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In Syria, A Not So ‘Great’ Game

Prepared by: Michael Moran
May 15, 2007

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Among the many actors on the margins of last summer’s war in Lebanon, perhaps none gained more than Syria. Without firing a shot, Damascus regained a good deal of the influence it lost after UN investigators implicated its agents in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a year before. At the time, the international spotlight prompted street protests that forced Syria to withdraw the twenty thousand troops it had based in the country since the late 1970s. While Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, still faces the possibility of a UN tribunal and sanctions linked to the assassination, geopolitical realities conspired to render that threat somewhat moot. Assad now finds his nation wooed by many of the same countries which only recently sought to isolate it.

In the early May talks between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, Rice sought help from Damascus in halting the flow of arms and insurgents (NYT) into Iraq. Little came of it, yet few missed the symbolism, or the linkage between Washington’s interests in Iraq and Syria’s in Lebanon (Economist). Saudi Arabia, too, has rediscovered Syria’s attractions. Syria expert Joshua Landis tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman the Saudis seek to lure Syria away from Iran as part of their regional effort to blunt Tehran’s growing influence. Iran, for its part, puts a slightly different spin on events, claiming to be involved in a “tripartite” effort (IRNA) at national reconciliation in Lebanon. Even in Israel, there is serious talk about new engagement with Syria. Israel’s weakened government, worried about the confidence its poorly conducted Lebanon war bestowed upon Hezbollah, has hinted at a deal on the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel would demand Damascus cuts ties (JPost) with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and cease acting as a middleman for the Iranian resupply of Hezbollah.

None of these initiatives may get far, however. Rice’s May 5 talks with Syria’s Foreign Minister at Sharm al-Sheikh broke a two-year taboo on such contacts (ISN), but led to no breakthrough. Furthermore, the U.S., Saudi, and Israeli feelers have deeply worried pro-Western Lebanese factions about the prospect of a sellout. In essense, they fear Syria’s real goal is to get the world to consent to dropping or watering down the Hariri case. Rice moved to address those fears with an op-ed in the Arabic-language newspaper An-Nahar pledging to push for establishment of the UN tribunal. She won backing from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (Reuters) and Hariri’s son, leader of the majority bloc in Lebanon’s government (DailyStar). Establishment of the tribunal would preempt any deal with Damascus.

Israel, too, appears divided about talking to Syria. Longtime Israeli diplomat David Kimche, writing in the Jerusalem Post, argues a deal on the Golan Heights would help prevent a war from which Israel cannot hope to gain any long-term security. Yet Meir Dagan, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, sees more risk than reward in dealings with Syria. While he concedes Syria might be willing to expel Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from their Damascus headquarters, “anyone who thinks that our talking with Syria would sever them from Hezbollah is mistaken” (Haaretz).

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