Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task. Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling. The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador. These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp. The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp. Great. But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?
I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury. His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc. I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary. Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo). This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides. Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman). See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that. The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West. Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story. Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis. So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.
What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region. Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions. Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah. The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus. A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US). A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis. Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player. As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.