Walking the tightrope
Faced with increasing US pressure, daunting regional challenges and domestic worries, Iran and Syria are in the eye of the storm. Dina Ezzat and Rasha Saad visit Tehran and Damascus in search of answers to open questions about the present and future of two vulnerable states
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From left: leader of Iranian delegation Ali Akbar Salehi after a meeting of the IAEA on Iran; passengers board the first train to travel between Aleppo in northern Syria and Mosul in Iraq since the start of the war on Iraq; Hizbullah fighters celebrating Jerusalem Day in Beirut
(L) President Khatami prays after attending Jerusalem Day rally in Tehran late last month; (R) President Bashar takes part in Eid Al-Fitr prayers in the Ommayad mosque in Damascus last week
Iran and Syria have for decades been out of Washington's favour for their so-called radicalism. Both are in Washington's "rogue states" club. And according to the post-11 September American criteria, the regimes in Tehran and Damascus are "against us and not with us"; "us" being the administration of US President George W Bush. As a result, the administration stands accused by many Western and Middle Eastern commentators of blindly adopting the Israeli position on Iran and Syria.
For its part, the US intensified its accusations that Damascus and Tehran support terror, especially in the weeks following the US occupation of Iraq. These accusations were met with obvious resentment by the regimes in both countries.
The most recent threat was made by Bush in a foreign policy statement in early November. Bush said that, "Syria and Iran continue to harbour and assist terrorists ... and states that support terror will be held accountable". With different wording this line was re-used by top Israeli officials.
For the past few months, both Syria and Iran have been pragmatically attempting to accommodate as many of Washington's requests as possible. The US, whose military forces are now on the borders of both countries, is nevertheless unsatisfied. It expects much more of Tehran and Damascus.
In this environment, questions proliferate about the ability of Iran and Syria to deal with US pressure, particularly given remaining regional and domestic worries.
Iran: dangerous neighbourhood
A collective sigh of relief emanated from Iranian officials and the public after the government's wily evasion of UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear programme. After weeks of diplomatic give-and-take, Iran, with some concessions observed as "considerable but well-calculated", has denied the Israel-allied US administration hawks a pretext for escalation against the Islamic Republic.
"Iranian diplomacy put on an excellent performance. They demonstrated typical Persian shrewdness. Knowing that the storm was too tough for them to defy, they stooped to make a deal, but bargained a good price," commented one foreign diplomat who has been monitoring the Iranian-American drama.
According to this and other diplomats, in return for agreeing to suspend the enrichment of uranium and to allow surprise inspections of its reactors in a deal brokered by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, Iran has earned itself a new image. In addition to trade gains with the European Union, Iran scored high in terms of international public relations.
"The Iran viewed unfairly in the eyes of Western public opinion as a country of rigid and horrifying clergymen is now perceived as a modern state that handles its affairs through international diplomatic mechanisms," one Iranian commentator said.
This commentator is not alone in stating that had it not been for the Iranian decision to agree to the deal offered by the three European foreign ministers during their October visit to Tehran, Iran would now be portrayed by Washington as another Iraq, a country that defies the will of the international community on weapons of mass destruction. Instead, they argue, Iran gave the EU the tools required to resist a serious American effort to level accusations of a dangerous and illegal nuclear programme against Iran before the Security Council.
Moreover, by cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran won itself an IAEA report that, despite criticism of Tehran's failure to fully comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, found no evidence that Iran's previously undeclared nuclear material and activities were related to a nuclear weapons programme.
Hans Blix, former chief inspector of Iraq's weapons programme, also said that he had seen no evidence of any desire of Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that the Iranian reactors were not "a danger per se".
This comes as a slap in the face of a recent CIA report that claimed Iran to have "vigorously" pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Iranian officials and parliamentarians say that most importantly this exoneration will gag Israel's recently intense rhetoric against Iran.
Meanwhile, Tehran has a public promise from Moscow of continued Russian support of Iran's nuclear activities. According to top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergi Ivanov, Iranian nuclear transparency means that no one can talk Russia into curtailing its nuclear cooperation with Iran.
