The failures of the Bush Doctrine and the global economic crisis will shape the Obama administration’s Middle East policies in its first two years. While economic recovery is increasingly the administration’s top priority, there are indications that diplomacy and reconciliation efforts will determine Washington’s new strategy in the region as it abandons Bush’s failed policies on the war on terror, extended military campaigns, unilateralism, and preemptive strikes.   

Against this background, relations with Iran and the controversy over its nuclear program will dominate the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. The president has already made several conciliatory gestures toward Iran, including addressing the Iranian people in a Nowruz festival message on March 21. The importance of Iran was underlined in the same month in an article by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk entitled “A Time for Diplomatic Renewal: Toward a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East.” The paper placed Iranian nuclear ambitions as number one in a list of six challenges the Obama administration will face in the Middle East. Security and national unity in Iraq was second, while solving the Arab–Israeli conflict only came third. Stabilizing Lebanon, curbing radical Islamic terrorism, and economic and political reforms came fourth, fifth, and sixth respectively.
Nevertheless, reading U.S. policy in the region in its wider context, it is clear that confronting Iran is only a temporary driver of U.S. policy, while protecting Israel’s security, regional superiority, and its Jewish character remain the essential factors. In that regard, Syria is not a central player in U.S. calculations, but it is the common denominator linking the challenges outlined by Haass and Indyk. Not only does Syria have a strong alliance with Iran, but it also forms the link between Tehran and both Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Syria’s special position makes it a potential and important crossroads for U.S. initiatives on any of these issues. This position could be the reason behind the recent signs of a positive turn in relations between Damascus and Washington, such as the U.S. envoy’s visit to Syria in March, and the brief exchange between the two countries’ foreign ministers during the Sharm Al-Sheikh conference earlier in March.  
Not only does Syria have a strong alliance with Iran, but it also forms the link between Tehran and both Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Iran will likely be the decisive issue that shapes the course of U.S.–Syrian relations. Three scenarios are possible:
  •  If U.S.–Iranian relations improve and the two governments reach an understanding over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its role in the Middle East, Damascus will probably lose its strategic importance for Iran and this will, in turn, limit Syria’s margin of maneuver in its relations with the U.S. However, such an improvement in relations is currently an unlikely scenario.
  • If the United States seeks a military confrontation with Iran, Syria will also lose. Such a military conflict, whether with a U.S.–Israel alliance or without it, would be detrimental to Syria. The Syrian government could do nothing beyond releasing statements of condemnation, as U.S. journalist Seymour M. Hersh pointed out, quoting an unnamed Syrian official. The weakening of Iran would cause Damascus to lose its strategic significance as well as an important economic supporter, and thus to enter a new period of isolation and weakness, similar to the one it suffered through in 2005–2007. This scenario is also unlikely in the short run due to the uncontrollable and unforeseeable consequences of a U.S. attack on Iran.
  • Alternatively, Washington could deliberately attempt to separate Iran from its allies, particularly Syria. The price of such an approach would not be paid by Syria but by the United States’ favored ally Israel. Israel would be forced to withdraw from the Syrian Golan Heights it has been occupying for over forty years in order to convince Syria to distance itself from Iran.
How likely is the third scenario? For the last two decades mediated efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Syria have been unsuccessful, despite repeated announcements that agreement had been reached on 80 percent of outstanding issues. Many questions remain. Is the United States now ready to pressure Israel into a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights and security arrangements acceptable to both sides? Is Israel ready to pay that price in order to eliminate the Iranian threat, especially under the present ultra rightwing government, whose foreign minister has stated that Israel was only willing to offer Syria “peace for peace” without a pullout from the Golan Heights? And is Damascus itself ready for a settlement with Israel when its identity, regional role, and regime legitimacy have been defined by the Arab–Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause?
