U.S., Syria: Firm Ties Behind Bluster

<i> G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years</i>

The close and continuing cooperation between the United States and Syria on Lebanon is a fine example of how, in diplomacy, there can quite deliberately be a wide gap between illusion and reality, between declaratory policy and action policy.

The general impression--the illusion--is that the United States and Syria are--and have been--at loggerheads for some time; at one point the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was shut down and at another the U.S. ambassador was withdrawn. After all, Syria is still on the U.S. list of “terrorist” governments.

The perception is that the Soviet Union is Syria’s best and most important friend on the international level. In terms of action policy, the reality is very different indeed. Discreetly, almost underground, the U.S. Embassy here has always had a useful and friendly relationship with the Syrian regime--that is to say, with the Foreign Ministry and, more important, with the office of President Hafez Assad. This enduring connection has been fostered by a series of U.S. ambassadors, able men who understood Syrian aspirations and complexes, such as Richard W. Murphy, now assistant undersecretary of state, and Talcott W. Seelye.

What divides the United States from Syria, of course, is Israel. Syrian leaders and the Syrian media never cease denouncing Washington as the main supporter--actually the main client--of Israel. The principal source of Syrian hostility to “the Zionist entity,” as they call it, is that Israel seized Syrian territory in the Golan Heights in 1967 and holds it today. Syrians profoundly doubt that the United States would ever exert enough pressure on the Israelis to make them vacate the territory. Yet whenever there are anti-Israel demonstrations in Damascus, during which anti-U.S. slogans may be shouted, the demonstrators are kept well away from the U.S. Embassy. Damascus is one of the few Arab capitals where that favorite target, the premises of U.S. Information Service, have not been attacked.


Lebanon is what brings the United States and Syria together, for the best possible reasons: Both countries have identical interests in Lebanon--and there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. They both want Lebanon to continue as a single, independent entity, not partitioned into a cluster of contending cantons. Also, neither of them wants a Lebanon that is militantly Arab-nationalist, so anti-Israel that it might start a war. Syria would inevitably be dragged into such a conflict at a time and place not of Syria’s choosing. Syria, at the same time, does not want Lebanon to become too close to Israel.

The U.S.-Syrian balancing act about Lebanon began in 1976. In the course of the Lebanese Civil War, a combination of Arab nationalists, Muslims, Druze and leftists were on the point of defeating the pro-Western, pro-Israel Maronite Christians. Fearing victory by the militants--erstwhile allies--Syria totally reversed policy and sent its army into Lebanon to defeat recent friends and rescue former enemies.

The United States came into the picture because of its links with Israel. While Washington welcomed the rescue of Lebanese friends, it was uneasy about the introduction of a Syrian military presence. The United States brokered an Israel-Syria agreement on a “red line” running across Southern Lebanon, a boundary that Syrian troops would not cross. For all their anti-Israel rhetoric, the Syrians have scrupulously respected that line.

Since 1976, U.S.-Syrian cooperation, or collusion, on Lebanon has continued, with some ups and downs. The worst down was in 1984 when Syria, through local Lebanese, engineered repudiation of an Israel-Lebanon peace agreement that had been forged with U.S. assistance the previous year. Then, when Secretary of State George P. Shultz next visited Damascus, the Syrians gloated over this U.S. defeat.


But since there are no permanent enemies, Washington and Damascus having been working hard in the past six months to hammer out a Lebanese consensus on a presidential candidate to succeed Amin Gemayel. These joint efforts--Syrians advising the Muslim-leftist coalition and Americans managing the Maronite Christians--have not succeeded. Now there is no president in Lebanon but there are two prime ministers and perhaps two parliaments. There has also been some mutual recrimination about which side was responsible for the failure.

The Syrians, acting as a viceroy for Lebanon, interviewed a long line of presidential candidates and then rejected them all as weaklings. The Syrians wound up claiming that their old friend and former Lebanon president, Suleiman Franjieh, was the only strong man around. But Franjieh he has been accused of mass-murdering his fellow Maronites. The Americans warned that Franjieh would never be accepted by the Maronites. The Syrians persisted. The Americans were proved right. The Syrians proved that they were obstinate and that they had poor political intelligence.

The U.S.-Syrian partners tried again. After six days of grueling negotiations in Damascus, Murphy finally succeeded in persuading the Syrians to drop Franjieh in favor of Mikhail Daher. Then a new difference arose: The United States did not want to propose only one candidate to the Lebanese; that would seem like an order. But the Syrians opposed giving the Lebanese a choice lest that lead to the usual, endless Lebanese infighting. When Daher’s name finally went forward, he was turned down by the Maronites; they said their self-respect had been wounded.

There have been further recriminations. The Syrians once again seemed stubborn and unknowing while they accused the Americans of failing to keep their side of the Daher bargain. Syria was supposed to quash militant Shias and Palestinians, which it did. The United States was to “deliver” Maronite acceptance of Daher, which it didn’t. The Syrians, always somewhat suspicious of Washington because of its Israel connection, are wondering, half aloud, whether the Americans were unwilling or unable to keep the bargain.

The Americans claim that they had in fact more than kept their side of the bargain. At U.S. urging, Assad gave Gemayel, and through Gemayel the Maronite community, assurances that Syria was not trying to dominate the Lebanese Christians and that Syria would accept their choice of president, if only they would bring themselves to make a choice. Damascus also said that even the most anti-Syrian Maronite militia, the Lebanese Forces, could play a part in any new government. Yet these assurances didn’t work because Gemayel lost political power right after he left office: He has now been placed under house arrest by the Lebanese Forces.

The most encouraging factor in this gloomy situation is that the “terrorist” Syrians and the pro-Israeli Americans are still working together to have a consensus candidate elected as president of Lebanon. Now they are letting the Lebanese pick; the United States and Syria will then try to sell that choice to their respective clients.

The partnership is essential because the Lebanese at long last recognize they can’t get out of the mess they themselves have made.