingness to engage the Israelis in the recent past. Damascus already sought to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel through indirect talks mediated by Turkey,82 which is interested in curbing Iran’s influence in the region in order to prevent political instability resulting from an Arab-versus-Persian clash. However, pressure from the United States on anyone talking to Syria has resulted in stalemating the negotiations.

Furthermore, the same Syrian links in the region that Washington found troubling have allowed the Asad regime to influence groups that the United States never could. According to Jeffrey Fields, a foreign-policy scholar, the United States could have gained Syrian assistance in reining in Hezbollah during the tension with Israel in summer 2006, if they had gone through proper diplomatic channels.83 Kessler argues that Syria’s relationship with Iran is another asset the United States should exploit. The Obama administration has the opportunity to utilize Syria’s capability to provide both insight into, and some degree of influence over, Tehran. In addition, if Syria becomes intertwined again with the Arab states, participates in negotiations with Israel, and engages in further trade with the EU and the United States, then Syrian relations with Iran may become strained.

Engaging the Syrian regime strictly on its progress toward internal democratization through measures inspired by democratic-peace theory poses risks. According to this theory, democracy is associated with peace; however, the process of achieving democracy is often associated with increased instability and conflict.84 Given the numerous communal identity groups within Syria, any easing of the strong authoritarian control Bashar al-Asad exerts over the country might result in the emergence of conflicts.85 A number of Syrian specialists have noted that any regime replacing the current one would, at best, be no improvement and might be far worse for U.S. interests in the region.86 This was validated by the experience of pushing for democracy and liberal elections in Palestine, only to witness the rise to power of the illiberal and anti-American Hamas, through a clear majority of the vote in the West Bank and Gaza.

Foreign-policy analysts have raised the following question: Would allowing the Syrian regime to democratize at a self-determined pace be more effective than pushing democratization from the outside? Seth Kaplan, a U.S. foreign-policy analyst, suggests that “[p]reserving security and the unity of the state rather than promoting Western-style personal freedoms and elections should be paramount when formulating policies to develop the country.”87 Events in neighboring Iraq have demonstrated the difficulties of installing democratic institutions in a country ill-prepared for them. While the Syrian regime may not be preferred by the United States, it has “stabilizing elements” such as “socialwelfare programs and a strong security apparatus” that have proven effective in controlling its diverse population, though at the cost of civil rights.88 Nonetheless, the United States may consider asking the Syrian government, as a gesture of confidence-building, to liberalize its civil society, to foster credible state institutions responsive to the needs and desires of the Syrian people, to allow freedom of expression and to free all political dissidents.

The Obama administration should consider supporting the moderate-realist approach of opposing Syrian actions that run counter to some U.S. national interests, such as Syria’s military support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its perhaps unintentional provision of a safe haven for al-Qaeda. At the same time, it should be ready to recognize that liberalist engagement with Syria may also serve certain U.S. interests in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Palestine and Israel. This paper recommends a moderate-realist approach that moves beyond an all-ornothing strategy, as well as decoupling the various conflicts in which Syria exerts influence. In Palestine, the United States should consider encouraging Syria to stop being a spoiler in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, as well as solicit Syrian assistance in reconciling the differences between Fatah and Hamas in exchange for U.S. support in Syria’s dialogue with Israel over the Golan Heights. Washington may also consider soliciting Syria’s assistance in border security issues with Iraq and diminishing Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and Palestine in exchange for a U.S. agreement not to violate Syrian territorial sovereignty and economic relief for the Iraqi refugee crisis in Syria. In Lebanon, the United States should consider persuading Syria not to influence the political process, especially during the upcoming June 7, 2009, parliamentary elections. In exchange for Syria’s policy in Lebanon and the above-mentioned regions, as well as domestic reforms, the United States may offer various forms of assistance such as U.S. endorsement for Syria’s WTO member ship and partial lifting of sanctions, as well as foreign direct investment in the newly formed stock market and the Syrian economy in a pragmatic step-by-step approach.

