Analysis: Syria's way out of the 'Shi'ite Axis of Evil'

Damascus's relationship with Teheran is becoming increasingly onerous.

assad explains it all 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
assad explains it all 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Monday's news that Saudi Arabia will appoint an ambassador to Syria signifies a gradual effort by the western world and moderate Arab nations to extract Syria away from the "Shi'ite Axis of Evil" and to strengthen relations with the West under the aegis of the American administration. Reports of the appointment come amidst the backdrop of the Syrian-Saudi-Lebanese summit, set to convene in Damascus next week, and US President Barack Obama's announcement that the US will also appoint an ambassador to Syria. The Saudi ambassador appointment and the combined effort of the United States and other western nations to foster better relations with Syria stem from a legitimate Iranian threat to the region's interests and oil resources. A nuclear Iran has the capability not only to threaten Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations with war, but also to demand oil concessions in the hope of dominating the Middle Eastern market. The Americans hope that their push for better relations with Syria will force the Syrian government to better patrol the Iraqi border and stop the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq. In addition, the Americans are likely to demand that Syria reject North Korean military aid. In exchange, it is possible that the United States will replace North Korea as the major arms provider to Syria, similar to the Americans' replacement of Soviet aid in Egypt. Iran's inexorable isolation from the world and its disputed nuclear program threaten to isolate the much more moderate Syrian regime. If Syria chooses to sever its relations with Iran and Hizbullah, new doors may open up for a possible détente with the West and Israel, including the return of the Golan Heights. In the event of a Syrian-Western alliance, Syria could receive economic-military aid from the Arab Gulf States and the United States. Despite the opposition of the Israeli public to returning the Golan, the political establishment is willing to do such in an agreement that would pass muster with the Israeli public. This would include a major change in Syria's relationship with Iran, and a cessation of Syrian support to Hizbullah. In fact, most Israeli prime ministers, with the exception of Ariel Sharon, have had no major objections to relinquishing the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, which was never part of the "Greater Israel" vision. Moreover, Israel would find it much easier to have a satisfied Syria manage a Palestinian peace agreement, rather than deal directly with Hamas or Fatah. Syria's relationship with Iran is becoming increasingly onerous and while Syrian President Bashar Assad wants to maintain his Iranian ties, he cannot afford to play both cards. In the event that Israel attacks Iran or vice versa, Syria would be drawn into a regional war, from which it would have nothing to gain. A conventional army like Syria's, unlike the forces of Hamas or the insurgency in Iraq, would lose in a military conflict with Israel or the West. In the case of a future Syrian-Western alliance, Iran and Hizbullah will be more isolated than they currently find themselves. Hizbullah would lose a major economic and military supporter, and Iran would lose more ground to the Sunni Arab alliance. While this may push Hizbullah further into the Lebanese political arena, the group may also turn to terrorist action against their former sponsors. Moshe Ma'oz is professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He was interviewed by Alex Sorin.