An Engagement Policy for Iraq and Syria

Robert Siegel talks with Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the possibility of engaging Syria and Iran in talks about Iraq. Haass was the head of policy planning at the State Department during President Bush's first administration.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Today Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts to Tehran for a meeting. Iraq's Jalal Talabani has accepted the offer. It's unclear if Syria's leader will. But the prospect of a meeting of the three nations comes as debate in the U.S. is focused in part on whether to sit down with Syria and Iran.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What could actually be gained by engaging Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq? Richard Haass, who's president of the Council on Foreign Relations, former head of policy planning at the State Department, has written about the prospects for regional diplomacy and joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

First, let's take Syria. What might the United States reasonably ask Syria to do, and what would Syria want the U.S. to do in exchange?

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (Council on Foreign Relations): I think the priority for the U.S. when it comes to Syria is to see that border essentially shut down. We know that many of the so-called jihadists, essentially Sunnis coming into Iraq, are crossing into Iraq from Syria via Damascus, so getting the Syrians to assert some control there would be the principal priority.

SIEGEL: And, if the U.S. and Syria sat down and talked about that, what do we assume the Syrians would say here's what we want?

Mr. HAASS: I think the Syrian list would go far beyond Iraq, and I think they would be interested in a new relationship with the United States. I think they would perhaps be interested in something that would involve what we used to call the peace process, getting essentially the Golan Heights back. I think for their currently leader of Syria to do what his father could not would be a major coup, to say the least. They would want financial help. So essentially, Syria would be interested in a far broader conversation with the United States than simply one focused on Iraq.

SIEGEL: And that equation seems at least plausible to you, that if the Syrians felt there was a renewal of the peace process, a probability of getting the Golan Heights back from Israel, that might be cause for the Syrians to be more helpful in Iraq?

Mr. HAASS: I do and I think it could to some extent wean the Syrians away from Iran. We would also, by the way, as part of that larger package, want the Syrians to get under control or even kick out some of the more extreme elements of Hamas who right now are residing in downtown Damascus. But I do think this is on the agenda, in part also because the Israelis are intrigued by the prospect of possibly bringing Syria in.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to Iran right now. What could the U.S. reasonably ask of Tehran? We're not talking with them very much about anything and we're obviously engaged in a struggle with them over their nuclear program. What is it the U.S. could ask for them to do in Iraq, and what would the Iranians want in exchange.

Mr. HAASS: This is possibly a more complicated negotiation. When it comes it Iraq, both the United States and Iran do have an interest in seeing this country not fall apart. The Iranians have a sizeable subpopulation of Kurds and the last thing they want to see is Iraq break apart, Kurdish nationalism gain a lot of dynamism and perhaps Iran's own Kurds be attracted to become part of it. So I think the Iranians see some reason to put a lid on the difficulty in Iraq, and they also want to avoid massive refugee flows into their own country.

So I do think there's some potentially overlapping interests in seeing Iraq succeed in the same way that Iran and the United States cooperated when it came to Afghanistan and seeing the Taliban ousted and seeing Afghanistan at least take some steps in the right direction.

SIEGEL: Why wouldn't the Iranians, or for that matter the Syrians, at this point, say look, there's another article every day in the American press about how and why the U.S. should get out of Iraq. They understand things aren't going well. Let's sit here and do nothing and let them stew in their mess because we're winning the way things are going now.

Mr. HAASS: Well, there's something to that and there's also the argument that they may like the fact that the United States is bogged down in Iraq. I think the Iranians in particular see some advantage to seeing a large chunk of the American military caught up in an extraordinarily difficult situation. So what you say, Robert, may be true and it's quite possible that diplomacy would go nowhere.

I would simply say that I think it's worth testing that statement, in part because the alternatives are so dire that it makes sense to see whether diplomacy could do something to improve the U.S. situation in Iraq.

SIEGEL: Has the administration at this point effectively outsourced policy review and diplomacy by having the Iraq Study Group, the Baker-Hamilton group, go make the contacts with Syria or whoever else and try these ideas out, rather than risk any U.S. prestige in the process, and does that make sense to you if indeed that's what's happening?

Mr. HAASS: I think outsourcing's a bit strong. Clearly, there's been some exploration. But the fact that the administration has announced quite loudly that it's conducting its own internal political/military reviews of Iraq policy seems to me a way to make clear that they are not simply outsourcing the policy to Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton.

Also I think the study group will be careful about coming forward with a clear set of recommendations. You're more likely to get a menu of options and I would think that some sort of a standing regional forum involving the two countries we've been talking about, Iran and Syria, is likely to be part of their menu. But I would be surprised if the administration simply said thank you very much, and took it all and ran with it all 100 percent. My hunch is they're likely to be far more selective in the end.

SIEGEL: Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. HAASS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Richard Haass, who used to be director of policy planning at the State Department during President George W. Bush's first term.

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