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Is Damascus on the way to conversion?

22 March 2009
Published in Attualità, Politics
by Rocco Polin

Caravaggio, <a href=sovaldi sale The conversion on the way to damascus” width=”226″ height=”300″ />On January 29th, for sale here in the pages of the Tamarind, nurse we discussed the divisions of the Arab world and the Arab reconciliation initiative led by Saudi Arabia during the Kuwait Summit of the Arab League. A month after the diplomatic activity on the way to Damascus is even more intense.

The diplomatic game is particularly complex even by Middle Eastern standards. It is played at the intersection of three different sets of negotiations: the Syrian-Israeli peace talks, the Arab reconciliation Initiative and the American opening towards Damascus. The stakes are equally high since a shift in the Syrian position would have important repercussions in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran.

The peace process between Syria and Israel is temporarily suspended due to the confused political situation in Israel a mere month after the general elections. However the election of a right-wing government in Jerusalem may paradoxically enhance the possibilities of a peace agreement with Damascus. Under considerable pressure from the Obama Administration, Netanyahu may find easier to return the Golan Height to Syria than to make any substantial concession on Jerusalem or the settlements in the West Bank.

The Arab reconciliation Initiative seems instead to be gaining momentum. The heads of States of Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria met in Riyadh last week and the atmosphere was allegedly friendlier than it has ever been in the last few years. It is worth recalling that Syrian President Bashir al Assad called the Egyptian and Saudi leaders “half men” for failing to intervene on the side of Lebanon during the Israeli military offensive in 2006 and accused them of complicity with the Zionist enemy during the operation in Gaza few months ago.

The effect of the Arab reconciliation are particularly evident in Cairo, where the negotiations between Hamas and Fatah are scheduled to restart this week, and in Lebanon, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 7th. In both cases Syria, who supports Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, has a crucial influence on the negotiations. A possible reconciliation between Damascus and the moderate Arab front would therefore make things easier also in Cairo and in Beirut. Last week’s opening of a Lebanese embassy in Damascus -for the first time in history- is indubitably an important signal in this direction.

The third element of this complex diplomatic game is, as anticipated, the American opening to Syria. The visit of Shapiro and Feltman to Damascus on March 7 represents a clear break from the failed policy of the Bush Administration directed at isolating the Syrian regime. However, according to Bilal Y Saab of the Brookings Institute, “It is too early to tell whether Washington’s opening to Damascus is purely tactical or of a strategic nature.” It is also important to point out that the problems between Syria and the US did not start with the Bush Administration and they have deep and real roots that require a more sustained and robust engagement strategy than a generic opening or a couple of trips to Damascus.

Rocco Polin conquers the Golan HeightsThe negotiations between Syria and the US are clearly affected by those going on between Washington and Tehran. However, whether Obama’s opening towards Iran will be successful or not, the negotiations with Syria may very well keep going. In the first case they would probably be easier, in the second more useful. Kissinger’s success in convincing Egypt to switch sides during the Cold War is often cited as an example of what American diplomacy should do to convince Syria to break ties with Iran. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the economic and military help to Hamas and particularly to Hezbollah comes form Iran, without the logistical support of Syria (who shares borders with both Lebanon and Iran), Iran would find great difficulties in sustaining its proxies. Also, the alliance with an Arab and Sunni country such as Syria gives Iran a legitimacy that it would not have otherwise.

In conclusion a change in Syrian politics would be a pivotal moment in the international relations of the Middle East with broad effects in nearly all the countries of the Near East. However, Syrians are known to be skillful and patient negotiators. Miracles on the way to Damascus are not as common as we may hope.

3 Responses to “Is Damascus on the way to conversion?”

  1. Luna B. says:

    I wonder if the time has truly become ripe enough for Syria & Israel to make peace and if Syria will be able to play a key role in resolving the Middle Eastern mess that has been going on for too long. As far as I know, Israeli people (not politicians) are not keen on giving up the Golan heights and Syrians are not keen on letting it go. How did everything become SO complicated in this region?! Anyway Great Article!

    ps: truly original and funny self description

  2. Rocco says:

    I don’t know if the time has truly become ripe enough, I do think it’s getting riper.
    Mitchell was in Damascus few days ago and he acknowledged Syria has a crucial role to play in finding peace in the Middle East. Obama confirmed that a new ambassador is gonna be appointed in Damascus pretty soon (some say he may be senior american diplomat Fred Hoff who left Israel today heading to Damascus and who is advising Mitchell on the Syrian track). Saudi Arabia is also planning on reopening its embassy in Syria and maybe a meeting in Damascus between King Abdallah, President Assad and Hariri (the son)… something is definitely going on, it won’t necessarily lead to peace but is the best chance we had since Madrid 91.
    Anyway as far as I’m concerned Golan can be either Syrian or Israeli as long as they keep making great wine.
    E grazie dei complimenti.

  3. gValtolina says:

    come sovente: bravo rocco. è tardi, non ho letto tutto bene, ma da conoscitore degli affari siriani non c’è nulla di diverso dalla realtà, a differenza di altri articoli scritti sulla siria dal Tamarindo (o sul medioriente). resta da capire come la “debolezza”di nethanyau rispetto all’amministrazione obama si rivelerà. perché il problema locale, in fondo, resta la palestina. e globale l’iran, verso cui lo stesso barack hussein sta muovendosi per vie alternative. e se non sarà guerra, sarà qcosa di simile, come già in qualche modo si scorge. notte, g