Across the Bay

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Syrian Strings of Hope

I had wanted to share this article with you after Solana's visit to Damascus (which was erroneously spun as a victory by the Syrian propaganda machine), but never got a chance. Better late than never, though. Here's my translation of the piece which appeared in al-Hayat on March 16, and which captures the Syrian delusion and its problematic interpretation of events, namely how it views "Western engagement" as "Western surrender."

The Syrian Strings of Hope

Elias Harfoush

Al-Hayat, 3/16/07

It's become clear from following the statements of Syrian officials or the commentaries in the Syrian media, that there is a clear inclination in Syria to consider the latest Western contacts with it as a retreat from previous Western positions, which were aimed at isolating Syria and cutting any contacts with it, and waiting until its behavior changed, or until its dealings with regional crises improved.

Damascus, however, sees these contacts as proof of its ability to maintain its positions and to force others to change their policy towards it. And so, Damascus didn't hide its glee at the visit of Asst. Sec. of State for Refugees, Ellen Sauerbrey, despite its lone orphaned meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, or at the visit of EU foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, despite that his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad didn't last more than 15 mins., which cannot be considered by any diplomatic standard as an indication of warm relations or even an acceptable exchange of views, despite the long list of differences that separate the two sides.

From this perspective, it would be correct to consider, e.g., the commentary published by the Syrian paper al-Thawra, that these contacts proved that "Syria cannot be isolated," is more a kind of latching on to strings of hope than a correct reading to what is happening in the Syrian-Western meetings.

Syria hopes that its ability to sabotage solutions or obstruct the Western project in the region, as it sees it, to be enough to push the outside parties to crawl in its direction seeking help.

There may in fact be such a desire in the West. The Europeans and the Americans certainly prefer a positive Syrian role in the region, because it would be lest costly for them. However, this is not an unconditional Western desire. More importantly, it does not drop the preconditions that are expected to precede or accompany any improvement in Damascus's relations with the Western world.

This reading is confirmed by what Javier Solana said yesterday after his visit to Syria, that the European desire to break the ice between them and Damascus is contingent on Syria's desire to see stability in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Iraq.

Solana specified the European "list of conditions" given to Damascus in three points: helping to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; stopping support to Hezbollah and its movement aimed at toppling the Seniora government; helping in stopping the violence in Iraq.

The three areas of conflict show the extent of the contradiction between the Western view for a solution and the Syrian role, which would dictate that Syria offer basic concessions at the expense of its policy and positions, should it wish to accept these conditions in order to have a successful dialog that would lead to its aim of restoring its role and regional influence.

Add to this what is common knowledge about the [Baghdad] conference to discuss the situation in Iraq, in which Syria and Iran participated, that there was no bilateral meeting between the American ambassadors Khalilzad and Satterfield, and the Syrian representative at the conference, ambassador Ahmad Arnous. Meanwhile, there was a parallel meeting between Khalilzad and the Iranian representative at the conference.

It becomes clear then that the Syrian optimism regarding the future of the contacts and what they might result in must be met with caution, especially since it's not accompanied to this moment by any Syrian steps towards positive contribution to the proposed solutions to the region's problems.