Analysis: US believes Syria is overplaying its Hand in Iraq

Jerusalem Post- 17/09/2009

The scheduled meeting Thursday of the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers is unlikely to lead to a swift resolution of the simmering feud between the two countries. The government of Iraq is furious at the mounting evidence of Syrian involvement in the car bombings last month in Baghdad which left 95 dead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has issued a formal request to the UN Security Council for an inquiry into the bombings.

US officials interviewed in the regional media appear to be offering cautious support to Iraqi claims of direct Syrian involvement in violence in Iraq. General Raymond Odierno, for example, told Al Hayat last week that “there are armed groups” in Iraq that “receive financial and logistical support from Syria.” Syrian actions in Iraq reflect a broader reality which has been noted by a number of insightful Syria-watchers in the last days. Namely, that energetic attempts by the US administration over the last months to induce Syria to alter its approach to its neighbors appear to have failed. The evidence further suggests that the US administration is increasingly aware of this. Seven US delegations have traveled to Damascus since the inauguration of President Barack Obama. But the flurry of diplomacy has not produced the expected change in Syrian behavior patterns. David Schenker, a former Syrian affairs adviser in the office of the US secretary of defense, noted in a recent analysis that Iraq’s accusation of Syrian involvement in the insurgency did not emerge from nowhere. In July of this year, as US and Syrian military officials discussed border security, a number of armed men carrying Syrian passports were arrested by Iraqi authorities in Mosul. This southern Iraqi city has been a hub of the Shia insurgency and a center of suicide attacks. In the same month, Shia militant leader Moqtada al Sadr was welcomed and feted by Assad in Damascus.

The administration had sought to make Iraq a focus for US-Syrian rapprochement. Washington assumed that Syria and the US shared a common interest in a stable, peaceful Iraq. This assumption does not appear to have been borne out. Rather, the Syrian interest is in maintaining instability. The pattern is, of course, repeated in other countries with which Syria shares a border. Syrian encouragement of opposition intransigence is playing a central role in preventing a resolution of the ongoing political deadlock in Lebanon. Syrian domiciling of Hamas is not accompanied by any noticeable efforts to induce that organization to moderate and make possible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And Syria’s refusal to allow its alliance with Iran to be discussed any Israeli-Syrian talks ensures that a renewal of such talks are not currently on the horizon. The result of this series of stances, it now appears, is growing American frustration. Lebanese analyst Tony Badran this week noted a recent article in the Kuwaiti Arabic daily AlRai, which contained evidence of the emerging mood in Washington. The article quoted one American source as saying that the Syrians “don’t know the difference between normalizing relations and behaving like they’ve defeated the US in a world war.”

In an apparent reference to the recent launching of Katyusha rockets at northern Israel, the source continued that “Assad fires a rocket here and there and expects us to run to him, this kind of security blackmail no longer works on the United States.” The article notes that events that followed the meeting between Bashar Assad and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in July served to confirm the difficulties inherent in dialogue with the Syrian regime. Following the meeting, as Mitchell made his way back to Washington, the Syrians announced that he had promised Assad that the US would lift sanctions on Syria. No such promise had been made, and the administration was furious. The Obama administration has by no means abandoned its ambitious goals in the Middle East. A major push to solve a series of regional conflicts is still expected. However, it appears to be becoming increasingly apparent to the Americans that one of the conditions for the advancement of any such process will be the abandonment of expectations that Damascus can be part of it. Instead, it looks like Damascus will be kept at arms length. The clearest evidence for this direction in Washington is the fact that the US has still not appointed a new ambassador to Damascus, and appears in no hurry to do so.

The Syrians were excited by the election of Obama. They portrayed his first attempts at engagement as proof that their unbending stances worked – and had forced the west to rebuild relations with the regime on its own terms. The Assad regime thus saw no reason to accommodate American requests or desires. This characteristic Syrian over playing of a modest hand appears to now be leading the administration back in the direction of its predecessor’s understanding of the Damascus regime, and to the policy stance that resulted from this: namely, the continued isolation of Syria, and the maintenance of sanctions against it.

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