Analysis: Putting out the fire (with gasoline)

Syria optimistic 'holding a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a fire hose in the other' will produce concessions.

assad in parliament 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad in parliament 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The itinerary of newly minted US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is intended to give the American diplomat a chance to gain a broad picture of various regional perspectives - from Jerusalem all the way to Riyadh. Mitchell's travel plans contain a notable gap, however. The new envoy will not - on this trip at least - be visiting Syria. This omission is testimony to the ongoing disruptive role played by Damascus in the politics of the region. Mitchell's arrival this week coincides with the interception by the US Navy of an Iranian arms boat bound for the Syrian coast. The ship - which was later permitted to continue on its way - is reported to have contained armaments intended to find their way to Hamas. Mitchell's bypassing of Damascus has, of course, been noted by Syrian officials. Still, Damascus remains generally optimistic regarding its chances of emerging from isolation to renewed dialogue with the US and its new president. The method to be used to achieve this will be the tried and tested Syrian practice of holding a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a fire hose in the other. That is - Syria will offer itself as the indispensable mediator for the solution of problems which Damascus itself has helped to create, and for which its clients and allies are directly responsible. Syria's approach toward the situation in Gaza offers an example of how this process is supposed to work. Damascus, of course, played no mediating role during the recent fighting. Rather, it offered enthusiastic verbal support for Hamas. President Bashar Assad was the first to congratulate the Damascus-based Hamas leadership following the conclusion of the latest round of violence. The Syrian leader hailed the "victory" of the "resistance." In the aftermath, however, the Syrians have been keenly noting emerging calls in the West for "engagement" with Hamas. These are no longer confined to the world of think tanks and advocacy groups. This week, a French-sponsored amendment at a meeting of EU foreign ministers sought to commit Europe to support any unity government achieved by the Palestinians. This would have offered implicit backing for engaging with a government including Hamas. The amendment was defeated. But the calls for engagement with Hamas will not go away, and are being heard insistently - and not only in Europe. Such calls are music to the ears of Syrian officials. They consider - correctly - that any attempt to engage with Hamas will need to go through Damascus, where the group's leadership is domiciled. And if you want to "deliver" Hamas, what better way than to make friends with (and offer incentives) to the people who provide them with a home. President Sarkozy, who called Assad this week and visited Damascus last September, is already persuaded. So the petrol bomb and fire hose method has already succeeded in landing France. The issue for the Syrians is whether the same method may now be applied to the bigger game in Washington. The current situation is not comfortable for Syria. The country faces an ongoing investigation into the nuclear facility destroyed by Israel in September 2007. The tribunal on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due (finally) to begin to function in March of this year. The burgeoning alliance with Iran and the backing for Hizbullah and Hamas cannot by themselves protect Syria from these dangers. Damascus needs friends in the West who can be brought to believe that hopes for regional stability depend significantly on not pushing the Syrians too hard. Mitchell is - for now at least - not coming to call. But there is evidence that any displeasure on the part of the new administration at Syria's role as cheerleader and arms conduit for Hamas may be short-lived. Recent reports suggest that Syria may be in line to be the first real-life beneficiary of President Obama's new policy of engagement with anti-Western forces in the region. The administration's thinking, such reports suggest, is along by now familiar lines. Namely, that Syria, as the weakest link in the pro-Iranian alliance, should be showered with incentives to tempt it away. If the administration does indeed intend to adopt such an approach to Syria, then Damascus's response is likely to be to offer just enough hope so that the optimists in Washington and Paris stay optimistic - and therefore pliable. Syria is familiar with the dictum that there are none easier to convince than those who want to believe. The widespread excitement at Assad's decision to send a message of congratulation to Washington following Obama's victory offered a touching example of this. So with this in mind - don't be surprised to see the prospect of renewed indirect negotiations with Israel being dangled again. The process of indirect negotiations in Istanbul was called off by Syria in the course of Operation Cast Lead. But for Syria, the "peace process" card is endlessly replayable. And since it appears that the new US administration subscribes to the view of the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the region, it may acquire particular worth in the period now opening up. The petrol bomb and fire hose school of diplomacy, as pioneered in Damascus, has a long way to run. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.