Syria once again at the regional pivot

Last week, there was considerable fuss in much of the U.S. media because, just a couple of days after the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Bill Burns, visited Damascus and announced that after a five-year absence Washington would finally be returning an ambassador to Syria, President Bashar al-Asad turned to hosting some other political figures important to him, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the heads of Hamas and Hizbullah.
Various U.S. commentators (many of whom were anyway just primed to pounce on anything the Obama administration does) became apoplectic in their fury, arguing that Asad’s meetings with his other allies just “proved” that Burns, Secretary Clinton, and Pres. Obama had all been taken royally for a ride.
So I’m glad that we can now read the calm voices of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett on the subject. The Leveretts were actually in Damascus, and had a meeting there with Pres. Asad, shortly before Aasad’s meeting with Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Jabhat al-Mumana’a (though maybe I should find a better name for the Jabha… That one, which means “Blocking Front” is very Bush-era-ish… Anyway, I guess readers will know whom I refer to.)
The Leveretts:

    A week before Ahmadinejad’s arrival in Damascus, we had our own conversation with President Assad—a conversation that came one day after… William Burns met with the Syrian leader. In our session with him, Assad expressed satisfaction over his meeting with Undersecretary Burns. However, Assad also made clear that Syria’s relations with Iran, as well as its ties to Hizballah and HAMAS, are not on the table.

They note that, also shortly before Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus, Hillary Clinton had told the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee that,

    “We have laid out for the Syrians the need for greater cooperation with respect to Iraq, the end to interference in Lebanon and the transport or provision of weapons to Hezbollah, a resumption of the Israeli/Syrian track on the peace process which had been proceeding through the offices of the Turks last years, and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”

So, there goes Hillary, in the fine nanny-ish tradition established by Condi Rice before her, of trying to publicly dictate to other sovereign governments what their policies should be.
Asad’s laconic response was to say,

    “We must have understood Clinton wrong because of bad translation or our limited understanding… I find it strange that they [Americans] talks about Middle East stability and peace and the other beautiful principles and call for two countries to move away from each other.”

I do think that Clinton (like everyone else from both party leaderships here in the U.S.) has a pronounced and very worrying tendency to continue to see every actor in the Middle East as being “either with us or against us” on the question that continues to preoccupy most of official Washington, that of Israel vs. Iran.
But matters aren’t as simple as that in the region, any more. At least two very significant actors in the region can no longer be clearly categorized as being in either the “pro-Iranian” or “pro-Israel/western” camp. They are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which have many close ties to the west as such, but a lot of reservations about Israel; and both of which believe that negotiating in good faith with Iran is greatly preferable to continuing to saber-rattle and escalate the tensions against it.
Significantly, both these governments now have good relations with Syria. In the case of Turkey, these relations are of some years’ standing at this point. In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are more recent, dating from the landmark visit that King Abdullah made to Damascus last year. Prior to that, for several years– and most especially since the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which has been widely but not categorically blamed on Syria– Riyadh’s relations with Damascus were extremely hostile. (Though prior to that, too, the present Saudi King, Abdullah, also had a long history of friendliness to Syria’s rulers; so go figure that.)
All of this provides some background for the judgment the Leveretts make in their blog post about their meeting with Asad, that,

    the perceived value in Damascus of strategic realignment with the United States through a carefully conditioned peace deal with Israel is slowly declining as America’s hegemonic standing and influence erode.

They go on to write,

    Certainly, the Syrian leadership was relieved by President George W. Bush’s departure from office and his replacement by President Obama. But, with a right-leaning coalition headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in power in Israel, expectations in Damascus for what Syria would see as major improvements in America’s Middle East policy are not high. And, as President Assad noted to us, poor policy choices in the Middle East by the United States over the last decade have created “vacuums” which “others [Iran and Turkey] filled”. (In this context, Assad argued that Iran’s evolving regional role does not represent “new ambitions” on Tehran’s part.) This has expanded Syria’s strategic optionality. In this context, Assad underscored that the rise of Iran and Turkey to new levels of regional influence has not come at Syria’s expense; rather, all three states have been able to improve their own relations and bolster their regional influence.
    This is not to say that Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option of realignment toward the West through a “principled” peace with Israel does not remain deeply attractive to his son and successor. But, the longer that Damascus must wait for the United States to deliver on its end of the peace process, the more time that Bashar and his advisers have to internalize what they see as the reality of America’s slow decline. And that has a palpable effect on the price they are willing to pay for realizing Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option.

I see that the well-informed Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed also focuses a little on King Abullah’s role in this recent article on Syria’s diplomacy.
I’m not quite sure how Moubayed manages the feat of “reading” King Abdullah’s mind… But what he writes here is nonetheless very interesting:

    King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia shares this view [that Syrian-Iranian relations are in the best interest of the international community, and should be seen as a blessing in disguise for the United States], believing that Syria can indeed walk the tightrope between the so-called moderate and radical camps in the Middle East, helping influence and moderate the behaviour of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Syria has repeatedly used its influence with these players in meetings like the ones that just took place in Damascus (which perhaps were not as high profile) to get Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, for example, or to get Hezbollah more involved in the political process in Lebanon. In Iran, Syria used its influence to free 17 British sailors captured in 2007, as well as a French prisoner in the summer of 2009. Syria, after all, doesn’t have a history of anti-Americanism, and has proven since 1990 that it is a credible peace partner, with whom the West can do business.
    The Damascus Summit [with Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, and Meshaal] by no means indicates that engagement has come to an end between Syria and the US. Far from it; the meeting is a reminder of how helpful Syria can be in dealing with these non-state players. Nevertheless, it sends another strong message: Think twice before waging another war on Lebanon, because neither Syria nor Iran will allow it. Rather than escalate the conflict, the tripartite meeting in Damascus actually forced Israel to recalculate, thereby minimising the chances of war next summer. The leaders assembled in Damascus are clearly very confident of their abilities, and feel that neither Israel nor the US can deal with them as they have in the past. Much has changed since Obama came to power in 2009, but much remains the same, given that the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah alliance has outlived five US administrations since that of Ronald Reagan, and will likely outlive the Obama administration as well. Persuading the US to pressure Israel into seeking peace is high on Syria’s agenda, and this explains the recent Damascus Summit.

One thought on “Syria once again at the regional pivot

  1. Reuben Sharpstone

    Just the other day I said to myself, Reuben, why don’t you send a nice donation to the American
    Friends Service Committee or some other group like that so Helena can go to Syria too?
    Why should the Leveretts be the ones who are having all the fun? But then I thought to myself
    … no, don’t do it … the poor people of Syria are already having a bad enough time without that.

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