Both the European Union and the United States have reached out to Syria in recent months. In December, the EU encouraged Syria's continued steps toward a membership in the Euromed partnership, which seeks a free trade zone in the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, has openly declared US intentions to pursue a Syrian-Israeli peace track, and in January the United States began moving to reinstate an ambassador in Damascus.
For years, the EU's Syrian focus has been on creating a harmonious economic sphere for continued trade relations. The EU prefers small diplomatic steps that do not threaten this harmony, even after dramatic events. For example, following the assassination of Lebanese Rafik Hariri in 2005, which was widely suspected to be Syria's doing, the United States immediately withdrew its ambassador to Syria while the EU response was more subdued. The large-scale coordination required by the EU acted to restrain the body's most prominent Syria hawk, then-French President Jacques Chirac. Too many EU nations did not want to jeopardize long-term trade relations with Syria as it began to slowly open its economy after decades of central management.
Whereas the EU's diplomatic focus has been on economic relations with Syria in recent years, the US-Syria relationship has been framed mostly by security, and has proven far more contentious than its EU counterpart. Syria joined the 1991 Gulf War against its rival Ba'athist regime in Iraq but strongly objected to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since this invasion, the United States has repeatedly accused Bashar al-Asad's regime of giving aid and encouragement to militant fighters who seek to cross the Syrian border into Iraq to fight coalition forces. The United States is also bothered by Syria's 30-year-old alliance with Iran, which has grown stronger in recent years. But now the Obama administration is seeking a success story in the Middle East to back up the rhetoric deployed in 2009's Cairo speech, and a Syria-Israel peace accord could be just that. Right now, the administration sees a Syria-Israel peace accord as much more likely than a Palestinian peace deal, and it has kept George Mitchell busy with three trips to Syria since President Obama took office.
The EU and the United States can succeed in their respective diplomatic spheres if they work together to stress the same incentives for Syria. A peace deal with Israel would grant Syria greater strategic depth, allowing the regime to cut down on defense spending and free up some needed money to improve infrastructure and deal with Syria's Iraqi refugee problem. The EU's offer of greater economic integration would also help ease these problems as foreign investment begins to trickle in. This is why the US negotiating team should encourage Syria to finally sign and ratify the Euromed agreement. Toward the same end, the EU should make some of its trade benefits contingent on a Syrian peace deal with Israel, rather than offering economic incentives from Europe without any definitive steps toward a lasting peace.
Negotiating a peace deal between Syria and Israel will not be easy, and questions of water rights, international borders, and demilitarization of the Golan will certainly prove to be contentious points. But the EU can help ease the process by offering continued economic cooperation with a peaceful Syria, allowing the United States to point to its European allies as supporters of the peace process. Done right, this is a diplomatic situation where every party can benefit, and the Middle East can be made a bit more peaceful and prosperous.
Michael Mc Carthy is currently an Editorial Associate at Devry University Online. He has worked as an intern for Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security at the Center for a New American Security.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Memo 15: Middle East Peace: Back to Oslo - with Egypt
- Tobias P. Fella: Obama's Foreign Policy: The Right Grand Strategy
- Vilborg Ása Guðjónsdóttir: The Future of Transatlantic Relations