Closer US Ties With Syria Will Come at a Price, Analysts Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syria may be looking for better relations with the U.S. but the price for warming ties would be U.S. abandonment of democratic reform in Lebanon and ensuring that Israel give up the strategic Golan Heights, analysts here said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Damascus is a close ally of Tehran, enabling Iran to transfer weapons and missiles to the Islamic terrorist group Hizballah.

But recently Assad has made moves that some analysts view as indications that he would like closer relations with Washington.

"The Syrians are very practical. They have interests and priorities," said professor Amatzia Baram, expert in Middle East history from the University of Haifa.

Assad is certainly sending up "test balloons," indicating he wants closer relations with the United States, Baram told Cybercast News Service.

The first trial balloon was Assad's surprise decision to send an envoy to the U.S.-sponsored Israel-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. The second was his apparent clampdown on al Qaeda operatives. He prevented them from crossing the border into Iraq, said Baram.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, recently credited Syria with "taking more aggressive action" against al Qaeda operatives, limiting their flow into Iraq.

But Baram said while it is true that Damascus has cracked down on al Qaeda operatives, it only did so only because it saw that helping insurgents infiltrate into Iraq was no longer causing "major damage" to the Americans in Iraq.

Starting in mid- to late 2006, it became much more difficult for al Qaeda volunteers to sneak into Iraq from Syria, and the infiltration has dwindled during the last year. But that's not because of any Syrian intervention, Baram said.

Sunni and Shiite tribes in northern Iraq began to cooperate with U.S. troops, and by early last year, the two main infiltration routes from Syria were blocked by Iraqis from the Iraqi side, Baram said.

Assad saw that helping the infiltrators was no longer yielding great results and therefore he decided to jump on the bandwagon by sending soldiers to crack down on the insurgents in the hopes that the Americans might be grateful, he said.

Damascus is very concerned about al Qaeda because of the threat of a "militant wave of Islam" rising up in secular Syria, said professor Moshe Maoz, an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Syria is at a crossroads between Iran and Hizballah -- and its desire to join the more pragmatic camp, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, (Jordan) and the United States, Maoz said.

Leaders want to survive and so they change their strategies and policies according to their aims, Maoz said.

Tehran provides Damascus with military assistance. But allying itself with Washington would provide Damascus with better strategic gains: the Golan Heights from Israel; extending its influence in Lebanon; and money and loans for economic development, said Maoz. Nevertheless, Damascus will always keep its options open with Iran, he said.

But professor Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University, disagreed.

"I wouldn't say that a strategic decision was taken to help the Americans," Zisser said in a telephone interview. Damascus is "clearly not" switching sides from supporting Iran and Hizballah to supporting the Americans, he said.

On the one hand, Damascus allows the insurgency and ignores its activities. When it gets to the point where it can't ignore the insurgency any more, then it cracks down, Zisser said.

Assad is feeling more secure and confident now because this is President Bush's last year in office and he is not being pressured regarding Lebanon, said Zisser.

Zisser noted that Bush said last month that he was fed up with Assad.

Bush said that his patience with Assad had run out "a long time ago" because Assad "houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country to Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon."

According to Baram -- who said he does favor talks between Syria and the U.S. -- both Lebanon and Israel would pay the price for strengthening relations between Damascus and Washington.

Syria would want the U.S. to back an Israeli-Syrian treaty that would put the Golan Heights back in Syrian hands.

Damascus also would want the U.S. to kill the United Nations investigation into the assassination of pro-Western former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The probe has strongly suggested that top Syrian officials were involved in the assassination. Syria is also widely believed to be behind other political assassinations in Lebanon, Baram said.

Damascus also wants pro-Democracy Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora out; the Iranian-backed Hizballah to gain a controlling share of ministers in the government; and freedom of operation for its intelligence officers in Lebanon, including the freedom to assassinate anyone it sees fit, said Baram.

Syria, a longtime power broker in Beirut, was forced to withdraw its army after decades in Lebanon by a grass-roots, anti-Syrian, pro-Democracy movement that burgeoned following Hariri's assassination.

Syria has never recognized Lebanon's sovereignty and sees the tiny Mediterranean state as an extension of Greater Syria.

"This is why it is so difficult for Bush and the Americans to talk to him [Assad]," said Baram. The U.S. cannot and should not forsake Lebanon after promoting democracy there so strongly, he said.

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