Contrary to the prevailing wisdom which holds that there's little downside to diplomatic engagement with Washington's adversaries in the Middle East, there could be a significant cost associated with the Obama Administration's talks with Syria. While the potential gains of the Administration's initiative may justify the risks, Washington should continue to take steps to mitigate the potential damage of the policy.
At a minimum, Washington's renewed contacts with Damascus will contribute to the erosion of the broad diplomatic isolation of Syria, which has been in place since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri--a crime for which Damascus is the leading suspect.
To be sure, this was already the trend with Europe. Months ago, following Syrian President Asad's unprecedented pledge to post an ambassador in Beirut, Paris feted Asad at its Bastille Day bash. (Syria has not yet followed through on this pledge, much to France's chagrin). The US decision to reengage with the Asad regime may have also contributed to Britain's ill-advised initiative to establish contacts with Hizballah.
This past week, anticipating the new direction of US policy, Saudi Arabia and Egypt started their own process of rapprochement with the Asad regime. Relations had been strained between the "moderate" Arab camp and Iranian-allied Syria since the Hariri killing, but deteriorated during the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, when Asad called the Saudi and Egyptian leaders "half men" for not sufficiently backing Hizballah.
While the Obama Administration's preliminary foray into engaging Damascus has generally been thoughtful--careful not to raise expectations or to provide concessions up front--the road ahead is replete with pitfalls. The most immediate concern in this regard is the potential impact on the Lebanese elections.
The June 7th elections pit the pro-west democratically elected March 14th coalition against the Iranian-Syrian backed Hizballah-led March 8th coalition, in what promises to be an extremely tight race. (For an preliminary analysis of the contest, see: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3025 ). In Lebanon--where Washington is widely believed to have cut a deal in 1990 blessing the Syrian occupation in return for its participation in the first Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait--the perception that Washington may once again abandon Beirut in exchange for temporary diplomatic gains with Damascus could shift the elections in favor of Hizballah and its allies.
A Hizballah electoral victory over the US-backed March 14th coalition would be widely understood in the region as a defeat for Washington--and a triumph for Tehran and Damascus.
Also at stake as the Washington pursues its dialogue with Damascus, are two important independent international processes that represent not only the importance of international justice and nuclear non-proliferation, but the integrity of these important international institutions. In the beginning of March, the Special International Tribunal prosecuting the Hariri assassination was established in The Hague, and the International Atomic Energy Agency is currently investigating what was almost certainly an illegal Syrian nuclear facility (destroyed by an Israeli strike in September 2007).
The Asad regime is not cooperating with the IAEA investigation, has pledged non-cooperation on the tribunal, and has threatened to destabilize Lebanon in the event the tribunal prosecution implicates Syria. Clearly, Damascus is betting that the outcomes of these international processes will be mitigated, if not swept under the carpet, in return for modest--if not temporary--improvements in Syrian behavior. If this kind of deal is struck, it would compromise the integrity of these institutions, and be a real setback for rule of law and counter-proliferation efforts.
With all the focus on changing Syria's support for Hizballah and Hamas, another potential cost of engagement could be Washington's longstanding concerns about Syria's atrocious human rights record. Human rights in Syria have always a low priority for Washington, but given the current attention on exploring areas of cooperation, this issue could be eclipsed entirely.
Last week, I penned an article about the Obama Administration and human rights in Syria, focused on the plight of leading dissident Riad Seif. The article, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, can be found below and at: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-schenker10-2009mar10,0,3521865.story
Of course, some might argue that these costs would be well worth it, should the US engagement with Syria result in the strategic orientation of Damascus away from its 30-year strategic alliance with Tehran. But Syria repeatedly and emphatically denies that it would be willing to consider making such a shift. In any event, until Damascus demonstrates a willingness to change some of its more unhelpful policies of supporting terrorist organizations, and actively destabilizing Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq, a change in Washington's policy orientation toward Syria would be premature.