During last week’s stormy hearing on Syria in the US House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, the Obama administration for the first time laid out its Syria policy. Unfortunately, the policy is based on a flawed, old premise that brings Washington awfully close to accepting a line the Syrians perpetually seek to sell – the politics of grievance. Distressingly, the Americans are signaling that they're interested shoppers.
Although the basic components of US policy had been hinted at earlier, this was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem.
If this sounds like a familiar tune from the 1990s, that’s because in the end it's nothing but a reprise of the view that holds the conflict with Israel as the engine driving all regional dynamics and regime behavior. It’s the politics of grievance.
This line of thinking plays right into the Syrians’ hands, affording them a pass for their actions and duplicity pending the conclusion of a peace deal that may not materialize for years, if ever.
Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria's relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based. But the Obama administration’s “big game” is nothing if not a cocktail of this grievance logic and the infamous concept of “linkage”.
This toxic viewpoint was echoed by National Security Advisor Jim Jones at a recent event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict… Advancing this peace would... help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.”
Such an outlook, distilled in Feltman’s testimony, poses as a grand strategic concept that purports to help mitigate the challenge posed by Iran and the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process all at once. It proposes that by draining the swamps of grievance, Syria will be neutralized, and consequently so will Hamas and Hezbollah, leaving Iran “isolated”. This in turn sets the stage for uniting the Arabs and Israelis under the American umbrella facing Iran. While this does nothing to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it could be the blueprint for a future “containment” option, supposedly denying Iran the ability to project power by using the region’s open conflicts.
It’s the new domino theory. Only there’s nothing new about it. As some of us reasoned, Bashar al-Assad made his gamble with the Scuds calculating that this peace processing impulse would be the administration’s default position. If the US endgame is a comprehensive peace deal, one that by definition involves Syria, then Assad can buy immunity and even leverage, simply by declaring he wants peace.
Thus, Obama becomes trapped by his own “big game”. If Syria is deemed necessary for his regional peace/containment edifice, then the US will not be able to declare engagement a failure and suspend it, or else the entire edifice collapses. The result is the confused paralysis evident in the administration’s reaction to the Scud crisis: doubling down on engagement and the need to convince Assad that his “real” interests lay not with Iran but with the US.
The sought-after model for Syria is Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. But that model is totally inapplicable. Egypt made the leap into the pro-American camp before signing the peace treaty. Whereas with Syria, the administration is de facto justifying Assad’s continuing support for militant groups, affording him an inexplicable exceptionalism.
The administration is trying to camouflage this muddle by arguing that this situation necessitates sending an ambassador to Damascus to better communicate with the Syrian leadership. This fig leaf is not convincing many, including critics in Congress, who point out that the problem is not US communication, but Syrian contempt.
The Obama administration might lean on the Israelis to resume peace talks with Syria (assuming an acceptable formula is found to break the current impasse since the breakdown of the Turkish-sponsored talks). But even if the Netanyahu government agrees, it’s highly unlikely that the talks will lead anywhere, especially since Assad has repeatedly rejected putting his ties to Hezbollah and Iran on the table – a sine qua non for Israel. And so, the “grand idea” will come crashing down, as it already has in its Palestinian version. Meanwhile, Iran keeps spinning its centrifuges while we entertain ourselves with sending an ambassador to Syria.
The “big game” is nothing but a sideshow.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.