Based on Syria’s past performance and other U.S. foreign-policy engagements with other states, there is no assurance that such an approach may result in a desired outcome. However, the United States does not risk much in engaging Syria to shift its strategic role in the Middle East from spoiler to facilitator of peace. The United States can always opt to disengage if Syria engages in denial and deception.


1 “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” ABC News, January 20, 2009, (accessed January 30, 2009).

2 Ian Black, “Assad Urges U.S. to Rebuild Diplomatic Road to Damascus,” The Guardian (U.K.), February 17, 2009, (accessed February 20,2009).

3 President Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, September 20, 2001, CNN, September 20, 2001, (accessed January 6, 2009).

4 Michael Petrou, “Edging in from the Cold?” MacLeans (Canada), Vol. 122, No. 13, April 13, 2009, (April 15, 2009).

5 The two U.S. officials were Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, and Daniel B. Shapiro, the Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council.

6 “Hamilton’s Closing Statement to North,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1987, (accessed January 10, 2009).

7 Marc Genest, Conict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004).

8 Ibid., p. 41.

9 Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire (Brookings Institution Press, 2005), p. 54.

10 Holly Fletcher, “State Sponsor: Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2008, (accessed October 12, 2008).

11 Jeffrey Fields, Adversaries and Statecraft: Explaining U.S. Foreign Policy toward Rogue States (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2007), pp. 243, 249.

12 Ibid., pp. 262-263.

13 Robert G. Rabil, Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), p. 88.

14 Latin for “the way things were before.”

15 Fields, pp. 266-269.

16 Patricia Owens, “Beyond Strauss, Lies and War in Iraq,” Review of International Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 2007), p. 266.

17 Ibid., p. 271.

18 “Verbatim,” Time, June 2, 2008, p.12. (accessed January 13, 2009).

19 Seymour M. Hersh, “The Syrian Bet: Did the Bush Administration Burn a Useful Source on Al Qaeda?” The New Yorker, July 28, 2003, currentPage =all (accessed October 16, 2008); Imad Moustapha, “U.S.-Syria Relations: The Untold Story and the Road Ahead,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, html (accessed October 21, 2008).

20 “President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address,” CNN, January 29, 2002, (accessed December 20, 2008).

21 Statement by the President on the Middle East The Rose Garden, 11:00 A.M. EST.>archive/2002/020405/epf503.htm (accessed February 1, 2009).

22 John Bolton, “Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction,” May 6, 2002. (accessed December 23, 2008).

23 Claude Salhani, “The Syria Accountability Act: Taking the Wrong Road to Damascus,” Policy Analysis No. 512, March 2004, (accessed December 23, 2008).

24 Stephen Zunes, “U.S. Policy toward Syria and the Triumph of Neoconservativism,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 52-69.

25 Owens, p. 266.

26 Aaron Rapport, “Unexpected Affinities? Neoconservatism’s Place in IR Theory,” Security Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, April 2008, p. 289.

27 Authors’ interview, Department of State official involved with Syrian policy, October 21, 2008.

28 Cited in Michael Petrou.

29 Theodore Kattouf, Martha Neff Kessler, Hisham Melhem and Murhaf Jouejati. “When We Meet with Syria, What Should We Say? What Should We Hope to Hear?” Middle East Policy, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer 2007, p. 1.

30 Charles Krauthammer, “The Neoconservative Convergence,” Commentary, Vol. 120, No. 1, July/August 2005, p. 25.

31 Ibid., p. 25.

32 Ibid., p. 5.

33 George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 23, 2007, CNN, (accessed October 10, 2008).

34 Kattouf et al, p. 2.

35 Ibid., p. 19.

36 Leon T. Hadar, “A Diplomatic Road to Damascus: The Benefit of U.S. Engagement with Syria,” Indepen dent Policy Report, October 1, 2007, p. 3, detail.asp?type=full&id=26, (accessed January 13, 2008); “Assad for Direct Talks,” Gulf Daily News (Bahrain), February 6, 2005, WORL&Issue ID=27343&date=2-26-2005 (accessed December 10, 2008).

37 Jim Lobe, “A Real Realist Takeover?” Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, March 12, 2007). (accessed December 10, 2008).