According to Mohamed Sadiq Al-Husseini, an informed senior Iranian commentator, both conservative and reformist elements of the government managed the nuclear crisis superbly. "The crisis was handled in neither an Iraqi nor a Korean style. Iran neither defied the international community as Baghdad did nor opted for escalation as Pyongyang did," he explained.
Al-Husseini and other commentators agree that this was part of a larger "foreign policy shift" for Tehran. For the past few years, they argue, Iran has opted for a foreign policy based on "easing tension with foreign countries and containment of foreign affairs differences". Recent nuclear diplomacy, they suggest, was the crowning glory of this approach that has so far included easing tension with Arab neighbours over support of Islamist militant groups and a softer rhetoric regarding friendly relations between Iran's neighbours, including Turkey, and Israel.
Iran also recently achieved a satisfactory end to a diplomatic dispute with London and Buenos Aires over the British arrest of a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina on the basis of Argentinean charges that the diplomat supported terror activities a few years ago in Argentina. Iran has even been limiting its qualification of the US as "the Great Satan".
However, it was last week's statement by the US Secretary of State Colin Powell that the US wants dialogue rather than confrontation with Iran that is interpreted by Tehran as a victory of Persian shrewdness over American strong-arming. Powell's statement, foreign diplomats say, is bound to have a positive impact on the not-so-secret talks between Americans and Iranians in Geneva and elsewhere.
The world has anxiously watched the diplomatic wrestling match between Washington and Tehran. On the surface, the wrangling seemed to be exclusively over Iran's nuclear programme. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes only while the US alleges that it is being used to develop nuclear weapons.
However, as officials in Tehran and elsewhere in the region acknowledge, this battle is not just about Iran's nuclear capabilities, civilian or otherwise, but also over the scope of regional power that Iran wields.
BEST OF ENEMIES: The confrontational dynamic is by no means new to either Iran or the US. Over the 25 years since Ayatollah Khomeini headed a popular revolution to overthrow the despotic regime of the Shah and establish the Islamic Republic of Iran, Washington and Tehran have been anything but friendly. With the US military presence in Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq, relations between the two countries have entered a new phase of tension and covert dealings.
"The US is now twice our neighbour: first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq," laughed Mohammed Abtahi, Iranian vice president. Iran's new neighbour, officials and diplomats in Tehran say, happens to be the world's lone superpower and the key ally of Israel, a country that has publicly called for an American strike on Iran and suggested that Iran's nuclear programme is the biggest threat to Israel's existence.
Hamid Reza Asafi, spokesman for the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly that his country is nevertheless not worried. Indeed, there is little to indicate that Iran is cowering before the storm. In his Ramadan sermon during last Friday's prayer, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the US president and Israeli prime minister as the most hated men in the Islamic world, saying that Washington has been disgraced by its policies in the Middle East.
Khamenei's sermon was frequently interrupted by thousands of congregants chanting "Death to Israel!" and "Death to America!".
Away from public speeches and televised religious sermons, Iranians have a more convincing argument to make regarding the US stance on the Middle East, particularly on Iran.
Reaction from Asafi, and other officials, to Bush's recent anti-Iran rhetoric came in carefully worded statements. "The American officials do not know enough about the region, Iran or Islam," Asafi has repeatedly said.
"The fact of the matter is that 25 years after the Islamic Revolution, the US cannot accept that the Shah regime is gone for good. It cannot accept that the Islamic Revolution has successfully built a modern Muslim state in Iran," Ma'ssouma Ibtikar, another Iranian vice president told the Weekly. Ibtikar was among the Iranian students who broke into the US Embassy a quarter-of-a-century ago. In her interview with the Weekly, she was pressing, in an obvious American accent, the right of her country to be treated as; "an independent and dignified state that wants to have good relations with everyone, the US included, on the basis of mutual respect and equality".
Ibtikar's argument on the political independence and national pride of Iran is a nearly universal theme for Iranian officials. It is also bound to appear in remarks made by many commentators and journalists.
