Analysis: Damascus gets what it needs

Syria has apparently decided its alliance with Iran outweighs the benefits of rapprochement with the US.

Bashar Assad 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In his letter to Congress announcing the renewal of US sanctions on Syria, President Barack Obama was specific regarding the reasons for his decision. Syria, the President said, was "supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq." These three accusations are related to verifiable activity currently being undertaken by the Damascus regime. Syria's activity in turn reflects the firmness of the regime's strategic choice to align itself with the regional alliance led by Iran. Syria's actions should be observed well by all those currently promoting the feasibility of a "grand bargain" between Israel and the Arab world. They are evidence of the reality of a Middle East Cold War, in which the fault lines are growing ever clearer. First, let's recall the details. With regard to supporting terrorism, it is well known that the leaderships of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are domiciled in Damascus. Syria has over the last decade built a close, mutually beneficial strategic relationship with Hizbullah. Damascus also serves as a large care home for various superannuated leftist Palestinian groups. On weapons of mass destruction, reports have surfaced in recent days suggesting that the Syrians have constructed a biological weapons facility, on the site of the al-Kibar plutonium reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007. Certainly, Damascus's interest in both biological and chemical weapons is long-standing. Syria possesses one of the largest and most advanced chemical warfare programs in the Arab world - including chemical warheads for all its major missile systems. It is known to possess a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, and is in the process of attempting to develop the more powerful VX nerve agent, according to the CIA's bi-annual report on WMD proliferation. Damascus is also thought by western governments to possess a biological warfare development program. On the "stabilization and reconstruction" of Iraq - the latest news is that after a short pause, Damascus has in the last month recommenced its practice of facilitating the entry of Sunni jihadi fighters into Iraq by way of Syria's eastern border. At the height of the Sunni insurgency, Damascus airport became a transit point for fighters from across the Arab world and beyond it seeking to make their way to Iraq. In mid 2007, 80-100 fighters per month were crossing into Iraq from Syria. Having fallen to close to zero earlier this year, the numbers are now up to 20 per month. The charge sheet is both substantial, and formidable. It isn't hard to see why the US administration found it necessary to renew the sanctions. But the interesting question remains that of Syria's motive. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, and NSC senior official Daniel Shapiro have visited Damascus twice in the last two months. Feltman noted that the two sides found "lots of common ground" between them. Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha happily described the "new spirit of serious discussion" that he found in his meetings with Obama administration officials. So why, four months into Washington's courting of the Assad regime, has there been no improvement of any kind in Syria's stances regarding issues of concern to the US? Rather, where there has been change, it has been for the worse - as in the situation on the Iraqi border, and perhaps with regard to al-Kibar. The regime has evidently done its calculations, and concluded that it has nothing to gain by loosening its relationship with the Iranians at the present time. US sanctions are not toothless. Oil and gas production in Syria has been hit because of lack of access to US technology. The aviation and banking sectors have also been affected. Damascus would substantively gain from seeing the sanctions lifted. But Syria is also aware that with the region polarized between US and Iranian blocs, moving toward the former entails moving away from the latter. And it is not at all clear that the US could, or would, wish to provide Syria with the very tangible strategic benefits it currently gains from its close relations with Iran. Washington wants a free Lebanon, a stable, strong Iraq, and progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Syria opposes all of these. Damascus seeks to rebuild its own power in Lebanon, to keep Iraq weak and strife-torn, and to benefit from its own self-proclaimed stance as the expression of pride and defiance in the Arab dispute with Israel. Allies of Iran and Syria may be about to win elections in Lebanon, and are growing daily more powerful among the Palestinians. The alliance with Iran also makes Syrian meddling in Iraq a possibility, and may well prevent the reemergence of a strong and independent Baghdad. The firmness of the Syrian stance suggests that Damascus expects US attempts at engagement with Iran to fail - making the issue a zero-sum game. On that basis, the reasons for the Syrian choice become clear. While rapprochement with the US might give the Assad regime something of what it wants, its alliance with Iran gives it most of what it needs. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.