Analysis: Syria's goose lays a golden egg

Pulling Damascus away from Iran is likely to continue to prove elusive.

assad 63 (photo credit: )
assad 63
(photo credit: )
Washington's decision to return its ambassador to Syria is the latest stage in the present administration's policy of engagement with Damascus. It relates most importantly to the US desire to secure Syrian cooperation in the build-up to the departure of American combat troops from urban areas in Iraq. The decision is related to the broader American ambition of drawing Damascus away from Iran. Hopes for a revival of talks between Israel and Syria, and the desire to enlist Syria in the ongoing effort to bring about a rapprochement between the Palestinian Fatah movement and the Damascus-domiciled Hamas may also have played a role. Regarding Iraq, the US is aware that Sunni insurgents will have an interest in ratcheting up the level of violence as the US prepares to draw down its combat forces - to give the impression that it is they who are bringing about the American redeployment. Syria has served as a key ally of the Sunni insurgency since its beginnings. For a period, the route between Damascus airport and the Syrian-Iraqi border was a favorite one for Sunni jihadis seeking to enter Iraq to take part in the insurgency. In recent months, US officials have reported an improvement in Syrian control on the border, and a reduction in the number of insurgents crossing over. In the familiar Syrian fashion, Damascus's promotion of violence against Americans, and its subsequent willingness to partially reduce this promotion, is used as a tool to reap diplomatic rewards. Regarding the Palestinian angle: ongoing Palestinian unity talks in Cairo have so far proved fruitless. Despite its focus on a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the administration is aware that for as long as an openly rejectionist Hamas entity continues to rule over 40 percent of the Palestinian population, hopes for a meaningful negotiating process belong largely to the realm of fantasy. There is therefore a real determination, shared by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, to make a success of the unity effort. Hamas's leadership is based in Damascus, so efforts to bring Syria closer to Washington may also be intended to enlist Syrian support in pressuring Hamas towards greater flexibility. The revival of Israeli-Syrian talks is likely to feature on the administration's agenda at some stage in the coming period. The presence of a US representative in Damascus would facilitate US mediation. The biggest prize, however - a Syrian strategic reorientation away from alliance with Iran - is likely to continue to prove elusive. An angry, more openly militant Iranian regime is likely to emerge in the coming weeks from the current unrest. It will be hated by a large section of its people. But this will not harm either its desire or its ability to support radical forces in the region. For the Syrians, the maintenance of alliances with various Islamist and radical regional elements forms a key element of national strategy. It is one which continues to pay dividends. The past months have shown that the Syrians may repair relations with the West at little cost to themselves, while maintaining this stance. One does not, as the saying goes, kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The Syrian "goose" combines alliance with Iran and support for regional instability with occasional gestures of cooperation to the West. It has just delivered the "golden egg" of a new US ambassador in Damascus in return for no concessions on issues of core importance to the Assad regime. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.