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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Syria politics: Good to talk?

What can the US and Syria realistically expect to achieve from the dialogue advocated by the Iraq Study Group?


Of the two countries that the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report recommends that the US should engage with, Syria looks to be a more promising prospect, on the surface at least, than Iran. The US has an embassy in Damascus, albeit without an ambassador in residence, and the Syrian government has been sending out positive signals of its interest in engaging in talks with Washington. There are no such lines of communication with Tehran, and James Baker, the co-chairman of the study group, has acknowledged that he does not believe that Iran is "champing at the bit to come to the table with us and talk about Iraq".

However, the welcome that Syria has extended to the Baker-Hamilton report is based ultimately on the advantages that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad calculates that it can derive from improved relations with the US. These are potentially substantial, in terms of consolidating the Assad regime in power and helping it to deal with critical economic challenges. How much Syria might contribute in return is questionable, as the Assad regime will be reluctant to give up the levers it uses to demonstrate its ability to influence events in the region.

Syria's receptiveness to the idea of dialogue is also an indicator of the country's relative weakness compared with Iran, which has ambitions to set itself up as a regional power challenging the assumption that the Middle East is a US sphere of influence, with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt playing supporting roles. Iran's fundamental demand from the US is recognition of a historic shift in the balance of power in favour of the Islamic Republic--something that the Bush administration, for all its troubles in Iraq, is not yet ready to concede.

Damascus road

Should the administration take up the ISG recommendation on talking to Syria, the most likely course would be to dispatch the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to Damascus. This would entail having to eat some humble pie--her predecessor, Colin Powell, famously criticised Mr Assad for failing to grasp the changed realities in the region in the wake of the US-engineered overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The message that the US was the one in need of a reality check has been delivered by Mr Assad to a succession of European visitors, although he has also made clear that he considers the US, rather than the EU, as the key to any agreement that might bring regional stability.

Of the long litany of US complaints about Syrian behaviour, the dominant issue has been Lebanon. The US and France succeeded in forcing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, but at a punishing cost. Syria's allies in Lebanon are now poised to carry out a coup de grĂ¢ce on the US-backed government of Fouad Siniora, running the risk of inflaming sectarian strife between the country's Sunni and Shia communities. The Syrian government has denied suggestions that it is in any way involved with the events unfolding in Beirut, but it is clear that it would be prepared to use its good offices to broker a political settlement under certain conditions. These include the establishment of a Syria-friendly government and the installation of a new president meeting with Syria's approval.

This process would necessarily delay the formation of an international tribunal on the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri--Mr Siniora's government has approved a treaty to set up the tribunal, but it still needs to be ratified. Syria maintains that it is ready to continue to co-operate with the UN investigation into the Hariri murder, but it has questioned the validity of setting up a court before the investigation is complete. A delay would allow more time for Syria to bargain over the court's remit, in the event that any Syrian officials are charged. Syria can also be expected to brush aside any demand for it to assist in the disarmament of Hizbullah, but it might agree to provide assurances that Hizbullah's military forces would maintain a low profile.

If the US were prepared to swallow all this, what would Syria offer in return? Mr Assad has stated that, in Iraq, he draws a distinction between insurgents focusing on attacking US forces, an activity that he classifies as legitimate resistance, and those involved in indiscriminate attacks on Iraqi civilians. On these grounds he could justify providing the US and the Iraqi government with intelligence on the activities of al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents using Syria as a conduit for recruits, finance and supplies. There might be scope for Syria to host meetings between antagonistic Iraqi factions, particularly following the recent moves to restore full diplomatic relations between Damascus and Baghdad. Syria is also in a position to broker an accord between rival Palestinian groups, which could pave the way for a revived effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the return of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.


The extent of the concessions that the US (as well as Israel and France) would need to make in order to extract worthwhile dividends from the Assad regime are such that is doubtful whether high-level dialogue with Syria could serve much purpose. Moreover, if Mr Assad himself were prepared to make substantive concessions to the US, other interested parties liable to be threatened by such a development--within the Syrian regime, in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian arena and, above all Iran--could be relied open to play a spoiling role.
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