As­sad in­spires ‘flip’ the­o­ries; move away from Iran seen

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ia­son Athanasiadis

TEHRAN—Re­centvis­its­bySyr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad to U.S.al­lied Ye­men and the United Arab Emi­rates are prompt­ing spec­u­la­tion that Syria is seek­ing to leave the Ira­nian or­bit and pur­sue closer ties with the West.

Suchamove­would­ful­fil­la­ma­jor rec­om­men­da­tion of the Iraq Study Group,head­ed­by­formerSec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III and for­mer Rep. Lee H. Hamil­ton, which sug­gested it might be pos­si­ble through diplo­macy to pry Syria away from Iran.

“Bashar was re­cently in­vited to Tehran by [Pres­i­dent Mah­moud] Ah­madine­jad as part of the Ira­nian ef­fort to demon­strate re­gional lead­er­ship — but he failed to show up, with­out even of­fer­ing a pub­lic ex­cuse,” said Gary Sick, a U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy­an­a­lyst­whoserve­dontheNa­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil un­der Pres­i­dents Ford, Carter and Rea­gan.

“If you put this to­gether with the ‘Obaid ini­tia­tive’ to mo­bi­lize Arab ac­tion­tostopIran’sen­croach­mentin Iraq,ital­mosthastheap­pear­anceof are­gion­al­ly­co­or­di­nat­ed­cam­paign.”

NawafObaid­was­fired­last­month as a Saudi for­eign pol­icy ad­viser af­ter pub­lish­ing an ar­ti­cle say­ing, among other things, that Saudi Ara­bia could re­duce Iran’s re­gional promi­nence by rais­ing oil pro­duc­tion high enough to slash the price by half. Oil rev­enues are a cru­cial source of for­eign cur­rency for Iran.

Mr. As­sad’s talks in Ye­men on Dec. 16 re­port­edly dealt with re­gional is­sues, in­clud­ing the in­fight­ing in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, in­sta­bil­ity in Le­banon, Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, Iraq and So­ma­lia.

But eye­brows were raised by the tim­ing of the trip, which came just two days af­ter a visit to Ye­men by U.S. As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary for Near East­ern Af­fairs David Welch.

“I’ll leave it to Pres­i­dent [Ali Ab­dul­lah] Saleh to con­vey their views to Pres­i­dent As­sad,” Mr. Welch said of­thetim­ing.“They­knowthe­views of the United States.”

In an­other ap­par­ent over­ture on Dec. 26, Mr. As­sad told visit­ing Sen. Arlen Specter, Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can, that he was will­ing to host a con­fer­ence where all the fac­tions ofIraq­could­seeka­con­sen­su­son­the coun­try’s fu­ture.

Gra­ham Fuller, for­mer vice chair­man of the U.S. Na­tional Intelligence Coun­cil, ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that Mr. As­sad’s trav­els rep­re­sented some kind of back-chan­nel ne­go­ti­a­tion with Wash­ing­ton.

He said he con­sid­ered it “much more likely that Gulf lead­ers are woo­ingAs­sadasan­in­ter­me­di­aryto Iran to trans­mit their con­cerns and hope­fully to achieve greater Ira­nian mod­er­a­tion.”

Ira­nian an­a­lysts also doubt that Mr.As­sad­will­give­uphis­roleas­the west­ern an­chor of an anti-U.S. axis run­ning from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbol­lah-con­trolled south­ern Le­banon.

“It would be rather un­re­al­is­tic to con­sider that Syria, a poor and iso­lated coun­try, would dis­tance it­self from Iran, a rich and ef­fec­tive ac­tor, which can of­fer Syria se­cu­rity and fi­nan­cial help in an un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion,” said Kay­han Barze­gar, a pro­fes­sor of for­eign af­fairs at Tehran’s Is­lamic Azad Univer­sity.

“The two have strate­gic in­ter­ests to stay to­gether right now.”

Hasan Akhtari, Iran’s am­bas­sador to Da­m­as­cus, ac­knowl­edged to the Lon­don-based pan-Arab news­pa­per Al-Hayat that “some peo­ple” think Syr­ian-Ira­nian re­la­tions are de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. But, he said, “Wearen’twor­ried[...]be­causewe know that this isn’t hap­pen­ing and will not hap­pen.”

Nev­er­the­less,Syr­i­a­has­faced­im­mense pres­sure since the as­sas­si­na­tion two years ago of for­mer Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Rafik Hariri, for which it has been widely blamed.Lackingas­tron­garmyand with­out sub­stan­tial oil re­serves, it is the weak link — and the only Sunni mem­ber—intheIra­ni­anShi’ite-led al­liance.

The re­port of the Iraq Study Group urged the United States to try to “flip” Syria, dis­rupt­ing the un­in­ter­rupted land bridge from Tehran to the Mediter­ranean and cut­ting off the arms sup­ply chain to Hezbol­lah.

“Ifthat’swhat’sgoin­gon,theUAE visit af­ter the snub of Iran may be early signs of suc­cess,” Mr. Sick said.

Any suc­cess­ful ef­fort to woo Mr. As­sad away from Iran would likely in­volve a deal with Is­rael for the re­turn to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Is­rael cap­tured in 1967.

Syria’s po­lit­i­cal class is al­most unan­i­mous in the be­lief that now is the time to ne­go­ti­ate such a deal, while Is­rael is on the de­fen­sive over fail­ing to crush Syr­ian ally Hezbol­lah dur­ing its Au­gust of­fen­sive in south­ern Le­banon. Mr. As­sad has made re­peated over­tures to Is­rael seek­ing peace talks.

For­mer Ira­nian Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Mah­moud Vaezi in­di­cated last year that Tehran was less than fully con­fi­dent of Syria’s loy­alty, say­ing Mr. As­sad “will re­ceive our diplo­matic sup­port. More than that de­pends on what kind of po­si­tions Syria will adopt.”

Sev­eral an­a­lysts, how­ever, cau­tioned against ex­pect­ing a quick change of di­rec­tion from the Syr­ian pres­i­dent.

“The As­sads of Syria are cur­rently be­ing wooed by one and all,” said Am­mar Ab­dul­hamid, a Syr­ian dis­si­dent and fel­low of the Sa­ban Cen­ter­forMid­dleEastPol­i­cy­atthe Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “But soon ev­ery­body­will­be­wowed­by­howlit­tle they ac­tu­ally have to of­fer and by how bent they are on over­play­ing their hand.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

From left, Pa­tri­arch Hazim, the pa­tri­arch of An­ti­och and the whole East and the Ortho­dox Ro­mans, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, Zakarya Iwas, the Pa­tri­arch of the An­ti­och and the whole East for the Ortho­dox Syr­i­ans and Syria's Grand Mufti, Shekh Ahmed Has­soun, dur­ing a visit by Pres­i­dent As­sad to the Maryamiyah Church in Da­m­as­cus on Dec. 25. Pres­i­dent As­sad vis­ited the Chris­tian lead­ers as they marked Christ­mas.

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