"Not talking doesn't make us look tough -- it makes us look arrogant," President-elect Barack Obama declares. Throughout his campaign, he has promised renewed engagement after eight years of moribund diplomacy. Chief among his diplomatic targets is Syria, low-hanging fruit unencumbered by the political minefield that would result from engaging the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government. Obama has already dispatched once and future adviser Robert Malley to discuss his regional agenda with Syrian leaders.
Aaron Miller, another veteran Clinton-era peace processor, wrote on Nov. 4 about the Syrian temptation. A Syrian deal, Miller argued, would weaken "Syria's connection to Hamas and Hezbollah, and…the Syrian-Iranian relationship." Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for his part, appears a ready partner.
In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East."
It is tempting to believe that U.S. diplomacy can flip Syria. The last rejectionist Arab state, Syria is a lynchpin not only in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but also in efforts to resolve Iraqi insurgency and Lebanese instability. Alas, as audacious as Obama's hope might be, Syria cannot be flipped. It may be fashionable to blame Bush for the failure to seize a Damascus olive branch, but the real problem has less to do with any U.S. administration and much more to do with Arab history and political culture.
For more than a millennium, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo have competed for the leadership of the Arab world. Soon after the Prophet Muhammad's death, the Umayyad dynasty established Damascus as the seat of the Islamic empire. Less than a century later, the successor Abbasids transferred the caliphate to Baghdad.
In the 10th century, the Fatimid dynasty built Cairo as the seat of a counter-caliphate to challenge Abbasid--and Baghdad's--dominance. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and put an end to Arab dominance in the Islamic world. The Ottoman (Turkish), Safavid (Iranian) and Mughal (Indian) empires filled the vacuum and created a new paradigm that would last for centuries.
World War I shattered the Middle East as much as the Mongol invasion had seven centuries earlier. From the Ottoman Empire's ashes arose a new cast of Arab states, the most important of which coalesced around new leaders in Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. Each struggled to exert leadership across the entire Arab world. Israel became a useful template around which they could posture and against whom they could act as each sought to outdo its rivals in a claim to Arab leadership.
At times, two rivals would join forces but never has there been solidarity among all three. In 1958, for example, Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic. Rather than join with Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad created its own counter-union with Amman. Neither union lasted. Each Arab leader chafed at political and diplomatic subservience to the other.
The next decade saw Baathism's rise in Syria and Iraq. The more alike the two capitals grew, the fiercer their rivalry became. Unity is not an Arab virtue. As each struggled to lead the rejectionist camp, Cairo struck its own claim to leadership. Uncomfortable under the same Cold War umbrella as its rivals, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat switched back to the U.S. camp and, some 30 years ago, recognized Israel.
Impeded by pride, culture and history, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus will never coexist as partners. Sadat flipped Egypt because he understood leadership meant either dominating or standing apart from his fellow Arabs. Washington eased Egypt's transition with more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid; more than $50 billion in sum so far. Iraq flipped, but by force, at a cost far higher.
Diplomats seeking to flip Assad are asking him to commit political suicide. Syria has less than 20 million citizens to Egypt's 80 million; for Damascus to work in the same coalition as Cairo is to subordinate itself to it. Absent the crisis of resistance, Assad has little reason to justify rule by his Alawite clan, a minority Shiite sect, among a disenfranchised Sunni Arab majority.
Aid will not facilitate. For Assad to settle for less than Egypt's aid package would be to confirm his subordination to Hosni Mubarak. A higher package is outside reality: Even the most profligate congressmen cannot stomach another commitment of $50 billion, an amount that could be driven even higher once Tehran begins a bidding war for Syrian loyalty.
So why does Assad flirt with the West? He derives his power from rejection of the West and Israel, but he knows history. He understands that he can both embrace process and ignore peace. So long as the West conflates diplomacy and inducement, Assad can pocket irreversible incentives: A reprieve from the Rafik Hariri murder investigation, concessions on territorial disputes, an end to sanctions and heightened trade.
When the time comes to reciprocate, Assad can walk away, as his father so often did, leaving Washington with far less leverage than before. Today, Obama's supporters see policy as the difference between good and Bush. They sing change, but to privilege rhetoric above reality is dangerous hubris.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.