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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 15 September 2009
Citation / Document Symbol SB No. 76
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 15 September 2009, SB No. 76, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Analysts assess Syria's foreign policy dilemmas.

By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 76, 15-Sep-09)

Despite the recent opening of the West towards Syria designed to persuade the country to adopt friendlier regional policies, Damascus has shown in the last few weeks that it is not yet ready to make concessions about the big issues affecting the region, local analysts said.

The demands made on the Syrians by the United States and Europe in return for offered economic and diplomatic incentives proved to be "unrealistic", said a Damascus-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The expert said that the West expected Syria to cooperate on a number of issues including preventing the flow of insurgents through its border to Iraq, stopping meddling in internal Lebanese affairs and ceasing support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups fighting against Israel.

Damascus was also required to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its nuclear matters, help end the feud between Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, as well as loosening its alliance with Iran, he added.

"These were a lot of demands, unrealistic demands," the analyst said.

In a drastic departure from the isolationist policies of his predecessor, US president Barack Obama has embarked on a strategy of dialogue with Damascus since he took office in January.

In recent months, Washington has dispatched seven delegations to Syria, including several visits by its Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, in addition to senior military officials.

Cooperation over the stability of Iraq was said to be on top of the agenda of talks between the two parties.

European Union officials have also hinted at offering to sign soon a major economic cooperation agreement with Damascus, unfreezing talks on this issue that were held up because it suspected Syria of being behind political assassinations and instability in Lebanon, according to media reports.

At the same time, after a brief period of improved ties between Syria on one side and Lebanon, Iraq and other Arab states on the other, recent events have showed that tension is still hampering Damascus's relations with its neighbours.

On August 25, Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Syria accusing Damascus of harbouring the masterminds behind the suicide bombings that killed 96 Iraqis in Baghdad earlier that month.

The spat between the two nations continues with Iraq insisting that Syria hand over a number of exiled former Iraqi Baathists believed to have planned the attacks, but Damascus has asked for evidence to back the Iraqi allegations.

In Lebanon, more than four months after the general elections in June, the parliamentary majority has failed to form a national unity government. Western-backed politicians in the country have accused neighbours Syria and Iran, which sponsor the Hezbollah-led opposition, of blocking a solution to the political crisis.

According to the analyst, the current regional frictions were not surprising.

The analyst said that the international community realised Syria had considerable leverage in Lebanon and Iraq and the power to destabilise both countries.

Washington wanted Syria to change its behaviour and offered dialogue to solve the region's problems but it had no clear vision of how and at what price it wanted to reach the goal of stability in the Middle East, he said.

He added that Syria was in a position of strength since it does not feel under any military pressure to give up any of its interests and break up its regional alliance with Iran.

In August, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran to confirm the strong ties between the two countries.

But on the other hand, some experts say that Syria needs a rapprochement with the West to help it develop its ailing economy.

One political expert, asking that his name be withheld, said that Damascus could not afford to keep ignoring the demands of the West.

The US will probably maintain its policy of dialogue with Syria for a while but it cannot wait too long for the Syrians to deliver on their promises, he said.

Another political expert, who also requested anonymity, believes that Damascus is still feeling vulnerable.

The US has promised to send an ambassador to Damascus, replacing the envoy recalled to Washington in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

But there does not seem to be any real prospect of the peace process between Syria and Israel starting.

"Syria is preparing now for the worst," he said, adding that Damascus felt under pressure from the international tribunal on Hariri's killing, which was widely blamed on Damascus. Syria denies any involvement.

"Nobody knows what the outcome of the [Hariri] tribunal will be," he said.

There also remained the possibility of a war against Syria's regional ally Iran and the West was using nuclear concerns to intimidate the Syrians, he said.

The IAEA is currently investigating suspected nuclear reactor sites in Syria.

"There are no clear American policies for the region, which makes Syria more than ever want to keep its cards close to its chest," he said.

He also said that Damascus was burdened by a deteriorating economic situation and hostile Arab regimes around it.

The analyst said there had been attempts to mend relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia recently especially after they soured significantly in the aftermath of the July 2006 Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

In September, Riyadh returned its ambassador to Damascus after the position remained vacant for more than a year.

But the analyst said that Syria was not yet ready to swap its alliance with Iran for one with Arab nations, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, at a time when the region was in a state of flux.

He added that the current crackdown by the Syrian regime on civil society and the opposition showed that Damascus was "nervous and worried".
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