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Memo From Damascus

With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, right, hosted the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, this month.

 

Published: March 26, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria — Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

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Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

At the root of these changes is Syria’s alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other major Sunni Arab nations once hoped to push Syria away from Iran through isolation, and now — like President Obama — they appear to be trying sweeter tactics. For the Syrians, the turnabout is proof that their ties with Iran are in fact useful, and accord them an indispensable role as a regional broker. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “have great stakes in maintaining good relations between Syria and Iran, because at difficult times they will find Syria helping them,” said Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs, during an interview here.

Syrian and American officials are moving slowly, and have been careful to tamp down any expectations of sudden or significant change. The Arab reconciliation is partly dictated by the Arab League summit meeting scheduled to start Monday in Qatar, where the Saudis and others want to create an impression of unity and avoid embarrassments. Still, one thing seems clear: Israel’s recent war on Hamas in Gaza generated a tremendous popular anger that has shifted the ground of Arab politics. Even more than Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, it put Saudi Arabia and its allies on the defensive and strengthened Syria, which hosts the Hamas leadership.

Mr. Mekdad even hinted that Syria might have hopes of turning the tables and driving a wedge between the Arabs and the United States on the question of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“I think the West is more concerned about the Iranian nuclear file than the Arabs,” Mr. Mekdad said. “I think our brothers in Saudi Arabia understand that the threat is not Iran, it is the Israeli nuclear capability. This policy of double standards is making all Arabs angry.”

Those sentiments are not likely to be welcomed any more warmly in the Saudi capital than they are in Washington. But for the moment, the Syrian leadership is not feeling any real pressure to detach itself from Iran.

In fact, a number of Syrian analysts have sounded a triumphant note in recent weeks, suggesting that after emerging intact from the deep freeze of the Bush years, Syria has more power to dictate the terms of its new relationship with Washington. At the same time, some figures in the Syrian leadership are said to be uneasy about the new outreach from the Obama administration, which may prove to be less advantageous than it seems.

“There are some here who miss the Bush administration, because at least with them you knew where you stood,” said one Syrian analyst who is close to the leadership, but spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to come under scrutiny for exposing differences of opinion. “With Obama, the American demands have not really changed, but there is an impression of a new era and an expectation of new results from us.”

Nevertheless, there may be real opportunities for diplomatic progress, in part because some of the issues that divided Syria and the United States in recent years appear to have subsided. Last year’s Doha accord resolved the political crisis, at least for now, in Lebanon, where the United States long accused Syria of playing a destabilizing role. Syria and Saudi Arabia are also said to have reached an agreement not to interfere in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in June, and Syria and Lebanon have established formal diplomatic ties.

In Iraq, Syria’s goals are now similar to those of the United States, analysts say. Despite its history of enabling jihadists to fight American troops in Iraq, Syria is now contemplating an imminent American withdrawal and is keenly aware that it might itself become a jihadist target, especially if it concludes any sort of peace deal with Israel.

“Syria increasingly sees an interest in Iraqi stability,” said Peter Harling, a senior Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It has borne the brunt of the Iraqi conflict’s spillover effect. It covets potentially huge economic benefits, posing as an outlet for Iraqi oil-products and a supplier for Iraq’s emerging markets. Beyond that, a key objective for Syria has been to keep Iraq in the Arab rather than the Iranian fold.”

The United States, with its military presence in Iraq and elsewhere, might be a useful partner in this respect. Asked what he expected from the new Syrian-American dialogue, Mr. Mekdad, the vice minister, replied, “Very good cooperation” on counterterrorism issues.

The top priority for the Syrians is a peace deal that would return to them the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. Recently, Mr. Assad reaffirmed his desire to see the United States sponsor direct peace talks between Israel and Syria, which held indirect talks via Turkey over several months last year. That is a tall order, and any resulting peace deal would require Syria to cut off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, among other things. Starting such talks may be more difficult after the ascent of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister.

But the Syrians do not seem to be in any hurry. For the moment, they are happy enough with their changed circumstances.

“The Bush administration has left,” Mr. Mekdad said with a diplomatic smile, “and we are still here.”

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