Global Intelligence, Stratfor, July 16, 2009Syria, U.S.: A Slowdown
A visit to Damascus by U.S. envoy Fred Hoff is part of a slow rapprochement between the West and Syria, which sees an opportunity to reshape its regional status and reclaim a hegemonic position in Lebanon. The more secure Syria feels about its position in Lebanon the more willing it will be to distance itself from Hezbollah and Iran.
U.S. envoy Fred Hoff left Israel for Damascus July 15 to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Hoff’s visit is a prelude to an upcoming visit to Syria and neighboring states by U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell.
Washington’s growing interest in Damascus fits into a larger U.S.-Saudi diplomatic effort to bring Syria back into the Arab fold and dilute Iranian influence in the Levant. If Riyadh and Washington could get their way, they would have Damascus completely sever relations with Iran and militant proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. In exchange, Syria would be able to break out of diplomatic isolation, play a larger role in regional affairs, advance its peace negotiations with Israel and invite badly needed investment to boost the stagnant Syrian economy.
But Syria is not one for wholesale negotiations. Syria’s relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are precisely what give the ruling Alawite-Baathist regime its leverage in the region. Syria isn’t leery of backstabbing if the situation warrants it, but turning on Iran and Hezbollah would invite more blowback than the regime is willing to tolerate. The Syrians thus negotiate in a piecemeal fashion, demanding much and delivering little while pleading for time and caution every step of the way.
Syria’s primary demand in U.S. talks is for the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, France and other powers to recognize Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. The Syrians suffered a major setback when its troops were pressured into withdrawing from Lebanon in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, but Syria has spent the past several years laying the intelligence groundwork for a major comeback. The more secure Syria feels about its position in Lebanon the more willing it will be to distance itself from Hezbollah and Iran.
Syria has a long-standing tactical relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon but no desire to overempower the Shiite Islamist group. For Syria to negotiate effectively with the Saudis and the Americans, it needs to demonstrate its ability to contain Hezbollah. The June 7 Lebanese elections provided such an opportunity.
Prior to the Lebanese elections, Syria was engaged in back-channel talks with Saudi Arabia and the United States during which the Syrians privately pledged to facilitate a win for the Western-backed March 14 coalition over the Hezbollah-led opposition alliance. Immediately following the elections, STRATFOR sources in Hezbollah were outraged upon learning that the Syrians, despite their reassurances to Iran and Hezbollah that they would ensure the success of opposition candidates in northern Lebanon, the western Bekaa Valley and Zahle in the south, ended up taking a much more neutral stance. A STRATFOR source in Syria claims a large number of voters who traveled from Syria to vote in Lebanon ended up casting their votes in favor of the March 14 coalition on the government’s instruction, thereby tipping the balance toward the West’s political preference.
The United States and Saudi Arabia were apparently quite pleased with Syria’s performance. Almost immediately after the elections, both countries announced they would return their ambassadors to Damascus, giving Syria the diplomatic recognition it has so earnestly sought. Even before the Lebanese elections the West sent positive signals to the Syrian regime, including the release of four Lebanese officers in connection with the Hariri assassination and a Der Spiegel report that pinned blame for the killing on Hezbollah, not Syria.
Saudi Arabia, which carries substantial clout among the Lebanese Sunni population, has come to terms with Syria’s bid to reclaim influence in Lebanon and wants Syria to eclipse Iran’s role in the Levant. But the Saudis also understand that Syria is reluctant to dismantle Hezbollah and incur the backlash for such a move. So, Riyadh has revised its demands, asking Damascus instead to contain Hezbollah’s actions to prevent the group from playing an injurious role in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has primarily used its petrodollar prowess to rehabilitate the Syrian regime, pumping money into Syrian coffers every time Damascus delivers on its promises.
But Saudi patience is also wearing thin; the Syrians are treading carefully with the Iranians and are demanding more money from the Saudis for even minor concessions, according to a STRATFOR source. Until Syria and Saudi Arabia can come to an understanding over how exactly Syria will move against Iran and Hezbollah, the formation of the Lebanese Cabinet and a highly anticipated Syrian-Saudi summit (which was supposed to take place this week) will continue to stall.
The United States is also making a more concerted effort to bring Syria into the Arab alliance, signaling that it is willing to give Damascus a pass on the Hariri assassination. During his visit to Israel and Syria, Hoff stressed that the Obama administration is now ready to assist in mediating Israel-Syria negotiations, something Syria has urged for quite some time. The Israelis have made clear that they are in no mood to negotiate seriously with Damascus at the moment and are more likely to see what comes out of Syria’s rapprochement with Riyadh and Washington before they put forth any real effort in the talks.
The process may be slow-going, but Syria is indeed inching toward healthier relations with its Arab rivals and the West. Iran is watching these developments closely, and while it continues to remind Syria that it still has levers it can use to maintain Damascus’s loyalty, it also has plenty of reason to be nervous.
Syria’s relationship with Iran is already rocky and has been particularly since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s May 5 visit to Damascus. During that visit, according to a STRATFOR source in Syria, the Iranian president asked his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al Assad, to permanently resettle the approximately one million Iraqi Sunni refugees currently living in Abu al Hol camp in Syria’s northwestern Hasaka province. Iran’s agenda is to alter Iraq’s demography as much as it can in favor of the Shiites to give Iran more leverage in influencing its western neighbor. Syria is ruled by a minority Alawite regime in a Sunni-majority (74 percent) country. The last thing al Assad wants is for Iran to meddle with Syria’s delicate sectarian balance for its own interests. The source claims that al Assad vehemently denied the request. The Iranian president then allegedly threatened to cut off Syria’s financial aid, though this information has not been confirmed.
Hezbollah, too, has been feeling miffed. The Shiite militant group is extremely wary of Syria’s intentions and has been since the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh. In Hezbollah’s view, the Lebanese elections were yet another duplicitous move in a string of Syrian betrayals. More recently, a STRATFOR source reported that a large shipment of eastern European munitions ordered by Syria arrived at the Aleppo airport in northern Syria from June 28 to June 30, during which time airport authorities allegedly closed the airport for “maintenance.” Hezbollah claims the munitions were smuggled into Lebanon via the Homs border crossing in northeastern Lebanon to supply Syrian allies in Lebanon but that none of the munitions ended up reaching Hezbollah.
With the United States drawing down its presence in Iraq, Turkey resurging and Iran becoming bogged down in internal political feuds, Syria sees an opportunity to reshape its regional status and reclaim a hegemonic position in Lebanon. Distancing itself from Iran and Hezbollah will be no easy task and the rapprochement will be slow and tedious, but Syria’s confidence in its negotiations with Riyadh and Washington is growing, along with Iran’s and Hezbollah’s heartburn.
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