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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria


Update No: 074 - (25/02/10)

Reaching Out to Syria – and Not Just for Iran’s Sake

The United States has taken an important step in improving relations with Syria. After months of speculation, president Obama has formally announced the nomination of Robert Ford as Washington’s new ambassador to Damascus, a post left vacant since February 2005 in the wake of the murder of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut. Syria is pleased with the choice, given Ford’s experience in the Arab world. The timing of the announcement almost coincided with the deputy secretary of state William Burns’ visit to Damascus, a visit, evidently planned to highlight the normalization of Syro-American relations. The timing of the ambassadorial appointment and Burns’ visit have led most analysts to suggest that the United States will as a consequence, now expect Syria to reduce its ties to Iran and Hezbollah, in exchange perhaps, for more favorable trading arrangements, or the removal of Syria from the list of terror-sponsoring nations - the US removed the travel warning advising Americans not to travel to Syria days before the Burns visit.

Very pro-Israel circles in Washington, particularly those close to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the highest ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, see the Middle East in simple terms of what is good or bad for Israel. For them, Obama is wrong to open to Syria. They argue that the US should maintain sanctions against Syria on order to force it to loosen its ties to Iran or the Lebanese Hezbollah. And they are mistaken. France (which had supported isolating Syria in 2005), the European Union and Saudi Arabia have already broken Syria’s isolation. Moreover, the United States has gained no advantage from isolating Syria; in fact, it has made problems in Iraq more intractable, while reducing the opportunities to engage Iran over the nuclear issues. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, essentially admitted that sanctions against Syria ended up isolating the United States far more than they did Syria!

The United States has re-engaged with Syria, therefore, simply because it is in its interests to do so, not to isolate Iran or to prevent terrorists from crossing the Syro-Iraqi border. Certainly, a closer Washington-Damascus relationship will likely touch on all these elements, but it is important to recognize that Syria remains an important piece in the Middle East chessboard. Syria has shown over the past years that it follows its own interests. It has maintained an alliance with Tehran and with Hezbollah, not because the Baathist regime is enthralled with Shiite Islamism, but because these serve the main purpose of Syria some day regaining control of the Golan. Syria is aware that the United States cannot push Israel toward conceding the Golan or even to engage in peace talks. Likewise, Washington understands that Syria in present circumstances, cannot forego an ally such as Iran, which for the past 39 years has offered Syria all kinds of aid. Certainly, President Asad can expect the United States to put more pressure on Israel to engage in bilateral talks with Syria, over the Golan – perhaps at the expense of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Obama can expect Syria to start acting as a mediator between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue, and Syria’s minister of foreign affairs, Walid Moallame, has been clear about this, even as he warned the West not to try to separate Syria from Iran. The White House, for its part, appears to understand that Syria will continue to support Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Republic.

Dan Benjamin, the State Department coordinator for Anti-Terrorism Activity, accompanied Burns to Damascus, where he held talks with senior security officials. Benjamin’s presence would confirm that Syria has resumed collaborating with the USA on intelligence and anti-terrorism matters, activities that had been suspended during the Bush administration. Therefore, the United States has reasons to cooperate with Syria that extend quite beyond the need to either use Syria as a bridge for talks with Iran, or to dislodge Syria from the Iranian/Hezbollah alliance such as to make it less complicated for Israel to attack the Islamic Republic. President Asad and President Ahmadinejad exchanged a telephone conversation, during which it is believed the latter advised his Syrian counterpart that in the eventuality of an Israeli attack in the ‘region’, Arab states should aim to eliminate it for the last time.

Iran has come under increasing pressure, as the Russians have also started to speak of the viability of enforcing economic sanctions against Teheran over the nuclear problem. Lebanon, where divisions are starting to creep into the ruling coalition that includes Hariri’s pro-West ‘March 14’ coalition and Hezbollah, has reason to fear a potential Israeli attack, should the latter feel it has sufficient chances of destroying the Shiite organization and political party. Unlike the situation that occurred in 2006, where Syria was able to stay out of the war, it would be involved much more directly in case of an Israeli attack on Lebanon, or possibly even Iran.

Syria is still not pursuing its interests and relations in Lebanon directly and exclusively with the government; rather it continues to deal with singular channels such as Hezbollah. The problem for Syria is that the wider threat of international sanctions against Iran, may yet compromise Hezbollah’s position within the current Lebanese national unity government, possibly accentuating divisions with the Hariri led ‘March 14’ Coalition. In this sense, Syria will now have to play a balancing act, on one hand strengthening its ties to the United States to gain political capital to be used in a possible resumption of Middle East peace talks; on the other, until there are no concrete steps to discuss the Golan, Syria will have to maintain close ties to Teheran as well. In addition, should Iran be slapped down with significant economic sanctions, it would weaken Syria and Lebanon politically and economically, especially if the sanctions end up crippling Iran in the same way the post 1991 Gulf War sanctions crippled Iraq.

Such are the complexities which the new US ambassador to Damascus will have to manage. Syria, would like to see its bilateral US relations return to what they were under presidents Bush senior and Clinton, when Syria was a key player in the Middle East peace talks. The United States has shown interest in Turkey’s offer to sponsor a fresh round of Syro-Israeli talks over the Golan. The Israeli press has suggested that prime minister Netanyahu (who cancelled the ongoing talks as one of his first acts in office),might be willing to hold a new round of such talks in Italy or Spain; it will be up to the Obama administration to push either option into fruition. Syria, meanwhile, will play an important role for the United States, influencing and moderating Hezbollah or Hamas, while the world continues to confront and see through the complicated Iranian nuclear problem. Syria needs the United States, but at this time, the United States needs Syria more.


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