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Jan. 16, 2009: Syria Makes Its Mark on Regional Politics February 14, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Analysis by Helena Cobban*


DAMASCUS, Jan 16 (IPS) – The main artery of Damascus’s famous covered souk (market) sports a giant red banner expressing – in Arabic and English – the disgust and anguish of a nearby private business for the Israeli military’s attacks on Gaza.

In restaurants and other businesses, large-screen televisions that usually play sports are instead tuned to Al-Jazeera’s 24-hour coverage from Gaza. Syrians of all social groups voice sadness – and considerable anger – about Israel’s war on Gaza and the George W. Bush administration’s refusal to press for a speedy ceasefire.

But even amid these emotions, Syrians close to and outside the government expressed some confidence that their country might soon be able to realise two long-held national goals: The resumption of a serious, comprehensive peace process in which all the remaining tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict – including their own – could finally be resolved, and their escape from the encirclement and multi-faceted pressure that Washington has subjected them to for many years.

On Jan. 14, President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC that he hoped for greatly improved relations with Washington following the inauguration of Barack Obama as president on Jan. 20. He urged the president-elect to work for the speedy resumption of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

On that very same day, Obama told CBS News said that he is going to work toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East “on day one” of his presidency, and that this would include Iran and Syria. “We’re going to have to take a regional approach,” he said. “We’re going to have to involve Syria in discussions. We’re going to have to engage Iran.”

Shortly before news of Obama’s interview reached here, one adviser to the Syrian government warned starkly that, “Either we move rapidly into a comprehensive peace process or the region could collapse rapidly into yet another, even broader war. It really is a race against time.”

The new hopes for a turnaround in Syria’s political fortunes come at the end of a lengthy, U.S.-led campaign against the country’s government, which is dominated by a branch of the Arab Socialist Baath (Renaissance) Party that for decades was in sharp competition with Saddam Hussein’s now effectively defunct Iraqi Baath Party.

The pro-Israel lobby in Washington and its many powerful allies in the U.S. Congress and the executive branch were at the forefront of the anti-Syria campaign. Syria has been subject since 1979 to stiff economic sanctions because of its place on the State Department’s – highly politicised – list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.

In December 2003, Congress added an additional layer of penalties when it passed the Syria Accountability Act, seen by many in those days of U.S. triumphalism as paving the way for an imminent attempt at U.S.-imposed regime change here. The Bush administration also worked hard to isolate and weaken Syria on the international scene. It has repeatedly blocked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) from even accepting Syria’s membership application.

In February 2005, when Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the U.S. and France both loudly blamed Syria and the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. There has been no U.S. ambassador here any time since.

For the next two years, the western-led campaign against Syria left the government here – and many Syrian citizens – feeling very vulnerable indeed. But it did little or nothing to undermine the government’s popularity with the Syrian public. Indeed, perhaps it even drew the public closer to the government.

Though President Assad does face some criticisms from his country’s citizens, on the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict and social equity he represents their views much more accurately than do the leaders of U.S.-backed Arab countries like Egypt or Jordan.

Many Syrians have also said in recent years that the mayhem and mass killings that flowed from the U.S. invasion of neighbouring Iraq made them appreciate the social and political stability of their own country much more than they had before. (Syria has been a generous host to some 700,000 refugees from post-2003 Iraq.)

Since mid-2007, however, Syria has started – slowly – to escape from the international isolation that Washington tried to impose upon it. The government was able to greatly improve relations with France, Britain and other European countries. It even used its good relations with Turkey to launch indirect (proximity) talks with Israel over resuming the long-stalled negotiations for a final-status Syrian-Israeli peace.

The Bush administration, despite its many professions of support for Israeli-Arab peace talks, had tried to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from pursuing those talks with Syria. (Olmert went ahead and pursued them anyway.)

So now – as the tragic events in Gaza drag on and the Bush administration enters its last hours – many influential Syrians are starting to feel cautiously optimistic. “There is a feeling that we backed the right horses in international politics,” one political scientist here said. “In 2005, a ‘six-month scenario’ for the Assad government was openly talked of in the west. But now, there’s a good feeling here that we’ve overcome that… Those who bet against Syria did not win.”

He and a number of his colleagues in the political elite here pointed out that Syria, which has good relations with a broad range of actors in the Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese political scenes, could contribute a lot to any international push to build a stable peace in the region.

“But don’t ask us to break our relations with Hamas, Hizbullah or Iran,” one think-tank head warned. “Those relations are strategic ones for us. And anyway, we can use them to help broaden the base for peace throughout the region.”

If Barack Obama, once inaugurated, does push for a speedy and serious resumption of Middle East peacemaking, he will likely find a willing partner in Damascus.

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*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at http://www.JustWorldNews.org

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