Syria moves from pariah to power broker

Region sees it as a bulwark against Iran; US sees it as key to any peace deal.

By , Correspondent

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    Saudi Summit: (Left to right) Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March. The meeting was widely seen as an attempt to woo Syria away from Iran.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"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.

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.' "

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