A US State Department official rationalized the retraction and the resumption of communication with Damascus for the sake of reviving the Palestinian – Israeli negotiations following the recent stumbles, saying that it would be difficult to ignore the Syrian role in any political operation there. The Americans sent a number of envoys to Damascus, as well as members of Congress and businessmen, who suggested opening ties with Washington; however despite this relations remain cool.
Although the Syrians managed to force the Americans to deal with them, nothing significant has happened yet. The US ban is still being imposed upon a number of important goods, including technological goods, and aircraft spare parts. For its part, Damascus has not presented anything to Washington, and it continues to refuse to curtail its relations with Iran, or put an end to its ties with armed Iraqi resistance, while also insisting on hosting the Hamas and Islamic Jihad bureaus, and maintaining strong ties with Hezbollah. Only the language being used by the two governments has changed since George Bush left office to be succeeded by President Obama, however the situation on the ground remains the same.
I think that the Syrians are the most pragmatic of all Arabs. This is what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in his recent television interview in response to a question as to how a secular regime could ally with a theocratic regime like Iran. Al-Assad said that it was a question of mutual interests.
The controversy over the value of the Syrian role continues; how important is this role? Is Syria truly influential? What are the sources of its strength? The analysis surrounding this usually ends with statements to the fact that Syria continues to have a role, despite all attempts to marginalize or ignore the country.
Syria today is the only country that continually plays in the Arab world, and in various direction, it is also the only country that is in possession to a number of keys [to issues]. This is despite the country’s limited power, for Damascus does not possess a powerful army or considerable economic strength; more than this Syria is under US sanctions. The secret of Syria’s strength lies in its political skill, it creates new situations and imposes agendas that would previously not have been possible [to impose], and it pre-occupies with issues of its own choosing, not vice versa. One can see that the Syrians are creative with regards to creating regional and international power, and are skilled at using this power in an effective manner. Practically speaking, it was the Syrians who invented the Turkish mediation role in the negotiations with Israel, and this was following an absence of nearly 80 years. And it was because of Syria that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an important figure in the Palestinian – Iranian political game.
Prior to this, Syria had granted a role to the Iranians, who nobody in the region would have accepted were it not for Damascus. The Syrians also invented the Qatari mediation role during the dispute with Riyadh, and this enabled Qatari mediation to solve the domestic Lebanese disputes and expand its activity to include the Palestinian sphere and Hamas. We must also not forget that the Syrians, who were in disagreement with former French President Jacques Chirac, were the ones to grant Nicolas Sarkozy a role in the region, enabling him to become the sole western mediator in the region. For his part, Sarkozy endeavored to open up communications between Damascus and Washington; without the Syrians Sarkozy would not have had any role in the region.
Although the Syrians play a very skillful political game, this suffers from two defects; it is provisional and does not achieve real gains. By this, I mean that Damascus is obliged to continually play this game in order to maintain its position, something that must be extremely exhausting. In addition to this, this game of shuffling the cards, besieging their opponent, and preventing him from making advances on the ground is something that will not grant Syria what it needs for its future, whether this is in its grand struggle with Israel, or its attempts to permanently put an end to the international pressure being exerted upon it. Nevertheless, Damascus could say that it is playing for its own survival against attempts to eradicate it.