John Hughes

Could Syria become a force for peace?

Recent policy changes in Syria offer hope. Damascus could be a wild card in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

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After decades-long hostility, Israelis and Palestinians are tiptoeing their way, at the urging of the United States, through talks toward a peace that has been as elusive as a desert mirage.

The goal is to provide security for Israel and nationhood for the Palestinians, ordered by boundaries yet to be defined and agreed upon.

Ironically, the wild card in all this may be the nation not even seated at the negotiating table: Syria.

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Israel cannot be confident of its security as long as Syria: (1) continues its support, including weaponry, for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, (2) enables the flow of jihadists and explosives into Iraq, and (3) maintains its coziness with Tehran, which may be on the brink of achieving a nuclear bomb and is bellicose in its attitude toward Israel.

There also needs to be settlement of the Golan Heights problem. Seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan now contains some 20,000 Israeli settlers. Should it be returned to Syria, an unfriendly regime in Damascus would be able to pour murderous artillery and rocket firepower into the whole of northern Israel.

Very cryptic, very Syrian

But Syria’s recent behavior is very cryptic, or perhaps we should say, very Syrian, in keeping with the country’s long history of balancing diverse alliances.

While maintaining support for some of the worst actors in the Middle East, it has been curbing the influence of Muslim conservatives and lifestyles at home, and approving humanitarian and cultural initiatives, even from the US. Meanwhile the Western-educated wife of President Bashar al-Assad has been quietly supporting modernization, even whispering of ultimate democracy, albeit over the long haul.

In its foreign policy, Syria has so far resisted the attempts of the Obama administration to “engage” in any robust manner, as part of the American president’s overture to the Arab world. Mr. Obama has conceded that aspects of Syria’s behavior remain troubling, but argues that Syria could yet be constructive and helpful in a number of ways to US policy in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Syria has been mending its relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah has been irritated by President Assad’s closeness to Iran. The two leaders traveled together to Beirut in July to calm Lebanese leaders’ fears of further Syrian meddling – it has a history of attempted domination there.

Many Lebanese have charged Syria with involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an act that shook their country and triggered massive protests against Syria. Rafik’s son Saad is now prime minister. He initially accused Damascus of responsibility for his father’s killing. However, in a startling reversal recently, he withdrew the accusation and said Lebanon must await the findings of an international tribunal that has been investigating the murder.

Changes at home

As Assad orchestrates these somewhat byzantine international relationships, much as his father and Syria’s former president, Hafez, did before him, change is afoot at home.

The New York Times reported moves recently to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in mosques, public universities, and charities. An influential Muslim women’s group has been told to scale back teaching of Islamic law. More than 1,000 teachers wearing the traditional Muslim face veil have been transferred to administrative duties. Officials told the Times this was a move to assert Syria’s “traditional secularism” in the face of rising threats from radical groups in the region.

Apparently with the imprimatur of Syria’s first lady, nongovernmental organizations are springing up to engage in humanitarian works. US nonprofits have not been discouraged from working there. This seems to sanction a new degree of careful public activism provided such organizations skirt clear of politics and thus run afoul of a continuing authoritarian regime.

If these cautious steps signal a step or two into modernity and out of Syria’s cloistered past, that is all to the good. If it means that Syria, at last alarmed by the extent of extremism and violence in the region, is finally shifting its influence on behalf of peace, that would be magnificent.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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