Watch Syria for signs of Obama’s Mideast chances

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) welcomes Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at al-Shaaeb presidential palace in Damascus February 25, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

By: Frida Ghitis

If you want to get an early read on the ultimate success or failure of the Obama administration’s policies for the Middle East, keep an eye on Syria.

From the earliest days of the administration, even before it assumed power, its planned strategy for dealing with a number of conflicts in the region has included changing Syria’s behavior. After all, Damascus has not only complicated life for U.S. forces in Iraq, it has also proven over the years to be an important ally of the Iranian regime and a key partner of radical militant organizations in Lebanon and Gaza. Syria has done its part to make already difficult conflicts ever-more intractable.

Washington is now pivoting sharply in its relations with Damascus. As the administration starts granting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad many of the changes he so desperately wants, we will soon begin to see if the United States gets anything in return. If Damascus does not reciprocate, the Obama brand of engagement will have proven a failure. If Syria does respond the way White House strategists hope, significant benefits could start trickling in. So far, there is little evidence that the results will be positive. But it is early yet.

Damascus stands at the intersection of most of the major problems that trouble Washington in that part of the world. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most important regional player, and it will not play the defining role in any of the conflicts brewing in the Middle East. And yet, Syria serves a significant enough function that it could help tilt the balance just enough to make a real difference.

If President Barack Obama’s philosophy of engagement ultimately proves effective, Syria is likely to be the first place where it sprouts green shoots.

Coming into power, Obama strategists calculated that Syria was the weak link in a network — originating in Tehran — that was fomenting strife throughout the region. A successful strategy toward Syria would help America achieve its objectives in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The plan was to pry Damascus away from Tehran, by which Washington would achieve a number of goals. First, it would deal a blow to the Islamic Republic, by depriving Iran of its only reliable ally in the Middle East. Without Syria, Iran would find itself more isolated and have a harder time defying the world. Just as importantly, without Syria’s help, Iran would find it much more difficult to transport weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza. In Iraq, Syrian cooperation would stop the flow of fighters crossing the two countries’ border, improving the chances for lasting stability.

If Syria removed its strong support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the thinking went, moderate parties in Lebanon would gain strength relative to hardliners, and the prospects for reconciliation along lines preferred by the West would improve. The same thinking applied to the Palestinians. If Syria stopped sheltering Hamas’ top leaders and providing support for the Islamist group in Gaza, then the party, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, would weaken. As a result, more-moderate Palestinian factions, such as Fatah, would gain relative strength, ultimately helping to ease Palestinian divisions. Under this scenario, the entire Palestinian leadership — now bitterly divided — would agree to reconcile along moderate lines, boosting the prospects for peace with Israel.

And if Syria and Israel ultimately made peace, it would not only represent a major breakthrough in itself, but it would also deal a blow to Tehran’s calls for absolute rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.

The process of luring Syria started months ago, but in recent weeks it has gained momentum. Top-level administration officials have visited Damascus in recent weeks to meet with Assad. Washington has just named the new ambassador it is sending to Damascus, career diplomat Robert S. Ford — five years after withdrawing the previous one following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Damascus was widely believed responsible for the killing of the anti-Syrian politician.

Washington has also removed the travel warning that kept many U.S. citizens from traveling to Syria.

There is still a long way to go toward normalization. Syria just completed its 40th year on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. And a tightly knit web of sanctions remains in place, crippling the country’s economy.

Syria and the U.S. have much to offer each other. Damascus is desperate for sanctions to be lifted. After all, the economy is in dire shape. The country’s oil production has collapsed, turning Syria into a net oil importer and decimating the national budget. A relentless drought has led to the collapse of parts of its agricultural sector, and U.S. sanctions are taking a huge toll. It is for this reason that some analysts believe the U.S. has Syria cornered. And that this time, Syria may at last be ready to deal.

But many remain skeptical. Even as Washington began its courtship of Damascus last summer, Assad continued to embrace Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledging that their relationship is solid and lasting. The announcement that a new ambassador would be named came seven months ago. Since then, Assad has done nothing to ease his support for Hamas and Hezbollah, which today hold arsenals even larger and deadlier than they did before their recent wars with Israel. And in a recent interview with the UAE newspaper al-Khaleej, Assad stated that peace with Damascus would bring Israel nothing in return. “A peace agreement,” he explained, “is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.”

The return of a U.S. ambassador and the removal of Washington’s travel warning are first steps aimed at probing the Syrian response and laying the groundwork for more meaningful changes. Some of the U.S. sanctions are due for renewal in May. What happens on that date will shed more light on the delicate dance between Damascus and Washington.

The U.S. has tried many times to persuade the Syrians to change their behavior. As a Washington Post editorial recently noted, summarizing an endless list of engagement efforts, “That gambit has been tried, by more Western diplomats and politicians than can be counted, and the results are clear: It doesn’t work.”

The Obama administration still thinks it can bring “change you can believe in” to Syrian behavior. If it does, the changes from Damascus will bode well for America’s overall objectives in the Middle East. But if efforts to change Damascus fail, Obama’s strategists will have to go back to the drawing board on a broad range of issues that extend far beyond U.S.-Syrian relations.

* Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor.




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