December 25, 2008

Obama and Syria - the Asad Test

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad (right) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad

There have been subtle messages emanating from Damascus that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad would like to improve Syria's poor relationship with the United States and that the election of Barack Obama might provide an opportunity to do just that.

In a recent rather softball Washington Post interview with veteran Middle East reporter David Ignatius, Asad reiterated the same Syrian positions, but appeared to be willing to work with the incoming Obama administration, and continued to ignore some realities that will have to be addressed if any progress is to be made on either the Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process.

For example, Syria is willing to have direct talks with Israel, but Asad first wants the Israelis to guarantee that they will withdraw completely from the Golan Heights. The Israelis are prepared to withdraw from the plateau they have occupied since 1967 as part of a deal for peace with Syria. The question is not one of withdrawal, it is the determination of "complete" withdrawal. In other words, what is the line that both countries can agree on. Syria's preferred map shows the border on the shores of Lake Tiberias, while Israel believes that the entire shoreline is Israeli territory. It is only a difference of a few hundred meters, but it is an issue.

In return, Israel will demand changes in the relationship between Iran and Syria. This will be a key test of how badly Asad wants a deal with Israel, how badly he wants to regain the Golan Heights. Iran is the main supporter of Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. That support, in the form of money and weapons, flows through Damascus. Damascus and Tehran have a mutual defense pact, and cooperate on a variety of intelligence and security issues. There are lingering suspicions that Iran was the funding source for the now-destroyed North Korean reactor at al-Kibar.

Asad's response to the charges that Iran is funneling weapons and money to Hizballah and Hamas is typical. To him, Hizballah is a Lebanese issue that the Israelis should address with the Lebanese government, and Hamas is a Palestinian issue that should be addressed with the Palestinian Authority. I doubt that will be good enough for either the current Israeli government or the one that will be formed after the parliamentary elections in February 2009.

The Iran piece is critical. Hopefully the new American president will pressure Asad to move away from Iran. Otherwise, there will be no progress on the Syrian track. If that is the case, Obama should concentrate on the Palestinian issue and let the Golan remain in Israeli hands for now.