Sunday, August 30, 2009

Syrian Sideshow

President Barack Obama came to power with a not-so-secret plan to reshape the Middle East. His team envisioned a fundamental realignment in the region, with an eye towards resolving a host of longstanding conflicts that made it a global focal point of political instability. A key element of that plan centered on one country: Syria. By reconstituting Washington's relationship with Damascus, the reasoning went, Obama would manage to radiate improvements outward to a host of regional disputes.

Seven months into the Obama administration, Washington's efforts to pry Syria from its tight alliance with Iran and persuade it to start working for regional solutions is well underway. American officials have become regular visitors to Damascus, with the administration still hoping that the strategy will pay dividends. The results so far, however, are far from a resounding success. The much-anticipated harvest of peace remains a mirage.

A reminder of just how difficult it will prove to transform the region came after the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As the violence in Iran raged and condemnation of Tehran's tactics poured in from Western capitals, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared, "What happened in Iran is a big lesson to the foreigners. I believe the Iranian people's re-election [of Ahmadinejad] is another emphasis of the fact that Iran and Syria must continue the regional policy as in the past."

This call for maintaining relations between Tehran and Damascus underscored the difficulty of Obama's regional plan. After all, dividing the two allies lay at the core of that vision.

As one report in the first few days of the administration explained, "Mr. Obama has made clear that he believes the key to improving the political situation in the Middle East is to peel Syria away from its longstanding alliance with Iran."

The idea, in fact, went beyond peeling the allies apart. The strategy of the Obama team stemmed from a recognition of Syria's role in several inter-related conflicts. Imagine the possibilities: If the U.S. could persuade Syria to cooperate, Iran would lose its best friend in the world and hence its outlet for involvement in other disputes. Tehran would stand weakened as it faced off with the international community over its nuclear program.

With Syria working alongside the West, Hezbollah would lose strength in Lebanon, as would Hamas in the Palestinian territories; Iraq would face less infiltration from destructive elements; and Israel and Syria could eventually make peace, helping to break the tight knot of regional instability.

Obama made a similar point during a visit to Jerusalem while still a presidential candidate, saying, "There are some genuine signals that Syria is willing to drive out terrorists in their midst, shut down the arms flow into Lebanon, or to otherwise engage in more responsible behavior. I think it could be a shift in the region that would be extremely advantageous."

With this in mind, the administration began re-establishing links with Syria that had been severed almost completely by the Bush administration after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Hariri's supporters blamed on Syria.

An early sign of change came within Obama's first days in office, when Washington started easing economic sanctions. The U.S. approved the sale of parts for Syrian Boeing 747s, which had been grounded after the Bush administration worried that the planes helped transport military equipment from Iran and North Korea. In another conciliatory move, the Treasury approved a cash payment to a Syrian cancer charity headed by Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian president.

By late February, the State Department hosted the Syrian ambassador and later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem during a meeting at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. The ice had been officially broken. With that, the traveling show started.

The first major visit to Syria by U.S. administration officials came on March 5, with the arrival of Jeffrey Feltman of the State Department and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council. Since then, the stream of visitors has included, among others, a couple of stops by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, as well as visitors from the U.S. military concerned with the porous borders between Syria and Iraq.

The activity has been feverish but, despite a few bright spots, the results remain elusive.

There are signs that Syria wants to become a global player again. An important move came with its decision to open its first-ever embassy in Lebanon, a country it had previously claimed is part of Syria. Still, Damascus has made no move to lessen its ties to Iran, diminish its support for Hamas or Hezbollah, restart peace talks with Israel or take a strong stand for Iraqi security.

After the Iranian election, few countries rushed to recognize, let alone congratulate, Ahmadinejad. Assad was the paramount exception. The Syrian president traveled to Tehran, in a visit lauded by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei as a sign of Washington's weakness. "America's blade has become blunter in the region," Khamenei said. "The unity between Iran and Syria is the embodiment of resistance in the region."

Meanwhile, relations between Iraq and Syria have hit a nadir after the massive bombing in Baghdad that killed more than 100 people earlier this month. The two countries have recalled their ambassadors. Iraq accuses Syria of giving sanctuary to terrorists and demands that Syria expel "terrorist organizations that use Syria as a headquarters and launch pad to plan terrorist operations against the Iraqi people."

On the Israel front, there are few if any signs of progress. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking during a visit to London, said, "Syria's actions do not indicate that it wants peace. It has taken no steps to curb the terror organizations." Indirect talks between the two countries through Turkish intermediaries stopped after the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza broke out last December.

The vision of Syria as a pivot point for regional reconciliation has not died, but the reality of just how difficult it will prove to achieve substantial change is dawning on the administration. President Obama displayed his frustration with typical understatement last month when he said, "There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us, and we think that there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues."

After only seven months in office, the Obama team is just getting started in its efforts to reroute the course of regional history. What it has discovered is that forces that stood in place for decades before it came to office cannot be easily dislodged.

The push continues, but success is far from assured.

submitted by Frida Ghitis

Art - "Bashar Nam"