Syria’s foreign policy sits atop a mountain of apparent contradictions that have long bedevilled outsiders. Its self-proclaimed goal is peace with Israel, yet it has allied itself with partners vowed to Israel’s destruction. It takes pride in being a bastion of secularism even as it makes common cause with Islamist movements. It simultaneously has backed Iraqi Sunni insurgents and a Lebanese Shiite armed group. The U.S. has wavered between different approaches in unsuccessful attempts to persuade Damascus to clarify its stance, from a peace process focus in the 1990s to isolation and pressure under George W. Bush in the following decade. Barack Obama, having turned an old page without settling on a new one, seems intent on engagement on bilateral issues, albeit more cautious than ambitious. It might work, but not in the way it has been proceeding. Syria might amend its policies, but only if it is first reassured about the costs – in terms of domestic stability and regional standing. That will entail working with Damascus to demonstrate the broader payoffs of a necessarily unfamiliar, and risky, journey.
As the article points out, Syria’s recent political moves have been more like chess and less like craps. Damascus is trying to be opportunistic (in a good way) with its alliances and may, if it pays its cards right, help bring stability to the Middle East. It would be wise for the Obama Administration to continue its policy of engagement here.
Hat tip to Joshua Landis at Syria Comment.