Earlier this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held a joint press conference with Iran’s leader Ahmadinejad in which he criticized US policy in the Middle East and reaffirmed the Iranian-Syrian relationship (Washington Post). These statements follow recent American efforts to open up diplomatic relations with Syria. On February 17th, President Obama announced that he was appointing Robert S. Ford as the new Ambassador to Syria. This appointment is the first since 2005, when America withdrew its ambassador in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Was this press conference Syria’s way of responding to US gestures of political good will? It seems to be a public rejection of America’s offer to reestablish diplomatic relations. More importantly, it appears that Syria has chosen a side; by publicly aligning itself with Iran, Syria has drawn a clear line between itself and the United States.
Since 2005, the United States has tried to isolate Syria because of its interference in Lebanese politics and support of terrorist organizations. However, as tensions with Iran rise and the country becomes closer to gaining nuclear weapons, the US administration has reevaluated its policy towards Syria. President Obama is searching for more moderate Arab allies to support sanctions against Iran and thought that Syria could be persuaded to participate. By directly engaging with Syria, Obama was hoping to create distance between Syria and Iran. His actions seem to have had the opposite effect. Perhaps the carrot approach has come too late.
The Syrian response is disappointing, even if not entirely unexpected. Syria is a major player in the politics of the Middle East and it appears it is ready to take on a more pronounced role. There are three major regional issues in which Syria is deeply involved. The Middle East peace process is the most obvious. Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Syria demands that the territory be returned in order to negotiate a peace settlement. If Syria and Israel were to establish peace, Syria would have more incentive to cease its support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The second issue is Iran and it’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. As the US tries to deter Iran, it is searching for allies in the region. By engaging with Syria, America is attempting to create distance between Syria and Iran and allow Syria to take a more moderate stance. The other important concern is the Iraq war. Syria has allowed its border with Iraq to remain porous and perhaps even encouraged foreign fighters to use it as a way to enter the country.
These issues demonstrate the important role that Syria plays in the Middle East. Syria is directly involved in and affected by many of the problems facing the region. It has the potential to act as an integral player in the negotiation of a Middle East peace settlement and to become a major player in the regional politics once US and NATO forces leave Iraq. However, it remains to be seen whether or not Syria will take further actions to assert its support of Iran and rejection of the United States. But if President Assad’s recent statements are any indication, it seems the US may have lost a valuable partner in its search for more moderate allies in the Middle East.
~ Alissa Aronovici