"Under the rule of the Shah, Iran was a base for American hegemony, it was a follower of the US. This is gone. Today, Iran is a base of confronting US hegemony," argued Ali Mujab, a senior advisor at the state-run Iran News Agency. This said, Mujab added, Iranians would welcome the US if it gave up its plans to turn the Middle East into a region controlled by Israel and servile to the expansion of its own dominance.
Foreign diplomats who have tracked Iranian diplomacy during their multiple postings in Tehran argue that Iran has in recent years sought channels of dialogue with the US. This intention was accented following the 11 September attacks. They say that to demonstrate its keenness on dialogue Tehran even informed Washington that it intends to drop conditions that must be met for dialogue to take place. The conditions include Washington freeing assets frozen after the fall of the Shah and a public American apology to the Iranian people over its negative stance on "their revolution".
Moreover, Iran has cooperated, directly and indirectly, with the US on a number of Bush administration projects, including the US war against the Taliban, information on US-pursued Al-Qa'eda operatives, UN operations in Iraq and containing regional reaction to a recent Israeli strike against Iran's Arab ally Syria.
"We cooperated much with the US in its war against the Taliban but instead of 'Thank you, Tehran', Washington initiated this diplomatic assault on our non-military nuclear reactor. The US has decided to tell us that we do not need nuclear power because we have enough oil," Abtahi told the Weekly.
"Iran wants to have a dialogue but it is the US that unsheathed its swords to bring down everyone it perceives not to be with America," commented Amin Sabooni, editor-in-chief of the English-language Iran Daily.
Despite the diplomatic wrestling match of the past few weeks, Iranian officials are still willing to seek dialogue with the US. This is the message conveyed to the Americans in the almost-covert Geneva talks and through messengers like Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who sits on the US- appointed Iraq Interim Governing Council.
One message that Tehran keeps sending is that Washington has to reconsider its Middle East policies and that it must realise that regional players, including Iran, will seek a compromise but not at the complete expense of their interests.
"The US has to stop this militarisation of the situation in the Middle East. It needs to stop making military threats, and to stop Israel from making military threats, because otherwise the Middle East is turned into an ever more militarised zone," Al-Husseini argued. He added that when the US and Israel overdo the military showdown, militants react and the result is a non-stop military confrontation that excludes moderates seeking "dialogue and containment". "When Osama Bin Laden talks, he says the world is divided into the camp of the faithful and the camp of the enemies. When the US president talks he adopts Bin Laden's very logic and says you are either with us or against us. Then when someone advocates dialogue, not to mention cooperation, with the US they are immediately labelled as traitors and US collaborators," Al-Husseini said.
Iranian officials say they are willing to accept the security concerns of the US in return for some US sensitivity to the security concerns of regional countries. "Above everything else we expect the US to practice what it preaches to other countries regarding Iraq: refrain from interfering with internal affairs," one Iranian official said.
DEMONSTRATING WHAT? US officials, including Bush, have frequently supported student demonstrations against the regime over the past year. Tehran was not the least pleased to hear Washingtonian voices suggesting that these demonstrations indicated an end to the regime inaugurated by the Islamic Revolution.
"The Americans thought that the type of student protests that occur in every democracy were an indication of a possible collapse of the Islamic Republic. They were wrong," Ibtikar said. According to Ibtikar, Washington should have interpreted the demonstrations as proof that "Iran is a democracy" and was a far cry from the Shah's US-supported authoritarian regime.
Some foreign diplomats and commentators would not entirely agree with Ibtikar's assessment. They suggest that the student demonstrations last summer in Iran were about frustration in young Iranians, who constitute 70 per cent of the close to 70 million persons in the country. The current elected government, headed by President Mohamed Khatami, has not performed to the expectations of this generation after failing to deliver on promised reforms.
"If this is how young people feel about the reformists imagine how they must feel about the conservatives," one commentator added.
"I am bored with everything. The Khomeini[-initiated regime] is boring. I would have loved to have lived under the Shah," said one 18-year-old man.
