For a while there it looked as though the old adage �All
roads lead to Damascus� had become obsolete. The international community turned
its back on Syria during the post-2003 Bush era, when it was variously
perceived as a rogue state or even a low-hanging fruit, ripe for invasion.
In the eyes of the Bush administration, the Syrian government
could do no right. The Pentagon accused it of allowing foreign fighters and
weapons into occupied Iraq, while its close alliance with Iran was frowned
upon. Syria was further condemned for overstaying its welcome in Lebanon and
for allegedly being complicit in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri -- an accusation that was found by a special UN
investigatory committee to have no basis in fact. Having decided that Damascus
was his enemy, George W. Bush deemed Syria a sponsor of terror and backed
Syrian opposition groups in the hope of fomenting regime change.
This coordinated attempt to isolate Syria by the West and
its allies was partly because Syria refused to jump on board the �invade Iraq�
bandwagon and felt that it had been conned into voting for UN Security Council
Resolution 1441 due to assurances from the resolution�s sponsors that it would
not be used as a pretext to attack Iraq. In those �you are either with the
United States or against us� days, fence-sitting was not an option. It wasn�t
surprising that Pentagon anti-Syrian propaganda merchants dreamt up the
laughable charge that Saddam Hussain�s elusive weapons of mass destruction were
hidden in Syria, although, during those heavily charged times, few were laughing.
It was arguably the thrashing that Israel received at the
hands of Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 that produced a realisation that Syria
was no inconsequential backwater. It was evident how strong the ties between
Syria and Iran had become and clear that if Syria could be wooed out of the
equation, Hezbollah would be severely militarily weakened. Later, with calls to
strike Iran�s nuclear facilities growing louder, prizing Damascus away from
Tehran became an imperative. Today, Syria is also seen as pivotal to any Middle
East peace process.
It seems that the Obama administration has decided to pursue
a policy of tentatively wooing Syria, which is entirely sensible from a US
perspective. Obama�s Middle East envoy George Mitchell says Damascus has �a crucial
role� in working towards a peace settlement and has visited the Syrian capital
twice for talks with President Bashar Al Assad, which he has characterised as �candid�
Disappointingly, in July, President Barack Obama extended
his country�s sanctions against Syrian or pro-Syrian individuals, whom he says
provoke instability in neighbouring Lebanon and threaten the national security
and foreign policy of the United States. But he has removed items from a
blacklist of goods that Americans are barred from selling to Syria, which
include IT equipment, communications systems and airplane components. Syria�s
ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, believes this relaxation is only the
beginning, with more items to follow.
The Lebanese Daily Al Akhbar recently reported that Obama
has written a three-page letter to Al Assad offering �cooperation and the
opening of a new page between the two nations,� which has been welcomed by the
Syrian leadership. Concurrently, the British Foreign Office is urging Syria to
resume Turkish-brokered negotiations with Israel and assist in stabilising
Lebanon and Iraq. As a further sign of a thaw, Al Assad was invited to Paris in
2008 to assist in launching a new European-Mediterranean partnership, while
French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Damascus twice last year.
But before anyone gets too excited, it�s worth bearing in
mind certain obstacles to a fully fledged Syrian d�tente with the West.
Firstly, any warm embrace on the part of the US and Britain would likely be
conditional upon Syria cooling its ties with Iran and lessening its support for
Hezbollah and Hamas. Until now, Al Assad has shown no inclination in that
direction because, although Syria�s relationship with Iran is largely based on �the
enemy of my enemy is my friend� concept, the Iranian umbrella provides Syria
with security and economic benefit. If Damascus were to turn its back on its
strongest ally, it would need an extraordinarily large and juicy bunch of
carrots as well as security guarantees.
The one carrot that might entice Damascus to make the leap
to the other side is the return of the occupied Golan Heights, but this is an
unlikely prospect so long as Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel�s prime minister.
Last year, Netanyahu said a Golan pull-out would put Iran on Israel�s doorstep.
Earlier this year, he said that Israel would never return the Golan and, on
Sunday, he bemoaned Israel�s 2005 pull-out from Gaza and vowed there would be
no more evacuees.
With such an intransigent Israeli government in place, it�s
unlikely that Al Assad will fall into Western arms any time soon. In the
meantime, Obama�s overtures to its sworn enemy, along with his administration�s
statements that the Golan must be returned, heaps pressure on an increasingly
nervous Israeli government. Why is Syria being wooed? Perhaps that�s the plan.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.