The Case for Talking to Syria

As distasteful as the Syrian government is, Washington must reconsider its policy of non-engagement with Damascus. Negotiations alone cannot fix the U.S.-Syrian relationship, and we should hold no illusions about the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But failure to talk with Syria limits U.S. ability to support attempts at reform and cuts us off from a major Middle East actor.

My many trips to Damascus since Sept. 11, 2001, have left me with little faith that action will follow commitments made by the Syrian regime. To put it mildly, Syria has a credibility problem.

So why should the United States talk with a dictatorship that supports terrorism, stokes conflict in the Middle East and fails to meet the commitments it makes? What positive results could this month's meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, possibly yield?

During my last trip to Syria, in April, I had the privilege of meeting some of the brave men and women who are pushing to reform the Syrian government. Foremost among them is Riad Seif, a former member of the Syrian parliament. Seif was a prominent Damascus businessman until he became disillusioned with corruption and began calling for change in the 1990s. The regime responded by heavily taxing his factory and driving his business into the ground. When that failed to silence Seif, the regime arrested him. Although Seif was released from prison last year, he still is banned from voting, running for office or traveling. Nonetheless, Seif continues to lead a coalition of opposition groups.

The work of Raid Seif and others like him offers the best hope for reform and deserves U.S. support. Damascus has done its best to stifle efforts to create a prosperous and just Syria, routinely jailing those who call for change or sending the secret police to harass activists and their families.

The lack of dialogue that began when the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 prevents us from supporting Syrian civil society. For example, Damascus responded to our silence by closing the Syrian office of

AMIDEAST, a nongovernmental organization that uses development projects and educational exchanges to build understanding between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East. A lack of dialogue also denies us a platform to articulate to the world Syria's continued failures.

Even if Washington is not ready to return its ambassador, there are steps both countries can take to reestablish a dialogue. First, our respective embassies can partake in more active outreach and public diplomacy. I do not mean confidence-building measures. When Syria fails to address concerns raised by our embassy, this needs to be articulated -- over and over again.

Second, Congress can continue its engagement with the Assad regime and with Syrian civil society. These conversations will reinforce the State Department's message, remind Damascus of steps it needs to take, highlight the plight of reformers and identify opportunities to improve relations.

Finally, the United States and Syria must resume the counterterrorism cooperation halted in 2005. The United States is aiding the Lebanese government's fight against Fatah al-Islam, a group linked to al-Qaeda, in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Many of the radical Fatah al-Islam fighters are not Palestinians, Syrians or Lebanese. Syria has fought Islamic extremists and still faces a threat from this spreading menace.

William Burns, then-assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2003 that counterterrorism cooperation with Syria saved American lives. I have no doubt that the cooperation saved Syrians as well. Knowing as we do that a group linked to al-Qaeda is using Syria as a transit route to support fighting in Lebanon, as well as in Iraq, it is ridiculous that we do not share intelligence on a mutual enemy.

Opponents of engagement argue that dialogue strengthens the Assad regime. This fails to recognize that what matters is the substance of the dialogue and the action that follows. Critics also fail to explain what two years of increased isolation have accomplished.

When I met with President Assad in April, I did not congratulate him or offer support. If anything, the meetings highlighted how out of step Damascus is with the rest of the world. Our discussions were tense and focused on Syria's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, interference in Lebanon, the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq, and the repression of the Syrian people. Continued dialogue should and must concentrate on these issues.

There is no guarantee that dialogue alone will allow the Syria of reform to triumph over the Syria of dictatorship. The United States, however, cannot cease its engagement in the Middle East, and it makes little sense for us not to engage a flawed but relevant player, especially when we have a functioning embassy in Damascus.

Darrell Issa, a Republican representative from California.