Crisis May Put Syria Back in Political Mix

Times Staff Writer

After years spent edging Syrian troops out of Lebanon in a bid to win independence for the beleaguered nation, Western leaders face the prospect of pressing Damascus to reassert its influence with Islamic militants there to halt rocket attacks on Israel and free Israeli prisoners.

As a consequence, Syria sees itself as back in the driver’s seat of regional politics after years of U.S.-imposed diplomatic and economic isolation, several Syrian politicians and analysts said. The leverage could allow Damascus to seek further advantage, including new talks on the fate of the Golan Heights, in exchange for any intervention in Lebanon.

Increasingly, they added, Syria is following the model of its ally Iran, which Damascus believes has gained more control over its destiny in the last year through defiance over its nuclear program than moderate Arab regimes have during years of concession and compromise with the U.S. and Israel.

“The Iranians speak to the Americans with the same defiant attitude that the Americans address the Iranians with, and that has increased the popularity of [Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threefold,” said Sami Moubayed, a Damascus-based political analyst.


“They’ve tamed the American attitude toward the Iranian regime -- it’s not as aggressive or violent since Ahmadinejad came to power,” he said. “So the Iranians have given Syria this advice: Don’t give in that easily.”

In the current crisis, during which U.S. officials have called on Damascus to force its Muslim militant allies in Lebanon to back down from the conflict, Syria appears anxious to reassert its claim as a crucial guarantor of stability in the Middle East.

“There is a misconception in the policy that the United States has been following since the second war in Iraq. This misconception is that you can relegate Syria out of the politics of the area, that you can conduct your policies without Syria. We have seen now that this is wrong,” said Georges Jabbour, a lawmaker from Syria’s ruling Baath Party and an advisor to Hafez Assad, the late father and predecessor of President Bashar Assad.

In exchange for any attempt to end rocket attacks on Israel by Islamic militants of the Hamas and Hezbollah movements, Syria might be expected to ask for a final decision on the status of Syrian lands seized by Israel in 1967, along with guarantees that the U.S. is not targeting the Assad government for regime change, said M. Riad Abrash, a former liaison of the Syrian government.


“The Golan Heights is No. 1: The people of Syria want to know whether they will retrieve it or not. And second, this regime wants to know whether it’s going to survive or not,” Abrash said. “It’s a matter of price. Syria wants something in return.”

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War.

Although the U.S. has cited Syria and Iran as possible behind-the-scenes instigators of rocket attacks against Israel, and possibly the only parties capable of persuading the militants to release three Israeli soldiers whose capture touched off the current crisis, Syria has taken pains to publicly distance itself from the Lebanese militants -- if only to avoid direct accountability for the conflict.

Analysts point out that Syria lost day-to-day control over Hezbollah when the last of its troops pulled out of Lebanon in 2005. Syria saw that pullout as a painful blow to its rightful influence in the region and, from its perspective, prospects for future stability in Lebanon.


“Just what does the United States want?” Abrash asked. “Syria to play a role? Or to get out of all roles?”

“If we imagine that Mr. Assad gets on the phone to ask [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah to stop, do you really think he will stop?” asked Mohammed Habash, an independent member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus.

“We are dealing with a person who has decided to deliver his soul. Do you think he’s waiting for comments from Damascus? Any thinking that the resistance in Lebanon or Palestine or Iraq is controlled by Syria is, I think, a stupid understanding.”

Although all of that may be true, few doubt that an unequivocal command from Syria, combined with a blockade of supply routes across the Lebanese border, could provide the means to halt the current round of violence on the Muslim side.


In any case, Syria would be unlikely to move forward on negotiations without an Israeli commitment to a cease-fire and the assurance of concessions, including a release of Arab prisoners, analysts said.

This is especially true, they say, because war in Lebanon carries distinct political advantages for Damascus -- as long as it doesn’t stretch across the border into Syria.

These advantages include the undermining of the current anti-Syrian government in Lebanon, an indefinite postponement of United Nations resolutions aimed at disarming Hezbollah, the reassertion of Syrian influence in a chaotic Lebanon and the postponement of democratic reforms at home.

Just how limited Washington is in its own communication channels with Syria was made clear Monday, when President Bush was overheard in conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Group of 8 summit as saying he felt like asking U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to telephone Syria and “make something happen” to end the crisis in Lebanon.


A decade ago, U.S. diplomats in Damascus were working days at a stretch in close contact with the Syrians to successfully secure the release of kidnapped American hostages in Lebanon. But the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Damascus since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, and other diplomats remaining in the capital have limited, low-level contacts with Syrian officials.

Economic sanctions involving U.S. banks have forced delays in cashing checks for thousands of citizens and prompted the Syrian government to begin converting most official transactions to the euro, and bans are in place on the export of military hardware and U.S.-manufactured goods to Syria.

The intent was to isolate Syria and force a “regime behavior change,” in the words of the State Department, similar to the about-face conducted by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

But the upshot is that Washington has been left in the current crisis with fewer negotiating levers, said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.


The Syrians are “playing a very dangerous game. But until the first bomb starts falling on Damascus, everything’s going Syria’s way,” Landis said.

Syria backed Hamas when it was a fledgling Islamic resistance movement, only to see it triumph at the polls this spring and take over the Palestinian government, he said.

“Last week when all hell broke loose in Gaza, the [Palestinian administration] was sending negotiators to Damascus to try to get the release of this [captured] Israeli young man,” Landis said. “A year ago, those people would all have been sent to Cairo.

“Now Egypt has been replaced by Syria as the major broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he added. “Bashar has outfoxed them.”