With Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush Administration drastically transformed the Middle East and dramatically altered the balance of power in that region. Unfortunately, instead of quickly reassessing the new dynamics on the ground and developing a new and more appropriate prism for viewing the region, the Bush Administration pursued the same old policies of the past and continued to view the region through the same old prism. As a result, the Bush Administration failed miserably in reaping the benefits of the Operation’s potential strategic gains for the United States and it suffered major regional setbacks. These setbacks are:
• Iraq: having helped bring the Shiites to power (for the first time in more than 800 years in an Arab country) along with the Kurds, the Bush Administration lost the trust of both communities by pursuing the policies of the past.
• Iran: with the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, in a US military operation dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, Iran cooperated constructively with the United States setting the stage for a possible new opening in relations between both countries. Instead of building on this experimental new relationship, the Bush Administration declared Iran part of an Axis of Evil in 2002 and shunned Iranian signals for cooperation in 2003 following the Iraqi invasion. As a result, the region faces today a much more belligerent Iran.
• Syria: by removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, the United States got rid of Syria’s most bitter Arab enemy. Instead of exploring a new policy towards Syria based on common interests in Iraq, the Bush Administration pursued a policy of antagonism towards Syria. Result: another great opportunity was lost.
• Palestine: instead of employing the immediate effect of “Shock and Awe” to its fullest advantage — by quickly re-engaging in a strong push for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians — the Bush Administration totally ignored that conflict leaving the Palestinians in a further state of psychological despair. Result: Hamas came to power.
• Lebanon: in 2005, the United States was presented with an extraordinary opportunity for change in Lebanon. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon and the most popular Christian leader, Michel Aoun, with very close ties to the Shiites, returned to Lebanon from France where he had been in exile since 1990. Instead of seizing this new opportunity and designing a new approach towards Lebanon, the Bush Administration pursued the same old policies of the past. Result: attempts to disarm Hezbollah through pressure and by military means backfired giving Hezbollah increased power and stature in Lebanon.
In summary, the Bush Administration, who truly destroyed the “old political order” in the Middle East, failed to take full advantage of the engendered change to further US interests in that region because it failed to view the region through a new prism. Ironically, President Obama, who had opposed the invasion of Iraq in the first place, is best poised at this moment in history to take full advantage of the “change” ushered in by his predecessor; and, his administration can now design new policies reflective of the new realities of the Middle East. In fact, the Obama Administration has an extraordinary opportunity today to help advance US interests in the Middle East in ways unthinkable of few years ago. This, however, requires a look at the region through a new prism, which is the focus of this multi-part series commencing with a fresh look at Syria.
Syria vis-à-vis Iraq
Syria has viewed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with great ambivalence. On the one hand, the Syrian regime welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein, its most bitter enemy, and felt more at ease with an Iraq ruled primarily by a Shiite-led coalition. On the other hand, Syria feared that the potential religious strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq might spill over into Syria endangering its own stability. Given Syria’s attitude and the Bush Administration’s focus on “regime change”, it was impossible for Syria and the United States to find common ground. What about now?
The Obama Administration seems determined to withdraw US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2010. In order to secure that objective peacefully and in an orderly fashion, the United States must ensure that no security vacuum emerges as a result of its troop withdrawal. Many experts, pundits and members of Congress in Washington are under the impression that the “surge” had succeeded and that US withdrawal can, therefore, take place with relative ease. WRONG! The surge in troops in 2007 along with the new alliance struck between Sunni tribes and the United States have definitely contributed to a dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq. This success, however, is still tactical and not strategic for two major reasons:
• the fundamental differences between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq have not yet been bridged thereby, threatening a resurgence in religious and ethnic violence following the departure of US troops; and
• Iraq’s neighbors (Iran, Turkey, and Syria) have not reached any understanding among themselves on whether to act individually or in concert if violence were to explode in Iraq post US withdrawal.
