Why Iran might be worried by Hillary Clinton's meeting with Syria exiles

The subject of the Geneva meeting between Hillary Clinton and Syria exiles was the transition to democracy. But the group's leader has been warning Iran a post-Assad Syria could be far less friendly.

By , Staff writer

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    With concern mounting over the crisis in Syria and President Bashar Assad's crackdown on dissent, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with a small group of expatriate Syrian opposition members at an hotel in Geneva Tuesday.
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s meeting Tuesday in Geneva with exiled Syrian opposition leaders may have focused on the political transition the US envisions for Syria, but in the backdrop stood Iran and the longstanding American effort to break the Tehran-Damascus axis.

Secretary Clinton met with an opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), whose leader has used recent interviews with Western media to warn Tehran that the days of its special relationship with a regime in the heart of the Middle East are numbered.

And Clinton, while certainly making the path to a democratic and representative regime in Syria her first priority, can’t help but hold the US goal of reversing Iran’s influence uppermost in her mind as well, some regional experts say.

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The ongoing regional upheaval of the Arab Spring presents “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to alter the balance of power in the Middle East, and certainly changing Syria’s orientation away from Iran would be a major coup from America’s perspective,” says Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma Syria expert.

“Syria is a key country in so many strategic and economic and diplomatic senses, so snipping the ties that bind Syria and Iran would be significant,” Professor Landis says, “to some degree it would make up for the boost in influence that Iran got after the Iraq war.”

Syria’s relations with Iran were not part of Clinton’s public interchange with the opposition leaders. Before going into a private meeting at a Geneva hotel, Clinton told the group that working closely with opposition forces inside the country and reassuring Syria’s minorities that a political transition will benefit them are among their most important tasks.

“A democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime,” Secretary Clinton said as she sat down with the opposition leaders in a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. “It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender.”

Clinton’s meeting with leaders of the SNC was the most overt sign of US support for the opposition since the Obama administration in August called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Clinton was in Geneva to deliver a speech to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which last week received a report from a special commission of inquiry that found “gross violations of human rights” by Syrian security forces in violence against anti-regime protesters. More than 4,000 Syrians, including hundreds of children, have died in eight months of protests, according to the UN.

Oklahoma’s Landis, who writes the Syria Comment blog, says Clinton’s meeting with the SNC was “clearly a step farther” toward some sort of official recognition of the group. But he says the fact this is only Clinton’s second meeting with the Syrian opposition in nine months of turmoil suggests a cautious approach to an opposition that remains weak, divided, and “nowhere near the point of overturning the Assad regime.”

The opposition’s divisions have not stopped the SNC’s current president, Burhan Ghalioun, from declaring that a new Syria would cut military ties to Tehran and to its proxies in the region. That prompted the leader of one of those proxies, Hezbullah’s Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, to declare Tuesday that “we stand by the [Syrian] regime” and against the Syrian opposition.

The SNC, Mr. Nasrallah said, would make Syria the lackey of the US and Israel, and he seemed to allude to the opposition’s meeting with Clinton when he added that the organization was busy “presenting its credentials” to the US.

While the US was undoubtedly pleased to hear Mr. Ghalioun’s declarations of a distancing from Iran by some future Syrian government, Landis says, the reality is that such statements mean little when a Syrian transition still appears to be far off.

“For him to promising what’s going to happen to Iran at the end of this whole thing in Syria is really putting the cart before the horse,” Landis says.       

The US show of support for the Syrian opposition came as the Arab League rejected a demand from President Assad that Arab countries rescind the economic sanctions the league imposed on his country last week. Mr. Assad, in a letter to the league, said he would allow outside monitors into his country on the condition that the sanctions be lifted and that Syria be readmitted to the league.

But the Arab League, which has also demanded a freeing of all political prisoners and an end to the crackdown on anti-regime protesters, said simply agreeing to admit monitors would not be enough to rescind the economic measures against a list of Syrian officials and the reduction in Arab-country flights to Syria approved Dec. 3.

The wrangling between Assad and Arab countries heated up as Syrian activists and international human rights groups reported that killings continued in Syria and particularly in the protest center of Homs. Some activists reported that as many as 80 Homs residents who disappeared in a rash of kidnappings beginning Sunday had now turned up dead.

Even as Clinton met with the Syrian opposition leaders, the State Department announced that the US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, is on his way back to Syria after “consultations” in Washington. Ambassador Ford was ordered home in late October after his high-profile contacts with anti-regime protesters led to threats on his life.

Some Republican lawmakers have called for the ambassador’s chair in Damascus to remain vacant as a show of condemnation of the Assad regime’s actions, but administration officials say US interests are better served with Ford at his post.

“We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people of Syria,” said State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner. Ford will continue his work “engaging with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition.”

Ford’s return to Damascus was announced as word circulated that another American has just been to Damascus to get Assad’s side of the Syria story. ABC News said Assad granted TV personality Barbara Walters an interview that it would air Wednesday night. Ms. Walters, known for interviews that delve into high-profile figures’ personal sides, questioned Assad about the killings of Syrians including children and asked how he feels about the calls for him to step down, according to ABC.

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