Syria moves from pariah to power broker
Region sees it as a bulwark against Iran; US sees it as key to any peace deal.
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"The rise of Iranian power is good for Syria," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. He credits that rise for new attempts at dialogue with Syria by regional and Western powers.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, Syria's influence in Lebanon has reemerged. Following its troops' humiliating withdrawal in 2005, Syria's hold over Lebanon appeared over. But after the May 2008 takeover of Beirut by Hezbollah's militia, pro-Syrian forces received veto power in a unity government. June's parliamentary elections are expected to cement this "pax Syriana." "The forthcoming Parliament will be much friendlier to Syria than the current one is, representing a marked return of Damascus's hegemony," recently wrote Lebanese journalist Michael Young, a longtime opponent of Syrian influence.
Moreover, fears that Syria would be implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have abated following April's release of four pro-Syrian generals held in connection with the murder.
Renewed opposition to Israel has strengthened popular Arab support for Syria's policies. At March's Arab summit in Qatar, President Bashar al-Assad declared the death of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which would recognize Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories. Syria also reaffirmed its support of Hamas, whose political head, Khaled Mashaal, is based in Damascus and met with Iran's Mr. Ahmadinejad during his visit.
"Syria is in a leading [regional] position because it has an alternative to present Arab politics [which are] based on a fantasy called the Arab Peace Initiative," says Issam Naaman, a former Lebanese official. "Syria's alternative is resistance."
Despite this, President Assad has said that he wants good relations with all his neighbors, including a fair peace with Israel. "Syria is ready to play an important mediation role in the solution of regional problems," says Umran Zaaby, a Syrian analyst with close government ties. Indeed, Syria's ambassador to the United States claimed in April that the US had asked Syria to push Hamas to join a Palestinian unity government.
Syria hopes to cut a deal with the US, and signals from the White House have elicited great optimism in the country. Syria says it expects the US to end its policy of isolation and drop economic sanctions in place since 2003. It has also called for greater US engagement in restraining Israel and pushing a comprehensive peace.
Yet Syria's influence by proxy is perhaps its biggest challenge. Doubts persist about how much leverage it actually holds, especially in encouraging moderation. "Syria has been overconfident and triumphalist for the last year," says Mr. Tabler. "Syria often talks about its ability to [influence events]. So a lot of people are saying 'OK, show it to us.' "