Relations with the United States
Over the years, United States-Syrian bilateral relations ranged between grudging mutual accommodation and outright mutual hostility. But even when the relationship was strained severely, the fundamental United States policy toward Syria with regard to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict has remained consistent. The United States endorses United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the implementation of which would entail the return of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights to Syrian control.
For its part, Syria has often vehemently criticized American policy in the Middle East. At the same time, however, it has recognized that Resolution 242 contains provisions in its favor. Syria has been willing to negotiate with the United States over the Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional issues, as long as the diplomacy is conducted quietly and behind the scenes. Syria has also adhered scrupulously to the commitments and promises it has made to American negotiators.
Since the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, the United States has strongly supported Israel but has simultaneously indicated, particularly after the October 1973 War, that it acknowledges the legitimacy of some of Syria's grievances against Israel. In the aftermath of Israel's attack on Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1982, the United States was forced to choose between irreconcilable Israeli and Syrian ambitions in Lebanon; the administration of Ronald Reagan chose to endorse the Israeli position. President Reagan supported the May 17, 1983, Lebanese-Israeli accords and linked this peace treaty to his attempts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, Syria stymied the Reagan initiative, in part by inciting opposition to American policies among its surrogates and proxies in Lebanon. The United States also suspected Syria of having played a role in attacks on the United States Embassy and on the Marine barracks in Beirut. Although the degree of Syrian complicity was never determined, American officials believed that Syria at least had foreknowledge of and acquiesced in the attacks. Syrian-United States relations reached their nadir in December 1983, when the two nations engaged in near warfare. On December 4, United States carrier-based warplanes attacked Syrian antiaircraft installations in Lebanon's Biqa Valley (two were shot down), and on December 13 and 14, United States battleships shelled Syrian positions. From a military viewpoint, the clashes were not highly significant. However, they marked the first American-Syrian armed conflict and reinforced Syria's view of the United States regional policy as gunboat diplomacy.
In June 1985, Syrian-United States relations improved dramatically when Syria interceded on behalf of the United States after the hijacking to Beirut of Trans World Airlines flight 847. Reagan expressed his appreciation of Syria's role in securing release of the hostages, albeit in guarded language. Yet to some observers Syria's ability to impose its will on the hijackers confirmed Syrian links to terrorism. Although Syria had been accused repeatedly of supporting Palestinian terrorism against American, West European, and Israeli targets in the Middle East and in Western Europe, there had been little evidence, much less proof, of direct Syrian complicity in terrorist attacks against Western targets.
However, when a Jordanian, Nizar Hindawi, was apprehended on April 17, 1986, after attempting to smuggle a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al Airlines plane in London, he confessed that Syrian intelligence officers had masterminded the abortive attack and that Syria had provided him with the training, logistical support, and explosives to carry out the plot. Britain reportedly collected evidence that corroborated Hindawi's story. As a consequence, on May 6, 1986, Vice President George Bush said of Syria, "We are convinced their fingerprints have been on international terrorist acts," and on November 14, 1986, the United States imposed sanctions on Syria "in response to Syria's continued support for international terrorism." The White House, however, also stated that "Syria can play an important role in a key region of the world, but it cannot expect to be accepted as a responsible power or treated as one as long as it continues to use terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy."
In these statements, the United States censured Syria for sponsoring terrorism but also implied recognition of Syria's potentially central role in the Middle East. Even since Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's first visit to Damascus in December 1973, Assad has attempted to persuade successive American administrations of the truth of the old adage "There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt, but there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria." Assad sought to convince the United States that Syria, however intransigent its negotiating stance, should not be ignored in any comprehensive Middle East peace treaty because it could resume war with Israel and therefore exert veto power over an Arab-Israeli settlement. At the same time, however, Assad was convinced that the United States was indispensable in any Middle East peace because only the United States could force Israel to make concessions to the Arabs.
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