Try Talking With Syria

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By David W. Lesch
Thursday, July 27, 2006

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a lonely man in international circles of late. Indeed, one of the few Americans with whom he has had contact in the past few years has been a professor (me) who wrote a book about him -- not exactly high-powered diplomacy.

Assad was a tremendous disappointment to many U.S. officials after a promising beginning when he came to power in 2000. Considering the dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited, however, the expectations were misplaced. And because they were so high, so was the level of disappointment.

Along with accusations of Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, Washington began to view Assad as being on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. Indeed, with Syria's neo-patrimonial structure staring down the Bush administration's attempt to spread democracy in the region, the regime was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Thus the long-held disdain among American neoconservatives for the Assads (Bashar and his late father, Hafez) became Bush administration policy, along with the strategic goal of weakening Syria. The young Syrian leader was dismissed as an inept buffoon who wasn't really in control. Regime change in Damascus became U.S. policy in all but name, especially after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in early 2005, in which Syria was seen as the culprit. The Syrian president couldn't even obtain a visa to attend a U.N. General Assembly summit meeting.

Assad has confounded the critics, though. He has survived, despite a few glaring missteps. And it has to be acknowledged by now that one doesn't last six years as president of Syria without being at least somewhat clever, politically skilled and strong-willed.

In fact, Assad is more securely in power and more confident in his leadership today than he has ever been -- although perhaps, as recent events have shown, maybe a bit overconfident. He has weeded out most of the "old guard" from his father's reign, and he funneled the international pressure related to the Hariri assassination and subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon into a nationalistic response that has coalesced in support of the regime.

From Assad's point of view, the United States is stuck in a quagmire in Iraq. It is also deeply concerned about Iran. Meanwhile, President Bush's democracy promotion has hit a brick wall. But Assad continues to talk to practically no one from a Western government.

There are many reasons for the current crisis in the Middle East. It is largely the result of American weakness and perceived illegitimacy, stemming from U.S. folly in Iraq, which has allowed state and sub-state actors to assert themselves.

From Syria's perspective, the crisis is seen as a search for relevance. Damascus needs at least a few arrows in what has been an empty quiver of diplomatic leverage. Assad wants to be taken seriously. He believes the sincere overtures he made to the United States and even Israel in his first few years in power were categorically rebuffed -- and in fact they were. After all, he was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Once before, an Arab leader felt rebuffed in much the same way. That was in 1973, and the leader was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He launched an Arab-Israeli war to reactivate diplomacy and improve his bargaining position with regard to return of the Sinai Peninsula. The United States was smart enough to recognize these motives at the time, and it engaged in a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Leaders reach out in interesting, and occasionally lethal, ways. The Bush administration should not, however, react to the current situation by continuing to isolate and threaten Syria. Recognize the situation for what it is, because, like it or not, Bashar al-Assad is sticking around. Just because diplomacy is what he is ultimately searching for should not obviate the possibility of diplomacy.

In coming weeks, one hopes, the Syrian president will be talking with someone from the United States other than a professor who wrote a book about him.

The writer is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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