Friday, March 27, 2009

With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, right, hosted the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, this month.

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

At the root of these changes is Syria’s alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other major Sunni Arab nations once hoped to push Syria away from Iran through isolation, and now — like President Obama — they appear to be trying sweeter tactics. For the Syrians, the turnabout is proof that their ties with Iran are in fact useful, and accord them an indispensable role as a regional broker. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “have great stakes in maintaining good relations between Syria and Iran, because at difficult times they will find Syria helping them,” said Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs, during an interview here

That assumes that Iran will listen, a rather big assumption. Nonetheless, it does give Syria leverage.

Israel’s recent war on Hamas in Gaza generated a tremendous popular anger that has shifted the ground of Arab politics. Even more than Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, it put Saudi Arabia and its allies on the defensive and strengthened Syria, which hosts the Hamas leadership.

Talk about unintended consequences.

Mr. Mekdad even hinted that Syria might have hopes of turning the tables and driving a wedge between the Arabs and the United States on the question of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“I think the West is more concerned about the Iranian nuclear file than the Arabs,” Mr. Mekdad said. “I think our brothers in Saudi Arabia understand that the threat is not Iran, it is the Israeli nuclear capability. This policy of double standards is making all Arabs angry.”

Nice spin.

“There are some here who miss the Bush administration, because at least with them you knew where you stood,” said one Syrian analyst who is close to the leadership, but spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to come under scrutiny for exposing differences of opinion. “With Obama, the American demands have not really changed, but there is an impression of a new era and an expectation of new results from us.”

That's the socialist who palled around with terrorists.

In Iraq, Syria’s goals are now similar to those of the United States, analysts say. Despite its history of enabling jihadists to fight American troops in Iraq, Syria is now contemplating an imminent American withdrawal and is keenly aware that it might itself become a jihadist target, especially if it concludes any sort of peace deal with Israel.

“Syria increasingly sees an interest in Iraqi stability,” said Peter Harling, a senior Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group . “It has borne the brunt of the Iraqi conflict’s spillover effect. It covets potentially huge economic benefits, posing as an outlet for Iraqi oil-products and a supplier for Iraq’s emerging markets. Beyond that, a key objective for Syria has been to keep Iraq in the Arab rather than the Iranian fold.”

That is an interesting twist.

“The Bush administration has left,” Mr. Mekdad said with a diplomatic smile, “and we are still here.”

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