Intelligence Brief: Syria's Regional Position Strengthens

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Apr-07

During the past few weeks, new events demonstrated how Syria's position in the Middle East has strengthened since last year. Although the Bush administration has aimed to isolate Syria, there are new signals pointing in the opposite direction, such as the March bilateral talks in Iraq between the United States and Syria. Moreover, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Damascus has been an important success for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since it creates the image of Syria as an element of stability in the region.

In light of these changes, Syria appears to be modifying its foreign policy to demonstrate how it could play an important role in guaranteeing the stability of the Middle East. Syria is hoping that outside powers will recognize its vital interests -- Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iraq -- and if they do so then Damascus will assist in stabilizing Iraq. If, however, its interests are not recognized, then Syria will resume brewing instability in the region.

Lebanon is a key point of disagreement within the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree Egypt, is backing Lebanon's Fuad Siniora-led government against Syria, the latter of which supports the groups that are attempting to cause the current government in Beirut to collapse. Currently, Syria's moves in Lebanon are dictated by international contingencies, such as the upcoming elections in France. Assad wants to stall for time in order to delay a Lebanese vote on the establishment of a Hariri tribunal until after the departure of French President Jacques Chirac, one of Assad's main political enemies. Syria hopes that the next French president will take a softer line with Damascus. Therefore, for now Syria wants to keep the question of the tribunal in limbo.

In Lebanon, Syria's main interest is to regain leverage in the country in order to preserve and strengthen its regional status, especially within the Arab world. The Arab states, however, accuse Syria of being a "geopolitical instrument" in the hands of Iran, as Tehran is becoming an important concern for some of the Arab states, especially for Saudi Arabia.

On the Palestinian issue, Assad also wants to stall for time. He played the role of a mediator and used Damascus' influence over Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in order to find an agreement on a national unity government. By pursuing this objective, Syria avoided being accused of attempting to foster instability in the region. Again, however, Syria's interests have remained the same in regard to this conflict. It wishes to avoid an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as long as no peace agreement is signed between Israel and Syria. By avoiding an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Damascus is able to use the Palestinians as leverage when it negotiates with Israel over the Golan Heights.

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