US--Syria Relationship: When will it be straightened out?

The election of a new US president raises hundreds of questions about his foreign policies on some issues, most notably the Syrian crisis. This article reviews the history of US-Syrian relations, the tensions between them, and the way in which the two countries deal with each other.

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Feb 28, 2021

Almost no global file is devoid of a pivotal role for the United States, thus, the election of a new American president always raises hundreds of questions about the policies that he will pursue, foreign, in particular. Consequently, at the beginning of every new presidential term, there are various analyzes, readings, and predictions about how the new leader of the White House will manage the outstanding issues that he inherited from his predecessor. 

Now that President Biden has taken up his duties, debates about his anticipated intentions concerning dealing with problematic files such as the Iranian nuclear file, peace in the Middle East, international environmental agreements, etc. have started.  In which, Syria and the war that has been going on for ten years are on top of the speculation list. The inheritance of this file is not limited to the legacy neither of war nor to what the former US President Donald Trump did but extends into many former Presidents. The two countries witnessed series of the most complex contemporary international relations, which involved high levels of tension, and a tug of war, where periods of calm were limited to a few occasions.

The history of US-Syrian relations, and the tension between the two countries, is as old as the history of the modern Syrian state itself. Although that the United States established diplomatic relations with Syria in 1944, that is, even before the final French withdrawal, its interference in the internal Syrian affairs started a few years later.  Husni al-Za'im's coup of March 30, 1949, which overthrew Shukri al-Quwatli, the country's first elected president and leader of its fight for independence, was not only the first military move of its kind in Syria but was also one of the first covert actions carried out by the CIA since its creation in 1947.

This coup, which the administration of President Harry Truman helped to take place, was the first in a long series of military coups that led to the army’s domination of political life, not only in Syria, but also in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, when President Quwatli returned to power in 1955, he immediately drew close to the pro-Soviet Egypt at the time. During his reign, Damascus signed a series of agreements with the former Soviet Union, some of which were arms deals.

The United States was euphoric with its low-cost victory in World War II, and the decline of the influence of the traditional great powers, France and Britain, in its favor. Therefore, being the victorious giant, the United States did not expect that a small country in the Levant, such as Syria, would refuse to submit to its desires. The green light for the coup against president Quwatli came once again from President Dwight Eisenhower, who accused his Syrian counterpart of siding with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. This time, however, the attempted coup failed, and the diplomatic relations of the two countries were suspended, as a result of the Suez War of 1956. Syria and Egypt then united in 1958, and the United States severed its relations with Syria but kept them with Egypt.

At that stage, Washington realized that Syria might not stop its troublesome behavior, taking advantage of its geographical location. However, the United States wanted stability in that region to protect Israel’s security. Therefore, when Syria left the “United Arab Republic” in September 1961, President John Kennedy restored relations with Syria immediately. The cautious calm between the two countries continued until the war of June 1967, which, even though it lasted for few days, has changed the equations of the Middle East, including the Syrian-American relations, to this day.

Syria severed diplomatic relations with the United States, under President Lyndon Johnson at the time, because it believed that it was the American support that enabled Israel to occupy the Golan Heights and other Arab territories.  Relations were later restored thanks to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his frequent visits to Damascus and Tel Aviv in pursuit of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the aftermath of the 1973 war. And he did succeed in reaching a disengagement agreement that was signed in May 1974, and the war was officially over. After one month, President Richard Nixon visited Damascus and announced restoring diplomatic relations with Syria, which have been cut off for seven years. It is also said that the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1975 took place with the approval of the United States at the time of Gerald Ford who succeed Nixon after he resigned.

Despite this “approval,” the United States was not completely satisfied with the growing role of Syria in the region. However, it did not pursue a policy on Syria that is different to that it follows with other “troublesome” countries. Instead, The United States has always tried to blackmail Syria and impose its conditions and commands. Thus, Syria was included on the American list of State sponsors of terrorism since it was first issued in 1979. This pushed Syria to rapprochement with Iran after the victory of the Khomeini revolution in the same year. 

Since Washington wanted to impose subordination on Damascus, the relationship between two countries remained tense throughout the 1980. The United states also continued its superiority, arrogant and haughty approach towards Syria, accusing it of involvement in terrorist activities that took place in that decade, such as bombing the American embassy and the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, and bombing the civilian Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, in what later became known as the Lockerbie bombing.

The biggest improvement in the relations of the two countries came in 1990, when Syria joined the coalition led by President George H.W. Bush to liberate Kuwait. Then, the second wave of “shuttle diplomacy” came, led this time by another fox of American diplomacy, Secretary of State James Baker, who successfully persuaded President Hafez al-Assad to participate in the Madrid peace conference.

