Syria seeks to gain from regional tumult

Iraq is where the war is. Iran is where the disputed nuclear program is. And Lebanon is where America's friends in the Middle East are going head-to-head with its enemies.

Yet it's in Syria where the threads of these conflicts come together.

The country that the Bush administration says helps terrorists, and which has been treated with barely disguised irritation by fellow Arab states in recent years, is seeking to trade on the impression it can provide at least partial solutions to some of the region's most pressing problems. Though weaker than Iran or Saudi Arabia, the country represents a crucial element in a triangle of interlocking regional powers.

"The [Syrian] state always calls Syria the 'beating heart of Arabism,' and it's true in the sense that Syria, by geography and sectarian makeup, is key to what's going on in the region, especially the concerns over spreading Iranian influence," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.

Though the US has refused to talk directly to Syria, demanding that Damascus cease meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories first, the regime's isolation appears to be crumbling.

Relations with neighboring Iraq have improved with the formal restoration of diplomatic ties in December and the signing of a joint security agreement. American senators have recently traveled to Damascus and a State Department official is planning a visit to discuss the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Syrian interests also were high on the agenda of a meeting last weekend between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdullah.

Syria looking for a Hariri deal

In recent days, there were hopes among Lebanese government officials and opposition figures that Iran – which uses Damascus as its strategic linchpin to Hizbullah in Lebanon – had worked out a deal with Saudi Arabia – a political and financial backer of Lebanon's government – to end a three-month old political deadlock.

But local media report that Saudi officials have since played down hopes of a quick resolution. Both sides recognize that any deal would have to ease pressure on Syria over its suspected involvement in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago. That could mean Lebanese approval for a watered-down international tribunal on Hariri's murder, sparing top Syrian officials from indictment. In exchange, Syria would lean on Hizbullah and other Lebanese opposition members to call off their bid to topple the governing coalition.

Syria's ability to potentially scuttle unfavorable deals brokered by the regional powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Iran underlines Riyadh's irritation with Damascus – as well as the risks of ignoring the Syrians.

"The Saudis continue to be annoyed with Damascus.... All the same, the Saudis understand that for Middle Eastern tensions to be reduced, Syria must be brought into negotiations," says Joshua Landis, a codirector of the University of Oklahoma's Center of Peace Studies and a specialist on Syria.

Last month, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Damascus. The meeting produced an agreement on a Palestinian national unity government, and served as a calculated swipe at Damascus by undercutting Syria's influence on Palestinian affairs. It was a reminder, analysts say, that Syria's neighbors expect much in return for any concessions, and that if they don't get it, they'll turn on Syria again. Saudi Arabia is hoping Syria will return to the Arab fold – or at least move away from the orbit of Persian Iran – at the annual meeting of the 22-member Arab League later this month.

Iran and Syria's surprising relationship

"If Syria does not take steps to fix the causes of its problems with Saudi Arabia, then the Arab summit will not save Syria from a dark future.... Syria is responsible for its own encirclement," wrote Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, in the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

The 27-year relationship between secular Syria and Islamic Iran is one of the most enduring – and surprising – in the Middle East. The bilateral bond is the core of an anti-Western alliance which includes Hizbullah, Hamas and a collection of smaller Palestinian groups.

"The relationship between Iran and Syria has evolved from a pragmatic one into a ... strategic and ideological one," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. It's "ideological because they resist politically or militarily US hegemony in the region and the threat from Israel."

Iran, aware that a rapprochement between Syria and the West would isolate it from Hizbullah and undermine Tehran's ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict, is working hard to prevent that from happening. Iran has recently proposed $1-3 billion in Syria investments.

"If those investments are implemented over the next two to three years, it will allow Iran to replace or offset a lot of the influence Saudi Arabia traditionally has had in Syria," says Mr. Tabler of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

The relationship with Iran has divided expert opinion in the US and Israel. Some advocate a full reengagement with Syria and peace talks which could see the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights returned to Syria. "Peace with Israel and the return of the Golan are the only prizes which might make Damascus reconsider the advantages of its close relationship with Iran," says Mr. Landis.

Others insist such efforts won't succeed in prying Syria away from Iran. "It makes no sense for Syria to split from Iran," says Ms. Saad- Ghorayeb. "It appears much more in Syria's strategic interests to remain allied with an ascendant power in the region rather than an alliance with a waning power [in the region] like the US."

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