Despite U.S. military involvement in neighboring Iraq, a clear policy toward Syria has eluded the Bush administration. While Washington played a pivotal role (with Paris) in forcing the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, it remains uncertain about how to deal with President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The administration's mantra is, "We want behavior change, not regime change," even though everything suggests the Assad regime is incapable of behaving differently than it has—buttressing its domestic despotism by exporting conflict to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.
Rabil, an academic of Lebanese origins at Florida Atlantic University, explains the background to this situation in his commendable overview of the U.S.-Syrian relationship. His account covers the twenty-seven years after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war when Syria's Hafez al-Assad made himself an indispensable factor for a regional settlement. That era came to an end in March 2000 when, meeting with Bill Clinton in Geneva, Assad refused an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights, ending Syrian usefulness for peace and so marginalizing the regime in the eyes of U.S. leaders that not even its post-9-11 cooperation versus terrorism could reverse.
Rabil argues that the Bush administration's pro-democracy message has found an unsympathetic ear in Syria because even secular reformers there share with the regime "an alarming belief that Islamists may attempt to assume power under the banner of democracy." Perhaps, but this rationale is very constricting since it only perpetuates the Baathist dictatorship. In Washington, too, Islamists are feared more than the weakened Baathists even if Syria's renewed alliance with Iran could prove dangerous. This has bred a stalemated policy where no effort has been made to examine peaceful ways of removing the Assads, whose continued suffocation of Syrian political life will, anyway, almost certainly strengthen Islamists.
To Rabil's credit, he analyzes the paradoxes in the U.S.-Syrian relationship the better to understand Syrian motivations. However, it is unfortunate that he did not use his knowledge of Arabic more to present Syrian perspectives on the relationship with the United States. Also, Praeger diminished his able account through poor editing. For example, Rabil's analysis in several chapters is made redundant by events described in subsequent chapters, clearly written later, so that the whole reads less harmoniously than it should.