Syria: Between Negotiations with Israel and the Iranian Axis

[Institute for Contemporary Affairs/Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs] David Schenker - The Syria-Iran alliance predated the rise to power of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, President Hafiz Assad offered Ayatollah Khomeini sanctuary in Syria. Subsequently, Syria was the first Arab state to recognize the Shiite revolutionary regime in Tehran. Increased political pressures, a growing fiscal deficit, rising food prices, and the ongoing depletion of oil reserves have placed Damascus in a precarious situation. According to the IMF, as of Summer 2007, Syria had recovered from five years of weak growth, achieved economic recovery, and it was assessed that the "near-term outlook for growth and inflation is favorable." But the IMF also said that Syria faced a number of economic challenges, which now appear to be having an effect on Damascus. The Assad regime is increasingly feeling the pressure of isolation within the Arab system, as it faces an unprecedented backlash from its continued pernicious meddling in Lebanon. With pressures increasing, the Assad regime is now focusing again on its second-tier strategy for ending the UN tribunal and emerging from isolation - by initiating peace negotiations with Israel. The Syrians see bilateral negotiations with Israel as a way to renew contacts with Washington and end international isolation and pressure. Thus, negotiations, even without fruition, entail great benefits to the Syrians. Recognizing this, the Syrians have cynically employed the notion of negotiations with Israel since 2003. The view from Washington is decidedly more sober. After years of engaging the Syrians, in 2005 the Bush Administration came to the conclusion that the Assad regime was basically irredeemable. Washington understood it could neither convince the Assad regime of the wisdom of switching sides, nor could it purchase a reformed Syria. In addition, engagement with Damascus necessarily would undermine Washington's allies, further empowering Hizbullah and Iran. When Israel announced on May 21, 2008, that it had officially resumed negotiations with Syria in Turkey, not surprisingly, the Assad regime merely pocketed this diplomatic gain, providing no sign that it had any intention to meet Israeli requirements. The writer is a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

2008-05-27 01:00:00

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