Political observers can only admire the way in which Damascus is bringing together its regional political cards, and its proficiency in dealing with the contradictions and conflicting forces [in the region], as well as its ability to overcome crises that seem grave and capable of toppling any regime. The best example of this can be seen in what happened over the past few days. At the same time that dozens of cooperation agreements were being signed during Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit [to Damascus] following years of tense relations with Lebanon and the March 14 Alliance, Syria was also holding meetings between Iraqi rivals Iyad Allawi and Muqtada al-Sadr, in what appeared to be western-backed Syrian mediation to help solve the deadlock with regards to the formation of the new government of Iraq, which is a process that has been stalled for months.
Syria’s relations with Lebanon grew increasingly tense following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harirri, and accusations that Syrian individuals or parties were involved in this. Similarly, relations with Iraq following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime were increasingly strained and tense, with Baghdad and the US forces in Iraq accusing Damascus of facilitating the entry of insurgents and suicide bombers [into Iraq].
Regionally, Damascus developed good political and economic relations with Turkey, which had previously deployed its troops along the Syrian border during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, due to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] presence in Syria. Syria also has good relations – at least on the surface – with Iran, despite the strong ideological differences between the Iranian and Syrian regimes.
Internationally, and despite the sanctions that have been imposed upon the country, and it being placed upon the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; it seems that Washington is keen to open channels with Damascus as part of a policy that aims to exert influence on Syria’s [political] inclination through dialogue and pressure, drawing it away from Iran. This is also a policy that is being pursued by Europe. However there is still Israel and the issue of the occupation of the Golan Heights, and there seems to be an unwritten agreement – or perhaps a mutual desire on the part of both sides – for the situation along the borders to remain calm. However if the situation requires intensification, the impetus would come by way of Lebanon and its southern border.
How is Damascus able to bring together all of these contradictions and play its cards in this manner? Is this skill, or a special kind of shrewdness, or cunning, as some like to suggest?
Certainly there is a certain pragmatic shrewdness. However [Syria’s] policy is not governed by shrewdness alone, but rather the countries geographic location, which is at the heart of a region that is beset by crises and explosive factors, particularly with regards the overlapping issues of Israel, Iran, and Iraq, or their clashes with international interests, especially with regards to the recent issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Damascus has benefited from this strategic position and its importance with regards to the security of this region, whether internationally or regionally, in playing its political cards and overcoming crises. However it has yet to sufficiently benefit from its most strategically important card.
The most important card in Syria’s possession since the days of the Silk Road is its geographical position. Syria was a cross-roads in 20th century geography, sharing land boundaries with two larger countries; Turkey and Iraq, and two smaller countries; Lebanon and Jordan. This represents a promising market for trade and investment that could create – given the correct tools and ideas – an economically ripe area that would see incomes increasing, jobs being created, and technology developed, so long as market forces are given the opportunity to act freely away from the bureaucrats and those who follow outdated ideas. If this were to happen the [political] sensitivity between the countries in the region would dissolve in the face of mutual interests, and everybody would be happy; both the regimes, and the people. There would then be no need to deal with factions or groups that have grown to the extent that they have deluded themselves into believing that they are akin to States; whereas under ordinary conditions the most that the leaders of such groups could dream about was a seat in a municipality.