Syria is not the key to resolving any of the Middle East's crises -- not Iraq, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, or Iran -- but it has the power to stymie progress on all of them. Geography alone makes Syria, with its borders with Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Kurdish region of Turkey, central to Middle East peace. Add to that the long-standing, albeit highly unusual, relationship between the secular Sunni regime in Damascus and the Shiite mullahs in Tehran, and Syria's importance is indisputable.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to view President Bashar al-Assad's regime with suspicion. Syrian-backed assassinations have taken Lebanon to the brink of collapse, and Israeli airstrikes recently raised rumors of a secret nuclear program. But consider that the same government has opened an embassy in Baghdad, taken in more than a million Iraqi refugees, made an appearance at the Annapolis Middle East peace conference, and appears to have cracked down on the passage of foreign terrorists into Iraq in recent months. Yet, Washington has slammed the door on the possibility of a relationship.
The Bush administration's "they know what they need to do" school of diplomacy, demanding its own desired outcomes as preconditions for talks, has failed utterly with the Syrians, as it has everywhere else. From Cuba to Iran, shunning regimes the United States doesn't like has never achieved anything other than the deepening of mutual mistrust. That's why it's time for the next president to reopen the road to Damascus.
Syria has signaled for several years that it wants a relationship with the United States. A year ago, Assad's top legal advisor reportedly told participants at an international gathering that "negotiations mean that we will come to the table with all that we are and all that we have, including our relationships." Translation: Syria is willing to trade on its influence with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, among others. Both Syria's foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States have been explicit that Syria is ready for talks without preconditions.
So, what is Washington waiting for? Strip away all the hot air, and there are only two arguments being made against active diplomacy with Syria. One is that talking to the United States is a "reward" that Damascus hasn't earned. That is a specious argument that is equal parts self-fulfilling and self-defeating. The United States has routinely negotiated with despicable regimes when there is something it really wants; look no further than the Bush administration's dealings with Libya and North Korea.
The second argument is that diplomacy will fail because Washington's and Damascus's interests are so opposed. This assertion is unknowable until it is tested. Foretelling the outcome of negotiations before they happen is a fool's errand. Who can possibly say today whether Syria prefers its ties to an isolated Iran to an economically robust relationship with the United States and Europe?
There would be one precondition a new president would have to meet to launch serious discussions with Damascus: take the threat of regime change off the table. That in itself would have beneficial ripple effects across the region. Whatever else might result won't happen overnight. But there is enough to be gained, and enough reason to think success might be achieved, that an opening to Damascus belongs on the next president's agenda.