The United States and Syria should talk

By Theodore H. Kattouf, CGNews,

The recent compromise on power sharing in Lebanon spares the country further bloodshed, and allows its people to return to a modicum of normalcy. However, the underlying causes of the conflict remain, and Lebanon continues to be an arena where external powers play out their rivalries. Unless and until Syria and the United States reach a grand bargain, the Lebanese will continue to pay the price.

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It should now be clear to the most casual observer that Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon was hardly the end of their influence there. Iran and Syria are in an alliance to thwart US and Israeli objectives in the region whenever and wherever they can. Despite the overwhelming military advantages the United States and Israel enjoy over their adversaries, Iran and Syria have been particularly adept at playing the spoiler through proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraqi tribal groups, and Shi’a militias.

Through much of its second term, the administration of US President George W. Bush has been loath to engage in a prolonged and serious dialogue with Syria, instead preferring attempts to isolate and marginalise its leadership. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for his part, has borrowed pages from his late father’s playbook to demonstrate that there are no lasting solutions to regional problems without Syria. Yet even Turkish-brokered negotiations between Israel and Syria have not enticed the United States away from its policy of ignoring Syria diplomatically while throwing verbal jabs at the regime whenever it can.

The Israelis have been by far more pragmatic in dealing with Syria than has the Bush administration. The current Israeli government and its military/security leadership have concluded that they are ‘better off with the devil they know than the devil they don’t.’ This reasoning helps to explain why Israel went to great lengths in the summer of 2006 to assure Syria that it was not the target of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. It also helps to explain the lack of Israeli leaks after the bombing of an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria. Meanwhile, even after the Bush administration tried to discourage indirect Israeli talks with Syria about the Golan, Israel cautiously went ahead.

Both Israel and Syria recently concluded that making these talks known is advantageous to them. In the Israeli case, they can pressure the Palestinians for more concessions by suggesting they have another option for peacemaking. The more strategic reason is of course the hope that Syria can be weaned from its 30-year alliance with a nuclear ambitious Iran. For its part, Syria wants to ensure its relevance and better position itself with the next US administration while the clock runs out on the current one. However, both leaderships know that even if they can agree on the terms of peace, the US government’s role is indispensable to concluding, supporting, and enforcing a treaty.

All of this leaves Lebanon in limbo. Hezbollah has demonstrated that there is no combination of other forces in Lebanon that can challenge its military predominance. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Nasrallah, has left no doubt that his spiritual guide (Marje) is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As its influence with the group diminishes, Syria can no longer promise to disarm Hezbollah’s militia in the context of a peace treaty with Israel and a positive new relationship with the United States. It can, however, shut down the Iranian resupply pipeline to Hezbollah through Syrian territory. Syria could be even more Machiavellian and work with the United States and others to strengthen the more secular elements in Lebanese society in the context of full peace.

The Syrian regime cares first and foremost for its survival. If ushering in a new relationship with the United States and signing a peace treaty with Israel enhances its prospects for longevity, it will go that route—even at the expense of Iran and Hezbollah. If such a deal is not forthcoming, Syria will continue to play the spoiler role to the best of its considerable abilities.

It is therefore important that a new US administration work with Israel and our Arab allies to concoct a strategy that can pry Syria away from Iran. Despite the longevity of their alliance, the two regimes – one secular, the other theocratic – have little philosophically in common other than their shared insecurities concerning Israel and the West.

Thankfully, Syria appears open to a grand bargain, including perhaps one that could stabilise Lebanon without compromising that country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.


* Theodore H. Kattouf is a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Syria. He is currently the president and CEO of AMIDEAST (, and serves on Search for Common Ground’s MidEast Advisory Board. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at