Analysis by Joshua Landis (Monday July 20, 2009) US-Syrian rapprochement seems to have hit an impasse. There has been no good news about the formation of a Lebanese government. Feltman recently stressed that the US has a problem with Syria’s continued support of Hizbullah. The US has not named an ambassador to Damascus, although it promised to do so some time ago. The Charge d’affairs has departed leaving the third in command to run things. The Saudis are also dangling the notion of an ambassador in front of Syria, but haven’t made the final arrangements to send one, just as they have not made arrangements for a meeting between the King and Assad, although there has been plenty of talk about a Syrian-Saudi confab.
The Palestinian front remains as paralyzed as ever. Hamas and the PLO are far from agreeing to form a national unity government. Iraq security arrangements between Damascus and the US also appear to have stalled. The fact that a CENTCOM delegation preceded Mitchell to Damascus last month suggested that military cooperation would begin in tandem with the return of a US ambassador. The fact that no US ambassador has been named to Damascus suggests to me that Syria will likewise drag its feet on military cooperation. Finally, Israel has stonewalled US and Syrian attempts to get talks on the Golan back on track. Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel retain a major portion of the Golan and the Syria abandon its allies as a prerequisite to talks are both killers. Quite possibly, US policy makers believe that they can squeeze Syria to better their advantage now that Damascus’ two regional allies have run into headwinds at the polls. The Lebanese opposition lost elections in Lebanon and the Iranian government is in turmoil over its election misdeeds. Damascus is unlikely to to concede to last minute US bargaining tactics, however.
It will likely stand firm, allowing Lebanon’s emulous factionalism to paralyze progress in forming a government. Assad can also stand back as Netanyahu and Obama play their game of chicken over settlements and the future of Palestinian land. If Obama blinks and allows Netanyahu to continue to expand Israel’s control over Palestinian land, as most expect him to do, it will be Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — America’s allies — which will take the most heat for America’s failure. They have gambled on Obama and the ability of the US to play a constructive role in the region. The Saudis have insisted that the Palestinians must pursue the path of non-violence, following the practices of Mahatma Gandhi and not those of Hamas and Hizbullah which advocate violent resistance. In the face of US pressure, Syria may have to remind the West that it also has cards to play. Perhaps that is the purpose of President Assad’s public hosting of Muqtada al-Sadr in Damascus?