As the president-elect begins to weigh the carrots and sticks he can employ when dealing with the Middle East, he will run into the question of how to handle Syria. Bashar Assad was the first to reach out with a telegram to Barack Obama on November 7 that "expressed hope for constructive dialogue so that the difficulties can be overcome which have hampered the advance of peace, stability and progress in the Middle East."
The list of these "difficulties" is indeed long. The regime in Damascus supports terrorist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, continues to destabilize Lebanon, strives to become a nuclear power, and is politically and tactically wedded to Iran - and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
During the past few years, there have been two camps in Washington with opposing views on how to handle Syria. The first holds that Syria has taken Iraq's place in the "axis of evil," and that the way to alter its behavior is continued isolation and stepped-up sanctions - this is the stick approach. The second argues that the US should engage with Damascus, support efforts to renew Syrian-Israeli dialogue, and attempt to pry Syria apart from its allies in Teheran with a basket of incentives - the carrot approach. The problem is that neither approach has succeeded in inducing a lasting change in Syrian behavior.
Syria, meanwhile, is sensing an opening. Sami Moubayed, a Damascus-based professor, analyst and regime mouthpiece, recently floated a quasi-official trial balloon when he declared that if relations with Washington were to improve, Damascus could use its influence with Hizbullah and Hamas, and help to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. In reality, this is an empty offer. Syria, in effect, is proposing to prevent itself from arming the terrorist groups it already supports while offering the US a chance to end Syria's regional isolation. And in return, Assad wants "normalized" relations, a new US ambassador (recalled after Hariri's assassination in Lebanon in 2005), an end to the economic sanctions, compensation for the recent US air strike, and American sponsorship of indirect peace talks with Israel.
In other words, in return for agreeing to an increased regional role and an end to its isolation, the Assad regime would like to be offered an increased regional role, an end to their isolation - and a pile of cash to boot. This kind of circular reasoning might sound new and bizarre, but it is, in fact, the norm. Welcome to Syrian logic.
"YOU CAN'T make war without Egypt and you can't make peace without Syria," was the old adage coined by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decades ago. Moubayed goes further and asks America to recognize that "no problems can be solved in the Middle East without Syria." Yet little has changed in Syrian behavior; Damascus is still the spoiler-in-chief in the Middle East. For proof of this, one needs to look no further than Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim's recent offer to help secure "an honorable exit" for the US from Iraq, even as his government continues to facilitate the flow of insurgents into Iraq, and masses troops on its common border with Lebanon. Apparently, the hope of the regime in Damascus is that if it creates a regional problem, it should receive an international reward for fixing it.
The new overtures toward Damascus now being contemplated by some in Washington, then, are not motivated by hopes Syria can help, but simply a desire to have Syria sit out the fight. Needless to say, this amounts to a colossal perversion of diplomacy. Carrots, be they diplomatic or economic, should be offered to those who adopt genuinely helpful policies. Providing them to states that merely offer to temporarily reduce their degree of rogue behavior is not only bad policy; it is bound to lead Syria to light more fires and then ask for additional rewards for extinguishing them.