Jentleson Discusses Meeting with Syrian President

Do all roads, or at least some, lead through Damascus?  With the decision to send emissaries to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Obama administration has decided to find out.  Having had a recent opportunity as part of an unofficial study group sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center to meet with President Assad, I have a sense of both opportunities and obstacles.

Our meeting with President Assad, held in early January, lasted over two hours. It was serious and substantive, addressing a wide range of issues. Perhaps the most significant impression was what did not happen. While the meeting was agreed to before the Israel-Gaza war, it ended up taking place at the height of the war. Yet Assad did not cancel. Moreover, although there was disagreement on Gaza, the dialogue was without harangue and without the war becoming the sole focus of the meeting.

When asked whether the Syrian-Israeli talks on the Golan Heights being mediated in 2008 by Turkey could resume once the Gaza crisis was managed, Assad quite directly said yes, with the caveat that Israeli elections must yield a government willing and able to re-engage.  And while praising Turkey’s role in the Israel-Syria talks, he was clear about an ultimate U.S. role as “arbiter of incidents” and “guarantor of agreements.”

There were plenty of other issues on which our views differed including Lebanon and Hizbollah, Syrian support for Hamas, Syrian ties to Iran, Iraq border security, and others. These tell us where Syria stands now. The question is which positions are fixed and which flexible.

Some insight into this crucial question can be discerned from the overarching strategic view that came through from Assad. Four elements seemed central: a focus on interests, not ideology or past history, as the basis for relations among states; recognition of the need to deal with “who is powerful,” whoever they are; emphasis on the interconnectedness of the region’s issues; and secularism vs. extremism as a central dynamic in the region and a particular threat to Syrian stability.

While there is much reinforcing in these elements, there also is an inherent tension between Syrian alliances with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran, and the concern about secularism vs. extremism. Along these lines one could detect some ambivalence about Syrian-Iranian ties and the relationship as an alliance of convenience, resulting partly from Bush administration policies that pushed them closer together, rather than a relationship rooted in a shared vision for the region.

If we think strategically about such tensions, they could be opportunities for shifting the alliance of convenience calculations. To the extent that U.S.-Syrian ties improve, the value to Syria of ties to Iran would be reduced. And, in an Obama-Clinton version of Kissingerian triangulation, progress on the Syrian track could help leverage progress with Iran.

All told, the central message was of strong interest in improved relations with the United States. Assad used the formulation “70/30” of the interests we potentially share vs. ones we do not. His emphasis was that we should focus on the 70, while working out the 30. He came back to a shared interest with the U.S. in fighting extremism which “is a challenge facing the world.” We may see the percentages differently, but the point is an interesting one.

As to Assad himself, he was comfortable with his English (he turned to the interpreter for word search only a few times in the two-plus hours), confident in his analysis and views, and eager to be seen by us as a regional player. One always has to do some discounting for charm offensives. Still the sense was of a leader with interest in taking a new look even if not a fully fresh start.

Since our visit a number of official U.S. delegations that have gone to Damascus, including one led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, have made similar assessments.

The Syrian track is worth probing. Prospects for improved bilateral relations and regional cooperation should be seriously explored and creatively engaged. That requires taking engagement from a process to a strategy, one that guards against pitfalls while pursuing opportunities, and doing so in ways that serve our interests as well as our allies.

Jentleson, author of American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.