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Executive Summary
of Syria Beyond the Peace Process

Conventional political analysis of the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad focuses too heavily on the narrow questions relating to the Arab-Israeli peace process and too lightly on Assad's own interests, political ambitions, and style of decisionmaking. Analytically, such tunnel vision misrepresents Assad's priorities, in which regime survival, continuity of Alawi supremacy, and suzerainty over Lebanon are ranked above the reclamation of the Golan Heights. Operationally, this approach limits Washington's ability to secure other regional interests (e.g., fighting terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting human rights, and combating the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism) and, ironically, reduces U.S. leverage to win peace process concessions from Damascus.

While the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace justly remains the dominant U.S. interest in the Levant, it is important to assess Syrian politics through a wider political lens. Since coming to power in 1970, Assad has imposed a brutal, authoritarian police state that has brought an unprecedented measure of stability to historically anarchic Syria and inter alia elevated his long-persecuted Alawi minority to control of the regime's political and military apparatus. From the start, regime maintenance and ensuring a family succession have been Assad's top priorities, with all other policies -- from the Arab-Israeli conflict to inter-Arab relations to support for international terrorism -- instrumental tools in the effort to keep stability and security at home.

Assad's alliance with the Soviet Union was a critical element in this effort and the collapse of communism was a shock to Assad and the Syrian elite. Responding to that shock -- and thereby finding a new way to secure the longevity of Alawi rule -- has dominated Syrian politics since 1989. By definition, this search for a new safeguard of regime security has required Assad to be pragmatic, not ideological, on issues ranging from the confrontation with Israel to his commitment to socialism.

On none of these issues, however, could Assad bring himself to make a complete conversion because it might threaten regime stability. Domestically, economic reform has gone little beyond loosening restrictions for importers and foreign investors, with the government bureaucracy still controlling much of the economy; attempts at political liberalization have been transparent and superficial. On the peace process, Assad dropped technical obstacles to negotiations with Israel years ago and concessions by Israel have left the substantive gaps between Syrian and Israeli positions remarkably slim, yet there remains little prospect of Assad actually making peace with the Zionists unless wholly on his terms. Through it all, Assad has sought to establish a new relationship with the United States, not to replace the Soviet umbrella but to provide insurance against Syria's two main foes -- pro-West Turkey and pro-West Israel -- at a time of profound military weakness and vulnerability. Yet even here, Assad balances his effort to build ties with Washington, exemplified by Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq Gulf War alliance, to his dogged commitment to maintain other alliances with the world's few remaining "rogue states," such as Iran and North Korea.

Syrian-Turkish tension is perhaps the most overlooked potential flashpoint in the world. The two countries differ over a wide range of issues: territory (Syria claims the Turkish province of Hatay); water resources (Syria fears Turkish manipulation of Tigris and Euphrates water); and most importantly, terrorism (Syria actively supports the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK). So far, only Turkish forbearance has prevented a hot conflict between these two countries.

Given Syria's location between two key allies -- Turkey and Israel -- the United States has a strong interest in containing Syrian mischief-making and in promoting peace and stability in the Levant. Despite Syria's history of rogue behavior, including indirect participation in the bombing of PanAm 103, Washington's approach to Damascus has always been tinged with as much sorrow as anger. While stiff sanctions have been imposed on Syria for its participation in terrorism and the international narcotics trade, the prospect of wooing Assad into peace with Israel has tempered U.S. policy, leading to four presidential summits with Assad (one each with Carter and Bush, and two by Clinton) and dozens of visits to Damascus by U.S. secretaries of state, both Republican and Democratic.

This nuanced policy has registered some successes but at a time of U.S. strength and Syrian weakness, much more can be achieved. The objective of U.S. policy should not be to undermine Assad but to take advantage of his weakness to force an evolution in his policies that advance U.S. interests in peace and security and that build upon the common U.S.-Syrian interest in combating radical Islamic fundamentalism. In return for the cooperation and support he seeks as a way to protect Alawi rule, Washington should demand a warm peace with Israel, a withdrawal from Lebanon, and an end to support for the PKK insurgency against Turkey. This will force Assad to choose between Iran and America, between terrorism and stability, between proxy conflict and peace. If pursued creatively and vigorously -- through shifts in declaratory, diplomatic, regulatory, and potentially even military policy -- this approach can work because it offers Assad U.S. support for what he seeks most: regime survival.

Syria Beyond the Peace Process is available from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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