Syria moves from pariah to power broker
Region sees it as a bulwark against Iran; US sees it as key to any peace deal.
Just a year ago, Syria was a Middle Eastern pariah, shunned and attacked by major Arab powers for its interventions and alliances across the region.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet in the wake of Israel's assault on Gaza and its new right-wing government – as well as divisions among Palestinian factions at reconciliation talks in Cairo and upcoming elections in Lebanon – the country is enjoying renewed influence as the region grapples with a crisis of identity and increasing Iranian influence.
Today, Syria is courted by once-hostile Arab powers that see it as a bulwark against Iran. Its regional allies are assertive and it is increasingly viewed as the standard-bearer of Arab values.
"We're happy because everyone is talking to us," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the Syrian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, voicing a widespread confidence. "Everyone in the region is now convinced that Syria never changed its position and was always in the right."
In 2008, as Syria prepared to host the Arab League summit for the first time, regional relations were in meltdown. The two major powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, boycotted the summit, accusing Syria of obstructing regional peace, meddling in Lebanon, and cozying up to radical forces including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and the Palestinian group Hamas.
But the tables have turned. "Syria gambled on very powerful factors and it appears that those factors succeeded," said Samir Taqi, head of the Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus, pointing to a realignment away from the so-called moderate Egyptian and Saudi states. Mr. Taqi says these two powers lost regional credibility as a result of their alignment with the Bush administration.
Syria, which projected itself as the leader of a "resistance axis," says its allies are in the ascendant. This lets it "project its power beyond its borders and to punch above its weight," says Andrew Tabler, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iran is a key source of leverage, as its influence in Iraq and support of Hezbollah and Hamas raise concerns in the moderate states.
A summit among Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Syrian, and Saudi leaders in Riyadh in March was widely interpreted as an attempt to woo Syria away from its close relationship with Iran. Yet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Damascus May 4 reaffirming his country's strong ties with Syria.