US-Iran dynamic: Why US effort to leverage Syria is flagging

In a bid to strengthen Washington's hand in the US-Iran dynamic, President Obama has sought to woo Syria. But as those efforts stall, Syria is drawing closer to Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

By , Correspondent

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    President Obama arrives at Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., Friday, to attend a memorial service for the late Sen. Robert Byrd. The Obama administration's efforts at dialogue with Syria appear to be falling short.
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More than a year after the US launched a cautious effort to reengage with Syria, wooing it away from Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite organization Hezbollah, the process appears to have reached an impasse.

Far from loosening its ties to Hezbollah, which the US classifies as a terrorist organization, Syria seems to be drawing ever closer to the powerful group in military cooperation. A year ago, it was reported that Hezbollah militants were receiving training in Syria on SA-8 “Gecko” vehicle-mounted antiaircraft missile systems, and that Syrian-manufactured M600 artillery rockets with a range of 155 miles had been transferred to the Lebanese group.

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In April, Israeli and US reports surfaced that Syria had transferred Scud ballistic missiles to Hezbollah’s control. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had delivered to Syria a new sophisticated radar system that could give advance warning of an impending Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities or Hezbollah.

“This is the first time a [US-classified] state sponsor [of terrorism] has ever been essentially busted getting [Scud] ballistic missiles close to a terrorist organization,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In a post 9/11 world, this is not what we expected after 14 or so senior [diplomatic] visits to Damascus in the last year.”

What's to blame?

Although Obama seems committed to engaging Syria, the administration has been frustrated by what it considers the lack of positive response from Damascus. In particular, the US seems unable to persuade Syria to drop its support for militant anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas, also considered a terrorist group by the US and Europe.

A number of factors are to blame for the stalled renewal of ties, analysts say:

  • The Obama administration’s attention has been diverted from the Middle East by more pressing matters such as the domestic economy and Afghanistan;
  • The right-wing government in Israel has shown little enthusiasm for resuming peace talks with Syria;
  • Damascus has tightened its relationship with Hezbollah, to the consternation of the US and Israel;
  • Turkey’s recent animosity toward Israel has shifted regional power dynamics, potentially in Syria’s favor.

“Basically, it’s not going well at all,” says Mr. Tabler. “And the lack of results are raising a lot of questions, not just among Republicans.”

US ambassador still not confirmed by Senate

President Obama spoke of improving relations with the Arab and Muslim world in a keynote speech in Cairo a year ago, which raised expectations of potential imminent movement on the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

Part of that process would be to revive Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, which have essentially lain dormant for 10 years, apart from a brief series of Turkey-brokered indirect talks in 2007 and 2008. The US calculates that encouraging regional foes Israel and Syria to conclude a peace treaty will help stabilize the Middle East and weaken the regional influence of Iran, a close ally of Syria.

But the Obama administration also has to persuade Israel to resume talks with Syria, a task made more difficult by Syria's increasing military cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah and by the hawkish Israeli government's reluctance to offer Damascus the necessary concessions for peace.

In an initial step toward a thaw, the US announced a year ago that it would send an ambassador to the Syrian capital for the first time in four years. The last ambassador was recalled in February 2005, a day after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. Syria was widely blamed for Hariri’s murder, although Damascus has always denied involvement.

However, it took the Obama administration until February of this year to name an ambassador, Robert Ford. Despite being a career diplomat with Middle East experience, he is still awaiting confirmation of his posting by the Senate.

The slow process of reappointing the ambassador is illustrative of the sluggish pace of rapprochement between the US and Syria. But Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says that the Obama administration remains committed to engagement.

“The US is concerned about what Syria is doing, but the issue of [returning] the ambassador and engagement is a fixed [policy] from the administration’s point of view,” he says.

'The US is not the only game in town'

Although Syria still desires warmer relations with the US, analysts say, it is not inclined to make concessions in advance, especially as its regional standing has improved lately. A few years ago, Syria was isolated internationally and regionally. Accused of the Hariri murder, Damascus was pressured into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon and shunned by most of its Arab neighbors. Iran became its only dependable regional ally.

Today, however, Syria’s ties with much of the Arab world have been restored. European envoys regularly visit Damascus. The recent fallout between Turkey and Israel over the killing by Israeli troops of Turkish activists seeking to break the maritime blockade of Gaza has shifted the regional balance of power in favor of the so-called “resistance front” of countries and groups in confrontation with Israel.

“Syria wants to engage but it is not desperate,” says Mr. Salem. “It has no real dependency on the US particularly as the peace process is pretty much dead. Syria is doing well with Turkey, the Gulf, the Saudis, China, some European countries. The US is not the only game in town.”

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