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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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