Sunday, May 16, 2010

Syria will not change; America may


by Hanin Ghaddar

Since coming to office, US President Barack Obama has moved cautiously to improve relations with Syria, hoping that such a strategy would encourage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to distance himself from Iran. This has not happened. In fact, the Syrian regime has continued to support Iran and its regional policies. Now Obama, as a warning, has decided to extend sanctions against Syria. The question is: "Does Damascus care?"

The extension of sanctions did not really surprise the Syrian regime. Its official and media reactions were mild given the significance of the move. Syria probably expected such a reaction after the SCUDs crisis; but it also wanted to send a message that it couldn't care less, and that such sanctions would only jeopardize US-Syrian relations.

"The American administration made a mistake by sending such a message to Syria," official state newspaper Al-Baath said, accusing Washington of being blinded by Israel, which "prevents it from seeing where its interests lie."

So if extending sanctions is not in America's interests, what is? Will Syria now seek shelter under Iran's wing? Will it start robustly backing Hezbollah by increasing the supply of weapons to its armed wing?

The reality is that Syria is already there, and nothing will change. The Syrian regime will continue to prize its regional role, bolstered by its alliance with Tehran, over any improved relationship with regional and Western powers. Indeed, it is an alliance worth more to Syria than the removal of sanctions, and hence why Syria continues to show its support for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; support that recently reached dangerous levels when Syria was accused of supplying SCUD missiles to Hezbollah.

But it's a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Hezbollah has already built a huge arsenal since the 2006 July War with Israel, courtesy of Syria, despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701's call for an arms embargo. Syria is merely acting out its side of an arrangement with Iran and Hezbollah.

In fact, in addition to supplying Hezbollah with advanced weapons, Syria continues to let Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other pro-Iranian militant groups maintain offices in Damascus. It is all part of a strategy for Syria to increase its grip on Lebanon, and enhance its regional role.

Back to the sanctions: President Obama has indicated that they are not only a response to Syria's support for terrorist organizations and its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction; but more specifically, they are linked to two main issues: Hezbollah's arsenal and the Iranian dominance in the region.

"The actions of certain persons continue to contribute to political and economic instability in Lebanon and the region, and constitute a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the US," the president said.

But Syria has lived with sanctions since 2004. Meanwhile, and despite the isolation, it has managed to compensate by maintaining solid relations with "friendly" countries other than Iran, such as Turkey, Qatar and Russia. And since the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the US engagement policy towards Syria, these relations have created deeper economic and strategic ties.

On Monday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will travel to Syria to tighten bilateral ties during the first-ever visit to the country by a Russian or Soviet head of state. Medvedev is set to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and possibly oversee the signing of an economic agreement. "We are seeking to recover lost ground with old friends," a spokesperson at the Russian Embassy in Damascus told AFP.

However, the swift pace of the enhancing friendships also came after Syria was seen to overcome "isolation". If the international community decided to re-isolate the Syrian regime, would these friends run for cover?

On another level, the extension of sanctions also coincided with the latest preparations for the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, as prospects for peace talks between Syria and Israel are slim (indeed, the talks are on hold). Obama's main goal is to achieve peace in the Middle East, and isolate Syria from Iran. However, while Syria says it would welcome peace, its actions indicate that its main priorities are the survival of the regime and control over Lebanon.

Peace would mean that Syria might have to end its alliance with Iran, but more significantly, it will lose Israel as an enemy. This, in turn, would entail ending the State of Emergency Law of 1962. Aimed at protecting the Alawi minority regime, the law has "allowed" Syria to justify its totalitarian practices and human rights violations under the guise of protecting Syrian integrity in the face of Israel and its occupation of the Golan Heights. Thus, Syria wants to keep Israel as an enemy; but by denouncing peace, Syria jeopardizes the "moderating" role it is trying to sell to the West.

Does this mean that the US is changing its policy of engagement with Syria? Let's just say that the honeymoon period is over.


Hanin Ghaddar

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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