For Syria, the answers to these questions require a cost-benefit analysis. Current conditions are quite favorable for Syria. Its alliances with Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas are solid. Ties with Turkey are good, and those with other Arab states and Europe are improving. Even Israel prefers the status quo in Syria. Domestically, there is national consensus and stability, which could be hurt more by a settlement than lack of one. National consensus was evident during the Israeli attack on Gaza, which caused the Muslim Brotherhood to suspend its longstanding opposition to the Syrian regime, given the latter’s more radical stance towards the Arab–Israeli conflict. The secular opposition in Syria is weak, and is not currently in a position to challenge the regime. Economically, Syria remains self-sufficient even if its economy is unstable.
Syria thus has much to lose from a settlement with Israel, which will force it to rethink its own ideological identity and regional role, as well as to readjust to the end of the state of war.
Syria thus has much to lose from a settlement with Israel, which will force it to rethink its own ideological identity and regional role, as well as to readjust to the end of the state of war. But Syria would lose even more in case of a diplomatic thaw or a military confrontation between the United States and Iran. The result might not be as severe as the isolation it endured in the years following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, but Syria could well find itself marginalized.
On the other hand, Syria has much to gain, first of all the return of the Golan Heights. This would boost the regime’s legitimacy and provide it with U.S. and international guarantees for the stability and security of the regime that would have to be included in a peace treaty. Such guarantees are probably high on the mind of the Syrian regime as it deliberates the benefits of a settlement. Indeed, they may be behind Syria’s readiness for a separate bilateral peace treaty with Israel, excluding a solution of the Palestinian or of the Lebanese issue. Such readiness was communicated to Richard Haass by a Syrian official in March 2009. There is no doubt the Americans and the Israelis will demand the inclusion of Lebanon in any settlement with Syria. The thorniest issue in the Lebanese track is Hizbollah, as Syria will be asked to stop supporting the group militarily and urge it to become a normal political party. Syria is only likely to commit to this if it is guaranteed a new dominant position in Lebanon, which is unlikely.
Given this situation, it is logical to expect Syria to maintain good ties with Iran in the next two years, particularly politically and economically, unless the United States and Iran head toward a military confrontation.
U.S. interest in Syria goes beyond Damascus’ relevance to the Iran issue. Washington is also keen on improving its image and winning back Arab allies. To that end, the U.S. wants to resolve some of the issues in the Arab–Israeli conflict. It will thus sponsor a Syrian–Israeli deal, in which Washington maintains its strong alliance with and unequivocal support of Israel, while simultaneously calling itself an “impartial mediator.” In reality, such policy is not only deceptive and unethical, but politically futile. The result of such mediating efforts will be at best a public relations charade like the 2007 Annapolis Conference, whose outcome even the new Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman rejected.
U.S. interest in Syria goes beyond Damascus’ relevance to the Iran issue.
The United States can force Israel to commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Such an agreement would significantly alter the region’s political landscape and could be acceptable from a non-far right Israeli perspective. In the coming years, the region will witness a great deal of diplomatic dynamism initiated by the Obama administration, related foremost to the U.S. opening toward Iran, its need to secure the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and the Mideast peace process. A push for a Syrian–Israeli settlement could be part of this diplomatic dynamism. Yet the present government in Israel seems intent on undermining this possibility.
U.S.–Syrian relations are held hostage by a geopolitical approach that has no economic, cultural, or emotional dimensions. This reality gives Syria independence and immunity from U.S. influence and pressure. As a non-oil producing country, Syria is not dependent economically on the United States. In addition, its economic relations with Europe, the Arab World, and China remain strong. Syria is also agriculturally self-sufficient and does not have any significant or crippling foreign debts. Therefore, the United States has no economic leverage over Syria. On the Syrian side, its relationship with the United States vacillates between admiration for U.S. technological, academic, and artistic progress and the “American lifestyle” on the one hand, and repulsion by U.S. arrogance, its blind support of Israel, and perceived antagonism toward Arabs and Muslims on the other. A U.S.–pressured, full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights could tip the scale.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer.