Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Contradictions in US Openness to Iran and Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The United States claims that resuming ties with Syria is an attempt to distance it from Iran. But at the same time, the US administration itself is opening up to Iran. How can it justify to itself its attempts in this regard whilst at the same time wanting to convince Damascus to cut its ties with Iran? The call for opening up to Iran encouraged Chairman of the Expediency Council and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to visit Iraq after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s visited Iran.

The Halabja massacre took place during the Iraq-Iran war and Talabani and Rafsanjani played significant roles in the war, in which one million lives were lost. An Iraqi friend, who is yet to recover from the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Baghdad, said: what would happen to the Obama administration if Osama Bin Laden visited New York and took a walk around Ground Zero where he carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks during the tenure of former US President George W. Bush? After Jeffrey Feltman from the US State Department and Dan Shapiro from the White House visited Syria, the Syrian President said that the upcoming elections in Lebanon would be “decisive” and warned against politicizing the International Tribunal because “Lebanon would pay the price.”

The Taliban in Afghanistan responded to President Obama’s calls for opening a dialogue with moderate elements within the Taliban by rejecting this proposal, and stating that there is no such thing as moderate or extremist Taliban. The American way of thinking at present about being more open is to facilitate its withdrawal from Iraq and to win the war in Afghanistan. The situation in the end will only become more difficult. Michael Scheuer, former CIA Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station stated that in two years, the Obama administration will look at the deteriorating situation in Pakistan, which is in possession of a nuclear weapon, and it will decide to leave Afghanistan to its fate so that it can focus on Pakistan which cannot be lost.

US strategy is fundamentally based upon preventing any regional powers from dominating [the region] so that they will not challenge the United States at a later stage. In the case of the Middle East, this means Washington resorting to complex bilateral or multilateral ties. To reach Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq must be settled first. [It is] in the interest of the United States to maintain Iraq’s independence, and to remain its ally and to make it [Iraq] a buffer zone vis-à-vis its neighbouring countries, especially Iran. However, because of its desire to reduce the number of its forces and expenditure, some believe that Washington might find itself sharing influence over Iraq with Iran.

Shia Iran hopes to revive Persian domination; however, it is surrounded by an ocean of Sunni states. Only the situation in Iraq is providing Iran the opportunity to exert influence over its political future through its ties with Shia groups in the hope of making Iraq an open field so that it will not pose a threat to Iran at a later stage.

After accepting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invite to take part in the conference on Afghanistan (Clinton stated that what was important was combating the planting and smuggling of drugs), Iran hopes to secure a “deal” through which it can become a key player in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countries in the Middle East as a whole.

However, Iran’s ambitions, including its nuclear program, are facing obstacles. The recent elections in Iraq ruined the Shia alliance project and Egypt’s adherence to its position regarding its borders with Gaza was a defeat for Iran. Moreover, the way that US-Iranian ties will develop at a later stage [is also an obstacle].

Most importantly, there is the issue of Saudi Arabia. Despite the decrease in oil prices, Saudi oil wealth has a significant influence on Washington in light of the financial crisis and the global recession. Despite US openness towards Iran, US-Saudi relations remain stronger and Washington must discuss in advance the development of its ties with Iran with Gulf States so that this does not have a negative impact on Gulf interests, especially as Iran is occupying three UAE islands. Iran cannot demand Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories whilst it is occupying the land of others.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured GCC states that negotiations will be conducted between Washington and the GCC regarding America’s openness to Iran. The Gulf States had demonstrated their desire for this to happen during the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in New York last December. During that meeting, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan called for an explicit and guaranteed commitment from the US that no agreement would be concluded between Washington and Tehran behind the GCC’s back, and that no concessions would be given to Iran behind closed doors that had the potential to threaten the national interests of the GCC states.

Many observers are waiting for the inevitable meeting between Clinton and her Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, during the Afghanistan conference which will be held later this month to see if she is stronger than the foreign ministers of the EU Troika; France, Britain and Germany, with whom Iran played a game of chess and won. Discussing Iran leads to the topics of Syria, Lebanon and Israel and this is where US and Israeli interests clash. When Washington stood by a significant part of the Lebanese nation to force out Syrian troops from Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Israel objected because of an implied agreement that it had reached with Damascus for its troops to remain in Lebanon in order to limit and control the movement of Hezbollah.

Yet Israel is strategically and tactically working to restrain the increasing influence of Iran and the connections that it uses to pursue this, [by] resuming ties with Syria, Iran’s strategic ally in the Arab world. Peace with Syria would allow Israel to contain the military threat posed by Hezbollah, which is Iran’s first line of defence in the region.

Syria continues to condemn the Sykes-Picot agreement and insists that Lebanon or at least part of it should be included within its borders. Even though Syria agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon, it is yet to assign an ambassador to Lebanon and is waiting for the US to send its ambassador back to Damascus. Moreover, the way that Syrian officials speak about the details of Lebanese politics confirms their complete rejection of abandoning it. Syria is of the view that its geo-political interests are based in Lebanon, and without it, Syria would be economically weak and isolated. Controlling Lebanon would allow Syria to have access to the Mediterranean Basin (as the Lattakia seaport has failed to keep up with the Beirut seaport), making it a significant regional power.

There are a number of reasons behind Syria’s insistence that the US should sponsor Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Most importantly, with regards to the military, Syria could not confront the Turkish threat from the north and the Israeli threat from the south whilst Washington is an ally to both Ankara and Tel Aviv. Syria feels that it is on its way to restoring its control of Lebanon through its allies there, however it wants Washington’s acknowledgement of its influential and effective role in Lebanon, and wants it to help convince other Arab countries of the role that it aspires to have. Yet Syria’s negotiations with Israel to regain the Golan Heights require important commitments from Syria including neutralizing Hezbollah’s weapons and no longer supporting Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine.

Iran is prepared to give up Hamas and Islamic Jihad; however, it is a different case with regards to Hezbollah. This is where the Iran-Syria problem arises if we accept that Syria will consider that the US will grant it the long-awaited opportunity to come out of diplomatic isolation. Washington’s interest in engaging in dialogue with Syria goes back to its desire to break up its strategic and decisive alliance with Iran and its push for Syria to stop allowing weapons to pass through to Lebanon (to reach Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations in and outside of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon). But Washington is yet to reveal the concessions that it will offer Damascus. It gave Lebanon to Syria once before and then forced it to leave; it sponsored Syria’s negotiations with Israel; the former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Damascus twenty one times; and US president Bill Clinton met with late Syrian President Hafez al Assad in Geneva. However, Israel, under Ehud Barak, agreed and then retracted clinging to a 300-meter-long line at Lake Tiberius [Sea of Galilee] and the Golan Heights remained under Israel’s control.

How will Israel abandon a foreign policy that it has adopted for thirty years, especially after the International Tribunal for the Hariri assassination has been established? There is another issue that is more serious; Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. After having surrendered Carlos [the Jackal, whose real name is Ilich Ramيrez Sلnchez] and expelling Osama Bin Laden, Sudan has no more cards to play and it allowed its forces to commit massacres in Darfur and the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for al Bashir’s arrest. Therefore, he is serving as an example to many, despite his defiance, that concessions can no longer provide guarantees for anybody!