March 9, 2007

The Damascus Option

This article appeared on MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

On March 10, representatives of the United States will meet in Baghdad with representatives of numerous other countries, including Iran and Syria, in an attempt to resolve the violence in Iraq. I continue to maintain that these two countries are part of the problem in Iraq and unlikely to become part of the solution, especially Iran. Iran and the United States are currently involved in a proxy war in Iraq – the victor will emerge as the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf region. I don’t envision them helping us.

It is an interesting turn of events – much of the current violence in Iraq is directly attributable to the actions of Iran and Syria. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was some low level cooperation between the Syrian and American intelligence services against al-Qaeda – Syria is a secular Baathist state with no interest in furthering the aims of a fundamentalist Islamic movement (which ironically, is who runs its ally Iran). However, since the removal of Saddam Hussein, Syria has been a conduit and suspected training ground for foreign insurgents entering Iraq as part of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization.

Iran and Syria have been close allies since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 when Damascus spurned its Arab neighbors and supported non-Arab Iran. The two countries just renewed a longstanding mutual defense pact. It’s a convenient arrangement – Iran gets access to Lebanon via Damascus to support Hezbollah (as we witnessed last summer), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In turn, Syria gets cheap oil credits from Iran, a powerful ally in the region, and a bargaining chip in its demands for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Despite Syrian support to terrorist groups in Iraq, the United States continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Damascus. It has not always been friendly - I was the air attaché in Damascus for over two years and can personally attest to that. The level of U.S. representation changed in 2005 - following Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in Beirut in February 2005, Washington withdrew our ambassador. While she has not yet returned, Syria continues to keep its ambassador in Washington.

Syria’s role in the Baghdad conference will be interesting to watch. Will it continue to be a puppet of Tehran or begin distancing itself in hopes of better relations with the United States and the West? Will the United States and Iran compete for Syria’s affections?

Syria’s overriding national interests are the return of the Golan Heights and renewed influence in Lebanon. If Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was assured that these two things could happen, he might be persuaded to distance himself from Iran. Driving a wedge between these two unlikely allies – a fundamentalist Shia theocracy in Iran and a secular socialist dictatorship in Syria – would be a spectacular diplomatic success. Not only would it re-energize the Middle East peace process, it would also cripple Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

While Iran is focused on splitting atoms, we should focus on splitting the Tehran-Damascus alliance.