Is Syria Obama’s sword for the regional Gordian Knot?
While we would love to claim prescience, we were not alone in predicting Syria as the potential key to the current regional quagmire. We have probably mentioned the issue more regularly, but there were several other analysts who recognized the same thing. The Bush Administration missed the strategic significance of Syria totally; it ran the same isolationist approach towards Syria that had failed so often and so spectacularly when previously applied, such as the US-Cuba policies, for example.
We had hoped for a change in this approach when President Obama took office. However, while Obama had a chance to make a clear policy statement in terms of rapprochement with Syria, several analysts think he choked and fumbled the opportunity when he renewed the sanctions earlier this year. The more generous regional commentators posit that Obama had grown frustrated with the diplomatic foreplay with Syria, and decided to send them a message of compliance improvement requirements prior to rapprochement. Josh Landis, an old Syria hand, is in this camp and his comments add contest to this position:
“They have hit a wall. The Syrians were very upset about the way sanctions were renewed by the Obama Administration,” he said. “I think that they understood that there was going to be a renewal of sanctions, because talks have only just begun. But there was no change in language, and no softening of tone, and they were upset. Now, the Americans obviously want to see a number of things. They want to see good-faith measures being taken by Syria and they want action on this Iraqi border…Syria wants linkage: they want America to send back an ambassador, they want peace talks to go forward,” added Landis. “So how do you proceed? That is the question. You know, Syria, of course, is very worried that America is going to ask it to take a lot of steps and it is not going to get very much in return. America is saying: “Trust us, you do these things and Obama is going to change the Middle East.”- Syria-US Thaw Awaits Concrete Steps
Well, time has moved on and it looks as though Syria’s patience may be repaid somewhat. Syria has already indicated it is open to a US approach and could play a role in indirect discussions between the US and Iran. Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Dardari, in an interview with Reuters, opened the bargaining.
“Though the effect of the sanctions has been limited judging by the nearly 30% increase in foreign direct investment, the lifting of sanctions will remove psychological barriers for some foreign investors”.
“Syria’s foreign trade makes up 70% of GDP and this means that the country’s dependence on external factors is very large. We are studying the ways this crises is affecting investments into the country. Syria hopes to attract investments in infrastructure projects that include energy, electricity, better roads and airports and it hopes to do this through a partnership between the private and public sectors.”
Dardari proceeded to specify that ‘Syria’s infrastructural needs are estimated to cost $50 billion over the next 10 years’. This appears to be an overture to the Obama Administration. No doubt to ensure Syria’s diplomatic co-operation in assisting the US and the ‘moderate powers’ negotiate with Iran, Syria will also be requesting the return of the Golan Heights from Israel too. Syria has sent a signal it wants to be included; it can help, but that the price of the past treatment of Syrian interests will need to be repaid first. Syria also has an important relationship with Lebanon and thus can talk to Hezbollah who the US will need to beard as it encircles Iran. Syria’s patience may finally have paid off, and the media is starting to recognize this too. Our advice is watch the comings and goings in Damascus if you want to predict the future of relationships in the region.
SIX years ago, President Bashar Assad looked weak, stumbling and isolated. In the words of the neoconservatives dominant in Washington after the conquest of Iraq, his regime was “low-hanging fruit”. Its fall would complete a circle of Western influence in the area, with Turkey, a NATO member, to the north-west and Israel to the south. The decline of Syria seemed to hasten when, after it was widely blamed in 2005 for the murder of Lebanon’s five-times prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it ignominiously lost its place as master of its small neighbour. Only Iran, among Syria’s friends, stood fast against the West. Yet now the position has drastically changed. Mr Assad is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the region’s diplomatic jigsaw. He is fast coming back into the game. Even America would like to embrace him.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent flip-flop of Walid Jumblatt, hereditary head of Lebanon’s Druze minority. He has cause to loathe Syria. Its agents were thought to have killed his father in 1977, a crime that eased Syria’s penetration of Lebanon as a peacekeeper whose forces lingered long after the end of its civil war of 1975-90. Still, Mr Jumblatt reconciled himself to Syria’s then president, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, for many years doing his bidding. But the Druze chieftain broke openly with Mr Assad’s filial successor after the murder of Mr Hariri, an old ally. Championing the movement that ousted Syria from Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt drew applause in Washington for calling it “a country hijacked by a family and a mafia”.
Yet Mr Jumblatt has recently changed tack again. Syria, he now says, is the core of the Arab world; Lebanon is destined to be on its side. If he had once spoken ill of Bashar Assad, it was only in the heat of emotion, Mr Jumblatt told al-Manar, the television station run by Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, which is staunchly backed by Syria and Iran. Only last year Hizbullah’s forces clashed with Mr Jumblatt’s.
The Druze boss, one of the Middle East’s more accurate weathervanes, is far from alone in pointing to Damascus, Syria’s capital. A flurry of foreign dignitaries has recently courted Mr Assad, including the Saudi king, the French and Croatian presidents, the prime ministers of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Spain, and a stream of ministers and MPs, plus a string of prominent Americans. Mr Jumblatt himself is expected in Damascus soon, as is another Lebanese leader with a personal animus, Saad Hariri, now filling his slain father’s shoes as Lebanon’s prime minister. This sudden popularity marks a triumphant turnabout for the 44-year-old Mr Assad.