Syria not yet folding its cards

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Like it or not, Syria’s leaders have no desire it seems toimitate Longfellow’s “Arabs” and “fold up their tents andquietly steal away into the night.”

Two years of diplomatic isolation and unrelentinginternational pressure have failed to persuade Damascus tosignificantly alter its course regarding key regionalissues: Lebanon, the Palestinians and Iraq. On the contrary,marginalization by the international community has had theeffect of drawing Damascus closer to Tehran. TheSyrian-Iranian relationship, one of the most unlikely andenduring alliances in the Middle East, has only grownstronger since the election of Iranian President MahmoudAhmadinejad in August 2005.

Both countries need each other. Syria allows Iran a toeholdinto the Arab-Israeli arena and serves as a vital conduit toHizbullah. In exchange, Syria has a powerful military andfinancial ally in Iran with which to face the cold shoulderof the West and the unease of other Arab nations.

The US effectively severed relations with Syria in the wakeof the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.By February 2005, the Bush administration’s patience withDamascus had waned considerably over a number of issuesincluding Syria’s support for Palestinian militant groupsand foot-dragging over a troop withdrawal from Lebanon, butchiefly over its unrelenting opposition to theAnglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The European Union, following the US lead, also distanceditself from Damascus, influenced by French President JacquesChirac who does not even try to hide his antipathy towardthe regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The US told Syria that it must change its behavior beforethe Bush administration would consider re-engaging with it.An uncowed Syria instead turned toward Iran and embraced animage of Arab steadfastness against the bullying dictats ofthe West, a stance that resonated among many Arabs.

But the cracks in the edifice of isolation began to emergeat the end of last year with the release of the Baker-Hamilton commission’s report on Iraq, which recommended aresumption of dialogue with Syria and Iran. The Bushadministration initially dismissed the commission’s advice,insisting on its demand that Syria must take the first stepby changing its behavior. But several US senators,emboldened by the Democrats’ success in the mid-term US elections in November and by the findings of theBaker-Hamilton commission, traveled to Damascus, the firstsuch visits in two years. In November, Syrian ForeignMinister Walid Muallem visited Baghdad, which paved the wayfor a restoration of formal diplomatic relations betweenSyria and Iraq in December and the signing of a jointsecurity agreement. In January, Jalal Talabani visitedDamascus for the first time in his capacity as president ofIraq. The biggest indication that Syria could be coming infrom the cold was its invitation in February to attend—alongwith Iraq’s other neighbors—a conference in Baghdad todiscuss how to help stabilize Iraq.

The Europeans also have begun retreading the path toDamascus, most notably Javier Solana, the EU’s foreignminister.

A general rapprochement between Damascus and the West stillseems a long way off and will probably depend on the outcomeof the United Nations investigation into Hariri’s murder.But the tentative steps toward re-engagement has revived thedebate between those that believe that jaw-jaw is alwaysbetter than war-war and those who argue that talking toDamascus is futile. Both arguments have somejustification.

Syria’s critics maintain that the Syrian leadership has ahistory of frustrating and infuriating its internationalinterlocutors by making promises that go unfulfilled.Recommencing a dialogue with the Syrians, they argue, willbe taken as a sign of Western weakness and suggest thatDamascus has no need to change its policies. Much better,they say, to at least maintain and possibly increase thepressure on Syria in a bid to break the will of the Syrianleadership.

Supporters of dialogue, however, argue that the policy ofisolation over the past two years has not only failed topersuade Syria to yield to Western demands, it has had theopposite effect of helping cement the Syrian-Iranianrelationship. That strengthened bond forms the backbone ofthe anti-Western alliance spanning the Middle East fromTehran to Beirut’s southern suburbs. The alliance isdetermined to check the regional ambitions of the US andlies at the root of mounting Sunni Arab alarm at Iran’sgrowing reach into the Middle East.

A serious re-engagement with Damascus, they argue, wouldhelp pry Syria away from Iran, breaking the anti-Westernalliance and weakening Tehran’s ability to influence theArab-Israeli conflict. The bottom line, they say, is thatSyria cannot be expected to dance to the Western tune ifnothing serious is offered in exchange.

The debate over how to handle Syria remains heated andunresolved. But there is little doubt that it is hard toignore a country that lies at the nexus of so many of theregion’s conundrums.