Accessibility links

Syria Profits from Regional Diplomatic Upheaval after Gaza Conflict


Syria appears to be profiting from the recent Gaza conflict and is emerging from several years of diplomatic isolation to become a key player, again, in the Middle East's diplomatic arena. President Bashar al-Assad's support for Hamas is bringing Syria extra clout in the aftermath of an inconclusive conflict, which has diplomats scrambling to find a resolution.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won a newfound popularity with the Arab "man in the street" for his recent stand in support of Hamas, as this recent pop-tune called "Bashar the Lion" reveals.

Hamas' top leader, Khaled Meshaal, along with other key Palestinian opposition figures, is based in Syria, giving the country extra muscle in diplomatic negotiations.

Syria's political and logistical support for Hamas, along with Lebanon's Hezbollah, won kudos with the Arab public, and has European and Arab diplomats knocking on Syria's door.

President Assad's fiery speech last month at an emergency Arab summit in Qatar, drew applause in the Arab press after he decried Israel's military operation in Gaza, and called for revenge.

He said, "Arabs are a people with a long memory and will be sure to remind our children of the 'massacre' in Gaza" ... President Assad said Arabs will preserve pictures of the children of Gaza, spattered with blood and maimed and will teach the Israelis about an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" ... And he said that what was taken by force can only be returned by force.

Gaza a Political Win for Damascus

Syrian political analyst Marwan Kabalan insisted Damascus stands to reap a political windfall from its position in supporting Hamas.

He argued that in Gaza there was an oppressed people, and Syria took their side, so necessarily it will reap the popular and regional gains ... For now, Kabalan concluded that everyone on the side of the 'resistance' in the Arab world has been strengthened ... and that it has become imperative to negotiate with Syria.

Syria's exact position towards negotiating with Israel remains murky, after President Assad pronounced the 2002 Arab peace initiative towards Israel "clinically dead," following months of indirect talks with the Jewish state using Turkish mediation.

Arab states, President Assad said, must retaliate by closing Israeli embassies and boycotting Israeli products, and Syria has also cut off indirect talks with Israel, indefinitely. The 2002 peace initiative, Mr. Assad added, is dead and buried because Arab concessions have repeatedly been met by Israeli arrogance.

Professor Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins' School for Advanced International Studies believes Syria cleverly exploits its ambiguous political position towards Israel.

Sitting on the Fence

"But the Syrians, in a way, they are the perfect fence-sitters. They swing both ways. They can swing with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and be a status-quo player or they can swing the other way, and I think increasingly they have joined the opposition. I mean, they have joined the renegades, but they are very careful, because they are shrewd enough that they know that a ride with the renegade is very dangerous, so I think they are both brutal and smart," he said.

A Role for President Obama

University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, who runs the well-known Syria Comment website, painted a dire picture of Syria and the Arab's strategic positions, suggesting that Damascus wants the new Barack Obama administration to step in and save the situation.

"There has been an outpouring among Western analysts, and analysts in the region, of analysis claiming that Barack Obama cannot fix the Arab-Israeli conflict, that it is too late, the Palestinians have lost. The Gaza invasion punctuates this loss, that the likely winner of the elections in Israel will be [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who does not believe in a two-state solution, who wants to expand settlements ... So, that leaves Syria," he said.

So, if peace is impossible, where can you actually do something that will be a success rather than just managing a disaster? And that is Syria, and everybody agrees that Syria is pragmatic and that Syria will do a deal," he added.

The Message from Mr. Assad

Professor Landis thinks that President Assad wants to strike a global bargain with the new U.S. president, but is demanding guarantees and concessions, before he will make any himself.

"[Assad] has got a dual message: there will be no more direct Syrian-Israel negotiation, unless America steps in and offers some guarantees. In many ways, Western analysts believe that they have scared the Arab world. They have shown that they can thrash them, and therefore they want concessions out of the Arabs before they will go to peace talks, and the West wants Syria to make Hamas renounce its violence and to accept overtly the State of Israel. You see, it is about who won, and the Arabs are saying that 'you did not win,' we are not going to make these concessions," said Landis.

The biggest concession, according to Landis, is for the United States and President Obama to stop treating Syria as a "pariah state," and to send a new U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005.

President Assad, Landis concluded, has Mr. Obama "over a barrel," because the only place the new administration can make progress towards peace is in Syria, and Damascus has a price for making that happen.

XS
SM
MD
LG