Opinion | Columnists

Syria is reasserting its regional authority

The West, and Washington in particular, will have to pay more attention to Damascus

  • By George S. Hishmeh, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 February 18, 2010
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
  • Syria, which has strategic ties with Iran and other significant Islamic groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, is now being courted by western nations, especially the US.

After lying low for almost five years, Syria is now standing tall, as is evident in its expanding relationships in the region and elsewhere. Even the Obama administration is now doing its best to win over Syria's capable President Bashar Al Assad, who has just completed his first decade in office.

The assassination of enterprising former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri five years ago in a bomb blast on a Beirut seafront boulevard saw all fingers local, regional and international pointed at Syria. The country was accused of masterminding the assassination since its troops were in control of neighbouring Lebanon. The recriminations that emerged between the two sides, prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the appointment of a UN tribunal, which to date has disappointingly failed to reach a verdict on the assassination.

But the international isolation of the Assad regime was short-lived. In due course, Syria, a secular state surrounded by Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel all hampered by sectarianism turned its eyes to Turkey, now led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His Justice and Development Party (PKK) is described as "a party of Islamic inspiration and pragmatic bent." In no time, the two countries developed strong ties, despite their short-lived conflict brought about by a banned Turkish separatist group whose leader took refuge in Syria. Last October, the two neighbouring countries signed several agreements, including one for visa-free travel. A few weeks later, the two neighbours held joint military exercises, much to the chagrin of Israel.

The Syrian ball kept rolling after Sa'ad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister, was asked to form a Lebanese government following the national elections last summer, a process that took him more than five months to complete.

Whereas Lebanon has always needed good ties with Syria, which controls its entry points, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz previously had cool ties with Al Assad. Despite this, King Abdullah invited the Syrian president to pay him a visit, paving the way for reconciliation between the two governments. Once this was achieved, all western efforts to isolate Syria ceased.

Detente

Lebanon and Syria opened embassies in each other's capitals for the first time and Prime Minister Hariri visited Damascus, despite his one-time belief that Syria was behind his father's assassination. In fact, he declared recently: "In all truth, honesty and responsibility, I am keen on keeping this window open, and on building a new era in Lebanese-Syrian relations, from one sovereign, free and independent state to another."

Syria, which has strategic ties with Iran and other significant Islamic groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is now being courted by western nations, especially the US. Washington is concerned that combatants may make their way into Iraq from Syria after US troops pull out of the country next year. But, in fairness, the border, which is about 605 kilometres long, has not witnessed much trouble since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Since then, some 10,000 Syrian troops have been assigned to the border to prevent infiltrators entering Iraq.

It now appears that the Obama administration must have belatedly come to realise that peace in the Middle East, as Henry Kissinger once intoned, is not possible without Syria. Hence its willingness to appoint a new ambassador in Damascus, said to be Robert Ford, a seasoned diplomat who has served in other Arab states.

Yesterday, William Burns, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, was in Syria, the Arab country with the closest ties to Iran. He hopes to loosen Syrian ties with Iran, which has begun enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity, potentially another step towards developing nuclear weapons. However, neither Syria nor Lebanon are likely to vote for any further UN sanctions against the Tehran regime.

The International Crisis Group, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation whose mission is to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts around the world, has underlined the "profound mismatch of expectations" between Syria and the West. The group suggested that the US should "recalibrate" its approach to the peace process by showing interest in both the Palestinian and Syrian views. As far as Syria is concerned, "consistent with past Israeli-Syrian negotiations, any final agreement should entail full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights". This will lead, it says, to "firm security arrangements and the establishment of normal, peaceful bilateral relations."

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will follow this advice.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com

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