x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The focus is on Syria, but the key is really Iran

After years of diplomatic drought, the Middle East and in particular Syria have recently been swamped by a deluge of activity, most noticeably the comings and goings of American emissaries.

The Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, right, meets the US acting assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman in Damascus.
The Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, right, meets the US acting assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // After years of diplomatic drought, the Middle East and in particular Syria have recently been swamped by a deluge of activity, most noticeably the comings and goings of American emissaries. Once a rare sight in Damascus, hardly a week seems to pass of late without a US delegation of some kind turning up in the Syrian capital. On Saturday it was the turn of Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state, and Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council, in town for talks with Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem. While the meetings have been taking place in Syria, the Americans have had more than half an eye on Iran. Its influence in the region and pursuit of nuclear technology are a - perhaps the - central foreign policy concern for the White House. Syria and Iran are key allies. Both are staunch opponents of Israel and support Hizbollah, the Lebanese political-military movement, as well as the Palestinian resistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Washington considers them to be terrorist organisations and a threat to its regional allies. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has described the recent diplomatic offensive as "testing the waters" and while no clear policy has yet emerged, one of Washington's clear targets seems to be Syria's close ties with Iran. Weakening the alliance, the logic goes, will help undermine Tehran and among other things make it more willing to negotiate on nuclear issues. Despite the rounds of talks, Damascus remains adamant it will not sacrifice its relationship with Iran in exchange for a more cordial atmosphere with the US. "Syria believes it can have good ties with Iran and America, that it does not have to choose between one or the other," said Marwan Kabalan, of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Damascus. "That is the official position here and I can't see it changing significantly. "There might be certain amendments to the relationship but I am sure Syria will not abandon the Iranians altogether. I don't see what the Americans are providing as an alternative. "Why would the Syrians break a strong historical relationship now?" John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, last month and reportedly told him the time was coming for Syria to choose between Washington and Tehran. He has since advocated an easing of US sanctions on Damascus as part of a strategy to reduce Iranian regional influence.

Syria's ability to avoid making a stark choice will depend on US willingness to compromise with Iran, said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist and director at the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "Traditionally, the US has sought to weaken both Iran and Syria, to lock them out of regional security discussions and deny their importance," he said. "If the US learns to offer them security - that is, stop threatening to overturn their regimes - and to compromise with them, then there is hope for an accommodation of interests in the region that could dramatically reduce tensions and radicalism. Of course Iran and Syria would have to meet the US half way and change some of their behaviour as well." If the Americans really wanted to undercut Iranian power in the Middle East, they needed to vigorously and even-handedly push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forwards, said Mr Kabalan. "The answer is the peace process, and not just a deal between Syria and Israel over the Golan," he said. "If you want to undercut Iran, you don't need to ask Syria to move away from Iran, you just need a fair peace. Peace will automatically mean that Hamas and Hizbollah are playing a more political role." Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and has illegally occupied most of the area since. The two countries remain in a state of conflict over the territories. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister designate of Israel, has made his disinterest in returning the Golan clear, although some within the Israeli establishment have advocated a peace deal with Syria as a way of weakening Iran, a country they see as the much more serious threat. Syria is also sceptical about US desires to really push for peace after years of failed initiatives and an evident unwillingness or inability to make Israel compromise on such matters as settlement expansion in occupied areas. Inaction over Israel's military offensive in Gaza and election campaign comments that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel have not boosted confidence that Barack Obama, the US president, is really the man to bring about positive change in the Middle East. "The peace process is the key to most of the region's problems, there is no way to bypass that fact," Mr Kabalan said. "The problem is that the Americans have never been serious about peace, they have always been pleased with conflict management rather than conflict resolution. "The Arab-Israeli conflict has been going on for the last 60 years and they seem satisfied to let it carry on for another 60 years." psands@thenational.ae