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Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine / 2425-35 Virginia Avenue, NW / Washington, DC 20037 / Tel: 202.338.1290 / Fax: 202.333.7742 / 

U.S. Policy Toward Syria: Contending with the Post-Assad Era

By Stephen Zunes, 13 July 2000


For the first time in nearly 30 years, the United States has the opportunity to deal with Syria without the dominating presence of President Hafez al-Assad, who died on June 10. Washington has routinely considered Syria the most intractable of Israel's front-line neighbors.

A variety of international and domestic factors prompted Assad more than five years ago to pursue a peace agreement with Israel, Syria's long-time enemy. They included the dramatic political and economic shifts in the Arab world resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of left-leaning Arab nationalist movements, the U.S.-dominated post-Gulf War system, and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ongoing peace talks with Israel. Israel, however, seems far less willing to take the necessary steps to make a negotiated settlement possible, and the United States likewise appears unwilling to push its ally to compromise.

Land for Peace:

At the center of the dispute is the Golan Heights, Syria's southwestern corner occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war. According to leaked reports from the January 2000 Shepardstown, West Virginia talks, the Syrians agreed to demilitarize the Golan, allow for international monitors, and provide other security guarantees in return for an Israeli withdrawal. Israel, however, refused to commit to a full withdrawal to its internationally-recognized border and is seeking to retain control of the shoreline of Lake Tiberias. As such, Israel's position flouts a longstanding principle in international law regarding the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by force, restated in the preamble of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242. The United States has insisted that this resolution be the basis of the peace talks, but has largely backed Israel's refusal to return all of Syria's land.


The Syrian civilians expelled from the Golan by Israel in 1967, and their descendants, now number as many as 300,000. Indeed, Syrians remain in only five villages in the Golan. In the early 1980s, these people, all of whom are members of Syria's Druze minority, engaged in Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance against the occupation, only to be brutally suppressed by Israeli forces without any apparent U.S. objections. While the Druze community overwhelmingly desires a return to Syrian governance, its right to self-determination has never been on the U.S. agenda. Washington did not even object when Israel systematically razed the provincial capital of Quneitra following a U.S.-brokered disengagement agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces in 1974.

Focus on Israel's Security:

Few Americans recognize that Syria's security is at least as much at risk as Israel's. On several occasions, Israel has bombed Damascus, though Syria has never successfully attacked Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and Damascus remains within range of Israeli artillery. Yet Israel insists that if it withdraws its forces from the Golan, demilitarization must occur exclusively on the Syrian side.

Virtually all official U.S. statements on security issues have focused exclusively on Israeli security concerns, often reiterating how, between 1948 and 1967, Syrian gunners periodically lobbed shells from the Golan Heights into civilian areas within Israel. According to UN peacekeeping forces stationed along the border, however, Israel engaged in far more cease-fire violations and inflicted far greater civilian casualties than did Syria.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged in his diaries in 1967 that there was no clear strategic rationale for seizing the Golan, and later admitted to an Israeli reporter that the Golan was seized out of greed for its waters and fertile farmland. Many contemporary Israeli strategic analysts agree. Indeed, in this age of medium-range missiles and other modern weaponry, the high ground is simply no longer that important.

The U.S. Position:

During the 1980s, U.S. policy was geared toward confronting Syria. Then-President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council advocated a tough policy of challenging Syria with both American and Israeli military power. There has been a prolonged hostility toward the Syrian government in the U.S. and little support for its insistence upon Israel's withdrawal from the Golan, despite formal U.S. endorsement of the concept of "land for peace" as spelled out in UNSCR 242 and 338.

The U.S. has commonly considered Syria to be hard-line for its rejection of these resolutions. Now that Syria has dramatically moderated its policies and has accepted them as the basis of negotiations, it appears that the U.S. considers Syria to be unreasonable for its insistence on the resolutions' strict implementation. The result is an impasse that can be broken only by a shift in U.S. policy.

While welcoming Syria into the peace talks, the Clinton administration has continued to include Syria on its list of "terrorist states," even though the State Department has admitted that it has no evidence of a Syrian connection to any terrorist attacks since 1986. Being on the list denies Syria access to foreign aid and certain high-technology imports. Washington has offered to remove Syria from the list only if it makes peace with Israel largely on U.S.-Israeli terms-an example of how the terrorist designation has become more of a political tool than an objective measure of a given government's behavior.

Charting an Independent Course:

Assad has been generally depicted as an obstacle to U.S. policy interests in the region. Yet, while he was, indeed, an Arab nationalist angered by Western domination of the region, he was also a pragmatist, willing to bend his principles to maintain power and avoid isolating his country completely from the rest of the world. Many of his policies - for good or for ill - greatly pleased American policy makers.

As head of the Syrian air force in 1970, Assad refused to support Palestinians and Jordanian leftists in their uprising against King Hussein, despite preparations by other segments of the Syrian armed forces to topple Hussein. As president, Assad deployed Syrian troops in Lebanon's civil war in 1976 on the side of the right-wing Phalangists against the leftist Lebanese National Movement and their Palestinian allies. Syrian troops remain in Lebanon to this day, and Syria effectively controls that country's foreign policy and key government decisions. Moreover, in the fall of 1990, Assad contributed thousands of Syrian troops to Operation Desert Shield to support the U.S. effort to protect Saudi Arabia and prepare for the war against Iraq soon thereafter. He later signed a security pact-known as the Damascus Agreement-with Egypt and the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, all strong U.S. allies.

Like many Arab leaders, Assad manipulated the Palestinian cause to advance his political agenda, often at the expense of the Palestinians themselves. He backed hard-line factions and sent his army against Fatah and other Palestinian parties unwilling to toe the Syrian line. His support of the Kurdish cause was uneven as well, providing sanctuary and later-under U.S. pressure-expelling Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan from Syria.

The Future:

Getting Syria's occupied land back will have to be left to Assad's successor, his son Bashar, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist. Bashar is expected to continue down his father's path of increasing economic and political liberalization while allowing only limited political pluralism.

For better or worse, it is doubtful that Bashar will be as strong or effective a leader as his father. Certain things, however, are likely to remain the same: Bashar will probably seek to maintain a course independent of overbearing Western influence, to insist upon Israel's complete withdrawal from the Golan, and to desire to maintain greater social equality than found elsewhere in the Arab world. It would be naive for the United States to hope that this will change with the passing of Hafez al-Assad.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. This Information Brief does not necessarily reflect the views of CPAP or The Jerusalem Fund

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