38 Antony T. Sullivan, “Wars and Rumors of War: The Levantine Tinderbox,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2008, p. 127; Kattouf et al., p. 11.

39 Philip Giraldi, “Phantoms over Syria,” American Conservative, Vol. 6, No. 20, October 22, 2007, pp. 16-17.

40 Ibid.

41 Jeremy M. Sharp and Alfred B. Prados, Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues (U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2007), p. 29.

42 Seth Kaplan, “A New U.S. Policy for Syria: Fostering Political Change in a Divided State,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 2008, p. 117; Fields, p. 285.

43 Ibid.

44 “Rami Makhluf Designated for Benefiting from Syrian Corruption,” Press Room, February 21, 2008, U.S. Department of the Treasury, (accessed October 21, 2008).

45 Ibid.

46 Dari Isam, “The American Firefi ghter,” Tishrin (Damascus), May 10, 2008. Editorial translated from the Syrian Government-owned newspaper Tishrin website by BBC Monitoring Middle East (London). (accessed January 14, 2009).

47 Ibid.

48 James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, The Iraq Study Group Report (Washington, DC, December 6, 2006), p. 32.

49 Rupert Cornwell, Letter to the Editor, Independent (U.K.), December 9, 2006.

50 Jim Lobe, op. cit.

51 Fields, p. 285.

52 Interview with U.S. government official involved with Syrian policy, October 21, 2008.

53 Helene Cooper, “Pragmatism in Diplomacy,” The New York Times, March 1, 2007, p. A1.

54 Judith S. Yaphe, “War and Occupation in Iraq: What Went Right? What Could Go Wrong? Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer 2003, p. 392.

55 “Transcript: The Democratic Debate on MSNBC,” The New York Times, October 30, 2007, (accessed January 10, 2009).

56 Genest, p. 124.

57 Ibid.

58 Douglas Davis, “EU Proceeds with Syrian Trade Agreement,” Jerusalem Post, May 14, 2004. (accessed December 10, 2008).

59 Ibid.

60 Interview, U.S. government official involved with Syrian policy, October 21, 2008.

61 Sami Moubayed, “Syria on Threshold of Major Cooperation with France,” July 27, 2008, Gulf News (U.A.E.), (accessed October 21, 2008).

62 Volker Perthes, “The Syrian Solution,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006, Vol. 85, pp. 33-40.

63 Michael Slackman, “Iran’s Strong Ties with Syria Complicate U.S. Overtures,” The New York Times, December 28, 2006, (accessed December 11, 2008).

64 Robert F. Worth, “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk,” The New York Times, March 27, 2009, p. A10.

65 Paul Tooher, “Russia Finds a Friend in Syria,” McClatchy-Tribune News Services, September 10, 2008, (accessed October 17, 2008).

66 Imad Moustapha, “Taking a Page Out of the French Playbook,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,Vol. 27, No. 8, Nov. 2008, p. 24.

67 Robert F. Worth, “Syria: New Ambassador to Iraq,” The New York Times, September 17, 2008, p. A12.

68 Kattouf et al., pp. 12-13.

69 Ibid., p. 16.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Perthes, pp. 33-40.

73 Ibid., pp. 84-85.

74 Ibid.

75 Ian Black, “Syria’s Strongman Ready to Woo Obama with Both Fists Unclenched,” The Guardian (U.K.), February 17, 2009, (accessed February 20, 2009).

76 Volker Perthes, pp. 33-40.

77 Ibid.

78 Kessler, p. 6.

79 Ibid.

80 Sullivan, p. 127.

81 Perthes, pp. 33-40.

82 Sullivan, p. 127.

83 Fields, p. 286.

84 Jacqueline Klopp and Elke Zuren, “The Politics of Violence in Democratization,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, PA, August 27, 2003. (accessed October 21, 2008), p. 2.

85 Kaplan, pp. 107-108.

86 Tanya K. Kandris, “Asad’s Legacy and the Future of Baathism in Syria” (master’s thesis, National Defense Intelligence College, 2005), p. 180.

87 Kaplan, p. 113.

88 Ibid., p. 118.