31/07/2009

Syria’s strategy turns out to be worth it

For the second time since early summer, Damascus is hosting US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. This allows us to draw two conclusions: the relations between the United States and Syria are not only warming, but the latter is also becoming a major player in the Middle East.

Who would have bet on such a change four years ago? In 2005, the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, and Syria was quickly accused of being involved in the bombing. Chirac’s France put the blame on Damascus and cut its diplomatic relations with Syria. The United States for their part accused Syria of allowing fighters to infiltrate Iraq to fight against the pro-American government. In 2005 State of Union, Bush added Syria to its « axis of evil ».

To achieve a reversal of the situation, two things were necessary: policy changes at the global level and political intelligence of a man, Bashar Al-Assad. When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, a window of opportunity opened for the Syrian President, especially when his French counterpart came to him in order to invite Syria to take part in the new Union for the Mediterranean. The Syrian-French relations were normalized to the extent that Bashar Al-Assad was even invited as a guest of honor at the July 14 defile in 2008 on the Champs Elysees.

With regards to Lebanon, Syria adopted a low profile and cooperated, but it remained intransigent considering to its relations with its ally Iran. Under Bush, the alliance dismissed any possibility of normalization of U.S. relations with Syria. Sarkozy’s France was trying its best to divert Syria to its friendship with Tehran, but in vain: Syria continued to give its support to Iran, but also to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Elected President of the United States in November, Barack Obama opened a dialogue with Arab and Muslim countries. Bashar El-Assad, with its restored diplomatic relations with France, then pushed Syria on the regional chessboard. Its strengths: standard relations with neighboring Lebanon, a peace process launched with Israel – although suspended, if not dead since the Israeli attack on Gaza -, good relations with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as good relations between the Syrian President and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Syria is now a key player considering the Iranian nuclear issue on the one hand, as for the Arab-Israeli peace process on the other, and even as regards to the inter-Palestinian feud between Fatah and Hamas. Syria’s role is not yet clear, but a choice place will be kept at the negotiating table. Well done by the Syrian President.

N.J.O.