The State Department announced today that the United States will be sending an ambassador to Syria for the first time in four years. I, of course, welcome this news and want to congratulate Washington on its sound thinking. When I wrote my thesis about the Syrian Crisis of 1957 last semester, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of American-Syrian relations. I wrote in the conclusion of my paper:
Today, Syria holds the same place in Middle Eastern politics that it did in the 1950s. It is a weak state, but a pivotal actor. Despite Syria’s small military, negligible economy and unimportance as a cultural center, the country still has the potential to alter the balance of power on a number of important regional issues, such as Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perpetual political turmoil in Lebanon. If Washington wants to solve these problems, it will have to engage Damascus. A successful American foreign policy will reject the rigid thinking that dominated the Cold War years (and resurfaced during the Bush Administration) and appreciate the complexities of the Middle East.
This paper was written during the first one hundred days of the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. It remains too early to see what course the new administration will take toward Syria, but there are indications that it will pursue engagement with the Assad regime. On March 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the State Department was sending to high-level envoys to Syria for negotiations about relations with Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This act alone demonstrates a departure from the Bush Administration’s policy of isolating and undermining Syria.
Where Syrian-American relations will go next is unclear. Hopefully, President Obama, his successors, and the rest of the American foreign policy establishment can learn from history and resist the temptation to view Middle Eastern politics in stark dichotomies, avoid attempts at regime change that subvert democracy and arouse suspicion, and refrain from the use of covert action as a tool for foreign policy. These are the important lesson that Syrian Crisis of 1957 can teach us. They are lessons that we cannot afford to ignore.
Today’s news indicates a step in the right direction. Obama seems unlikely to repeat Eisenhower’s–or Bush’s–fatal mistakes in Syria.