Despite the America’s failure to encourage Syria to sign a peace agreement with Israel, a there have been a kind of tacit understanding between the two countries throughout 1990s, so that neither of them exceeded its role in the region. At the time, Hafez Al-Assad used the peace process and the negotiations with Israel to improve his country’s relations with the United States and reduce the possibility of a confrontation. During that period, he met twice with President Bill Clinton, where it is noteworthy that the latter expressed his admiration for Assad and his patience in negotiations, especially after the Geneva summit in April 2000. A few months after that meeting, al-Assad died and Washington quickly supported the installation of his son Bashar as his successor. Hence, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Bashar hoping that he would take his father's footsteps regarding the peace process and the course of negotiations.

But world events brought the US-Syrian relations back to square one of tension. The events of September 11, 2001 came about when George W. Bush was in office with his mostly hawkish administration team. Therefore, they made strong statements against Damascus. In addition, John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, included it in what Bush called “the axis of evil” that includes Iraq, North Korea and Iran, claiming that Syria Damascus possessed weapons of mass destruction. 

Tension increased after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Syria voted against it in the UN Security Council, ignored the sanctions on Iraq, and even expanded its trade with it. Then sanctions were imposed on Syria itself the following year. How could Washington, who which did not forgive a great power like France for not participating in the invasion, forgive Syria?  

Tension between the two countries peaked in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, when Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus, accusing Syria of being behind the crime. Tension remained over the next five years, until Barack Obama won the presidential elections and tried to restore relations between the two countries. This rapprochement and relative openness was culminated by appointing the veteran diplomat Robert Ford as the new US ambassador to Damascus. However, he did not have the opportunity to achieve much progress, at least in terms of improving relations between the two countries, as the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out in Syria in the first quarter of 2011.

Since then, Syria has been a top priority for the United States, but its recent policies towards Damascus were far from being a “strategy”. It often made mistakes, corrected these mistakes with bigger mistakes, resorted to blackmail, and tries to twist Syria's arm expecting it to yield in a short time. Since the beginning of the unrest, Obama imposed new sanctions on Syria, and Washington started arming the anti-government rebels under the pretext of concern that government forces would use chemical weapons. Moreover, the United States has launched air strikes in Syria since 2015 as part of its efforts to against ISIS, which was born in Syria and Iraq as it claims. Obama's successor, President Donald Trump, eliminated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and significantly reduced the presence of the terrorist organization on the ground. However, he also ordered missile attacks targeting sensitive military sites in Syria. Not to mention practicing his policy of maximum pressure, and imposing on it severe economic sanctions that are still in place and increasing the suffering of the Syrian people.

Therefore, Syria is not alone to blame alone for the deterioration of its relations with the United States, because many former US presidents played a role that negatively affected the both countries’ stance towards each other.  Ironically, they did so out of desire to achieve the best in the interest of their country, or to check Syria’s behavior in the region. But instead, they added to the tension in relations between with Syria, and increased the popular resentment and distrust of American policy towards the country among its people. Thus, they have at first pushed Damascus into the arms of the Soviets, then into the trap of unity with Nasser, and at the third time towards Erdogan's Turkey. Today, Damascus is forced away from its Arab domain into a coercive alliance with Iran, increasing its isolation from the international community, diminishing its already weak confidence in the American leadership, and thus hardening its position because it always expects the worst from the United States, especially since it has been fooled many times.

I am not saying that relations between the United States and Syria are always destined to fail. On the contrary; although tension is the predominant feature of their history, there is a clearer and influencing side of how they deal with each other: Rational pragmatism. Both countries demonstrated the ability to come together and understand each other when that was needed or imposed by the circumstances. Both have also benefited from other's capabilities to achieve their own interests, even in the most difficult and critical times. This shows that opening a new page in relations between the two countries is still attainable, and that building trust is possible.

Pragmatism and rationality require the new president of the United Stated to reassess his country's foreign policy towards Syria. Despite the years of war that has exhausted Damascus, it still plays an important role in various issues that concern the United States in the region and in the broader Middle East. 

The questions that need to be answered by the new administration are: Does President Biden actually realize how important finding a solution to the conflict in Syria is to the United States itself? Will he give that enough attention, and thus open the door to peace, rapprochement and openness? Or will he follow the footsteps of his predecessors and repeat their mistakes in Syria by following the approach of blackmail, arrogant and the dictations they have taken? Will he adopt a strict policy toward Syria using threats, as if it were Iran for example, disregarding its significance and importance to the peace process and to his country’s interests if he succeeds in changing Damascus alliances in the region?

Finding answers to these questions needs its own space, which will be provided in a future article!



Hasan Ismaik