A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that does not bring about religious and ethnic civil war is today in the interest of both the United States and Syria. By looking at Syria through this new prism, the United States can more constructively engage Syria on Iraq and bring successful closure to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Syria vis-à-vis Lebanon
The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 represented an extraordinary change in Syrian attitudes towards Lebanon. Unfortunately, most experts in the United States have failed to understand the magnitude and depth of that change in Syrian policy because they continued to look at Syria through the old prism – i.e. since Syria has always had territorial and political expansionist ambitions at the expense of Lebanon, its military withdrawal from Lebanon must, therefore, be tantamount to a tactical maneuver void of any fundamental change in Syrian attitude, period. In reality, however, Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon was truly strategic. Let me explain. The year 2005 presented Syria with a nightmarish situation: the possibility of Syria getting sucked into civil conflict in both Iraq and Lebanon at the same time.
Iraq in 2005 presented the most serious long term threat to Syrian stability because a Sunni-Shiite war in neighboring Iraq could have a devastating effect on Syria’s internal security. Syria had to : 1) closely monitor its border with Iraq to prevent the possible infiltration of its territory by Al Qaeda and/or Sunni insurgency groups; and, 2) also design military contingency plans vis-à-vis a chaotic Iraq. The presence of 40,000 of its troops in Lebanon was becoming a hindrance. On the other hand, the situation in Lebanon, following the assassination in 2005 of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was on the verge of becoming explosive. Serious allegations of Syrian involvement in the killing of Hariri poisoned relations with the Sunni community of Lebanon and paved the way for a burgeoning uprising by the Lebanese against Syrian presence in Lebanon. Syria was at a crossroads. If it were to stick to its previous policy towards Lebanon, it would most certainly face upheaval and be drawn into a new protracted religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon. To the Lebanese Sunnis, Syria became the enemy, and to the Shiites, Syria was the ally that could protect them from Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism. Alternatively, if Syria were to withdraw its troops from Lebanon it would:
• Enhance Syria’s capabilities to deploy troops along the Iraqi border if necessary
• Avoid an upheaval in Lebanon;
• Appease rather than enflame Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon;
• Preserve rather than endanger its alliance with the Shiites in Lebanon; and
• Neutralize the animosity of Lebanese Christians.
It became clear to Syria that the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005 would bring it “real” security. The strategic choice was cast. By viewing Syria through this new prism, the United States can design a much more constructive and successful policy towards Lebanon.
Syria vis-à-vis Palestine
While the Palestinian Authority (PA) is nominally in charge of the West Bank today, its leadership over the Palestinian population is quite shaky. In fact, if elections were to be held today in the West Bank, the PA may very well lose! In Gaza, in spite of the 22-day long Israeli military offensive code named Operation Cast Lead that was launched on December 27, 2008, Hamas is still in charge of Gaza. Although Hamas has been weakened militarily to a great extent, it has gained more political and moral support among Palestinians and Arabs in general. On a regional level, the biggest political loser has been Egypt and the biggest winner has been Syria. Egypt lost a lot of support in the Arab and Moslem worlds because it sealed its borders with Gaza during the war and was seen as “assisting’ Israel in its military operation. While Egypt has been instrumental in securing “ceasefires’ between Hamas and Israel, it is Syria who enjoys among all Arab countries the greatest political leverage and trust with Hamas. If Hamas is here to stay and if the Obama Administration is serious about pushing forward peace negotiations between Palestinian and Israelis, there will come a point in time where some form of accommodation with Hamas will have to take place. How and under what circumstances remain to be seen; but Syria is best positioned to facilitate such a process when the time is right.
Pundits and experts in Washington keep talking about Iranian-backed Hamas; it’s sounding like a broken record! The exiled leadership of Hamas is in Syria, not in Iran. While Iranian support is important to Hamas, it is Syrian support and influence that are most significant and have the greatest impact on Hamas and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As long as Hamas is a player, Syria’s role could be most constructive in any renewed serious peace effort.
Syria vis-à-vis Iran
Syria has forged a close relationship with Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran in 1980. This relationship may become quite useful to the United States in any future engagement with Iran.
Syria has a direct interest in cooperating with the United States on many fronts (as discussed above), especially in Iraq, the most pressing of all policy priorities for the Obama Administration at this time. Both countries are interested in seeing a stable Iraq following US troop withdrawal and both countries consider Al Qaeda a regional threat. By viewing Syria through this new prism, it becomes quite apparent to the United States that much could be accomplished between Washington and Damascus through constructive engagement. There is one key point for US policymakers to remember and keep in mind when designing approaches to Syria: a more secure and confident Syria can be of great assistance to the United States, while a weakened or threatened Syria can be a major obstacle to US interests.