Across the Bay

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Spoiler Is Not a Player

Bashar Assad (and Qatar) wanted to score a coup, against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by inviting Mahmoud Abbas to Damascus and getting him and Khaled Mashaal to issue a statement of agreement from Damascus, to show how Assad is a "real player" in the region who "holds the keys" to Hamas.

From the beginning there were doubts about the meeting even taking place. Well, it finally took place, but it blew up in Bashar's face, showing the limits of Syrian "influence" -- not just in Iraq where everyone agrees it's marginal -- but also on the Palestinian issue, the two issues on which the Iraq Study Group wanted to "engage" Syria (as Lebanon was explicitly off the table, and Syria's political influence there is restricted to Hezbollah, an Iranian asset).

Now the Syrians are trying to save face. So, naturally, Ibrahim Hmeidi comes out with a report on the bust of a meeting. Hmeidi's report shows how the Syrians scurried to salvage the visit from total embarrassment and disaster by at least setting a meeting, even if it was to be meaningless. The Syrian spin transmitted by Hmeidi? Syria's "interference" got them to meet! Yes, it's that pathetic.

Hmeidi reports that at one point Abbas said: "if there is no agreement, why even meet?" Well, so that Syria doesn't look hilariously bad. So they concocted a meaningless statement to justify the meeting, about how the Palestinians will continue dialogue and so on.

But there's something else. The reason the meeting failed is because Hamas does not want to agree to "abide" by treaties previously agreed to by the Palestinian government. So the question arises, either Syria has no serious influence to speak of to get Hamas to make that commitment, or the Syrians are actually in agreement with Hamas on this point. It's probably both. Hmeidi indicated as much: "[Syria] expressed 'understanding' towards Hamas's position that using the formula 'abiding by the signed treaties' would indicate a huge change in Hamas's doctrinal position."

I have pointed out before that it was none other than Syria who sabotaged the Saudi initiative in 2002, emptying it of all meaning. So I am not at all surprised that it supports Hamas's hardline position. All that it has been trying to do is to merely find a linguistic trick to mask this hardline position in ambiguous language to scam the world into supporting the Hamas government without it having to actually change its hardline position.

But more than this, the Iranian movement in all this, including Larijani's meetings with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, is also very telling, and shows just how penetrated Syrian foreign policy is by Iran. It also accentuates the severe limitations of the Syrians. In the end, Syria's so-called "cards" -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah -- are actually Iran's. It wasn't a coincidence that Jordanian Islamists attacked Hamas for being an Iranian tool, and that Fateh supporters even went as far as to call (Sunni) Hamas "Shiites." After all, it wasn't Syria that pledged $250 million for Hamas. It was Iran.

Immediately after Larijani's visit, Walid Moallem went to Tehran and issued a statement there (the location is also telling) denying all the recent chatter about supposed secret non-governmental Syrian-Israeli talks.

All this just goes to show that all the recent chatter about Syria's "influence" and "constructive role" (HAAA!), and the "prying Syria away from Iran" theory, and all other such illusions have to be checked against reality, not wishful thinking. Syria punches above its weight and aspires to be a major "player" through one thing, inherently tied to the domestic survival of its minority Alawite family regime: supporting terrorism. A spoiler that thrives on terrorist blackmail is not the same thing as a player. Enough illusions.