March 26, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Alexander Sobko


Washington is trying to tame Syria in order to isolate Iran

Recently, Syria's President Bashar al Assad told La Repubblica's correspondents that his country's foreign policy priorities by 80% coincide with those of the United States. Thus, we have grounds to admit that the Syrian leader has accepted Barack Obama's proposal to normalize political relations of the two states. Mr. Assad's statement followed a number of positive signals from the Potomac. The audience of the recent Middle East conference in Egypt witnessed a warm handshake of State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al Muallem. In early March, a group of top US officials arrived in Damascus for the so-called "reconnaissance visit".

Rapprochement with Washington suggests serious geopolitical costs for Damascus. Firstly, it contrasts with the position of Tehran, Syria's strategic partner in the region. Though Barack Obama warmly congratulated Iran with the beginning of Novruz, a major Islamic religious holiday, iran's leadership repeatedly and harshly refused to start a dialogue on Washington's conditions. Thus, though indirectly, Syria has demonstrated disaccord with its crucial ally.

As recently as in the end of the last year, the United States demonstratively delivered a strike on Syria's territory at the border of Iraq. Though that happened yet under the rule of George W. Bush's administration, the death toll of the US operation reminds the whole Islamic is not forgiven by ordinary Syrians people as well as by other Arab peoples. On this background, Assad's curtsey to Washington would hardly add popularity to Mr. Assad in the Arabic community.

What advantages, compensating this damage, is Damascus going to receive from Washington?

It is obvious that the Syrian leadership would like to integrate into the Western European establishment: in December 2008, Assad signed an agreement on associated membership with the EU. Still, it seems obvious that Assad's current behavior is more significantly modified with the domestic political situation in Israel.

Shortly before Israel's crackdown on Gaza, Damascus and Jerusalem were engaged in talks over the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Assad insists that Ehud Olmert was almost ready to return the territories when the talks in Ankara were disrupted with the sudden Israeli aggression.

The outcome of the following elections to the Israeli Knesset made clear that the newly-assembled rightist coalition would hardly agree to concede on the Golan issue. This was openly declared by the new prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Thus, the problem may be solved now only with Washington's involvement.

In its turn, the United States is obviously committed to monopolize control of the negotiations, leaving Turkey behind the doors. At the same time, Washington's media propaganda is playing a separate game with Ankara, spreading information that Al Qaeda agents are going to attack Turkey from the territory of Syria.

In case Obama's administration is really going to demand that Israel return the Golans, the deal is going to be followed with most serious concessions from the Syrian side. In this framework, Syria is definitely supposed to utterly give up support of Hezbollah Party in Lebanon and Hamas Party in Gaza, as well as the function of mediator between Washington and Damascus.

Washington is sufficiently interested in making Tehran more negotiable to break the Tehran-Damascus link for expense of the Golan Heights. In case Damascus disagrees to receive this "carrot", Washington may use "sticks", prepared in advance. In particular, the US State Dept may repeatedly blame Syria for organizing the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq al Hariri, timing the charges to the current investigation at the Hague Tribunal. Not accidentally, global mass media have also raised the issue of Iran's alleged involvement in nuclear research in Syria with assistance from North Korea at the object destroyed in 2007 by the Israeli air forces.

Will Washington manage to seriously disrupt the Tehran-Damascus ties? In any case, the approach, undertaken by Obama's administration, will hardly serve to stabilization in the Middle East in the long run.

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