Mar 19, 2009 | 02:40 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Syria and the U.S. Diplomatic Offensive

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, published Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al Assad praised U.S. President Barack Obama as "a man of his word" for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and moving forward with the pullout from Iraq. Al Assad also expressed his willingness to mediate between the United States and Iran, adding that he is prepared to resume negotiations with Israel but is concerned about the emergence of a large right-wing movement in there. And while he said he is willing to meet with Obama, he also said he does not want a "photo opportunity," but rather serious talks. It is important to dial back the clock a bit to put these statements into context. A couple of years ago, the Syrians were seemingly obsessed with the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and under pressure, Damascus withdrew its military from Lebanon. At the same time, U.S. forces were on the Syrian frontier, conducting operations across the border. The Syrians felt squeezed by the investigation and appeared genuinely concerned about its course, and felt pressure from the United States. Damascus entered into negotiations with Israel through Turkish mediators and amid a sense of isolation and embattlement. Syria's only regional ally was far-away Iran — and even that relationship was less than smooth. The United States has sent two envoys to Syria to explore relations since Obama became president, and the emphasis has been on changing the tone of the relationship. Al Assad is now taking full advantage of the opportunity to change the tone: He is positioning himself for talks with the U.S. president, albeit with the proviso that he wants talks only if the U.S. president is ready to be serious with Syria. He is taking a statesmanlike stance on Israel, seeming to regret lost opportunities and concerned that the rise of the Israeli right might undermine the talks. He also is presenting himself as someone prepared to be the honest broker between the United States and Iran. We are seeing a completely different Syria. More precisely, the Syrians are using the American initiative and "tone change" to position themselves as the swing player in the region, a potential partner on which the United States might become dependent, and a force for moderation. Forgotten are U.N. investigations, tensions over Syrian support for jihadists, Syria's relationship with Hezbollah, and so on. By responding to the American change in tone, the Syrians are trying to deflect attentions from issues they don’t want to deal with to the one issue the Americans must deal with — Iran. It is not clear how much, if any, influence Syria has with Iran. It is certainly unlikely that the Americans would accept Syrian mediation. If any country was asked to mediate in the region — and it is not clear that the Americans want mediation rather than direct contact with Iran — it would be Turkey, whose president traveled to Iran recently. The United States would see Ankara as a more even-handed mediator, and Turkey as a country with which Iran wants decent relations. Obviously, the change in tone provides opportunities for repositioning and putting painful topics behind Damascus. But the U.S. position on Syria remains the same under Obama as it was under George W. Bush. The United States wants Syria to withdraw support for Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as other radical Palestinian and Islamic groups, and it wants Syria to stop involving itself in Lebanese politics. The Syrians might consider removing support for these groups, but genuinely abandoning their interests in Lebanon would strike at fundamental Syrian national interest. For economic, ideological and strategic reasons, Syria cannot comply with this U.S. demand. The question thus becomes whether Washington can accept Syrian domination of Lebanon. Certainly, it accepted it for many years after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and even before: It was understood that Syria had a special position in Lebanon. The Bush administration changed this policy after the al-Hariri assassination and after Syria began providing transit for jihadists fighting in Iraq. It will be impossible for Obama to concede Syrian domination of Lebanon formally and extremely difficult to sanction it privately. The change of tone has worked; the tone has changed. Now, Syria and the United States must talk seriously, as al Assad pointed out. Therefore, the question is what they will say to each other. The United States is asking for a painful concession on Hezbollah and an impossible one on Lebanon. Syria is asking for a painful concession on Lebanon. The problem in the deal is that Obama gets good relations with Syria only in exchange for his painful concession. It is clear why Syria would benefit from this. It is less clear what the United States gains from good relations with Syria if it has to make concessions on Lebanon, official or implicit. As the U.S. diplomatic offensive matures, the question of talks turns into the content of talks, and that's when things get rough.

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