This sentiment is common in conversations with people of all different ages. These Iranians admit that the Shah did not serve the best interests of the Iranian people, but argue that the Islamic Revolution also serves only the interests of its close followers.
Some independent observers say that this is a common sentiment. Others say the opposite and suggest that this is mostly the feeling of young people who dislike the Islamic Revolution for its social restrictions, particularly the dress code imposed on women and the limitations imposed on male-female social interaction. "During the demonstrations that took place in the summer women students took off their veils [that they are forced to wear] and threw them on the floor," recalled one observer.
Iran is slightly loosening the grip of social restrictions, allowing women to wear the mandatory Islamic dress in creative styles and permitting men and women who are not of blood or conjugal bonds to meet, provided they do so in public places and within the accepted norms of social decency.
The state is willing to recognise a divergent minority. For Ibtikar they have to follow the rules accepted by the majority who embrace the norms of an Islamic state. And for political commentators, the worry in relation to social restrictions would not be as grave had it not been for economic concerns, particularly the high rate of unemployment.
"What people want now is a better life. This is what they worry about. This is what they want from either reformists, who promise political and social liberties, or conservatives who make no such promises," Al-Husseini argued.
According to Al-Husseini, the people are fed up with slogans. This was demonstrated by the unimpressive turnout for the last municipal elections.
Today, parliamentarians of the hard-line reformist camp, the hard-core conservative camp or the centrist reconciliatory camp are aware that whatever votes they receive in the legislative elections next February depend only on the practical measures and plans they offer on job opportunities, easing urban traffic and enhancing the profile of civil and human rights.
"There is a clear awareness of this trend and this is what has prompted all parliamentarians who are planning to run for the next elections to adopt a realistic and down-to-earth approach in formulating their platforms," said Jamila Kadivar, a reformist parliamentarian.
"It has been exactly 25 years since the Khomeini revolution and what people want today are not revolutionary slogans but a modern state that can appropriately and wisely deal with domestic, regional and international challenges," one commentator said. He added that this is why Iranians, reformists and conservatives were impressed by the state's handling of the nuclear crisis through careful diplomacy rather than the hyper-confrontational approach of Iranian governments some years ago.
GOOD NEIGHBOURS: Regionally, Iran is carefully handling major foreign affairs concerns. An obvious example is the coordination Iran pursues with neighbours of Iraq on the future of this occupied country. Another obvious example is the decision made by the Iranian president several weeks ago to recognise the Iraqi Interim Governing Council. This is not to mention the deal made by Tehran with the overwhelmingly Shi'ite population of Iraq to refrain from attacking American troops.
Moreover, Iran is seeking stable relations with its neighbours, particularly the Arab states. Late last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi sent a personal envoy to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to discuss possible closer Iranian-Arab coordination on the future of the Middle East.
"We believe that it is really in the best interest of Iran and the Arab countries alike to seek a better dialogue over the present and future of their region that is faced with many challenges," said Mohamed Sobehani, the envoy of Kharazi.
Iran is also trying to settle its dispute with the neighbouring United Arab Emirates over disputed islands by re-invoking an early 1970s deal that regulates the sharing of the islands.
Tehran also recognises a key and instrumental regional player in Egypt, and is working to improve and eventually restore diplomatic relations severed in the early days of Khomeini's rule due to President Anwar El-Sadat's decision to offer refuge to the exiled and ailing Shah. "There is an awareness of the importance of good bilateral relations on both sides and efforts are being made on that basis," commented Ambassador Shawqi Ismail, head of the Egyptian interests section in Tehran.
Iran has also refrained from rejecting the right of Palestinians to make peace with Israel, suggesting that it will accept a Palestinian settlement. Actually, Iran, according to informed sources, has been curtailing the activities of Hizbullah and Palestine-based Islamic resistance movements.
Meanwhile, Iran is pursuing an effective presence in a number of multilateral venues on popular issues such as the environment and the dialogue of civilisations.
"In short, Iran is trying to appear as a new country that combines its Islamic style with modern state practices and values," said one observer. "So far it has succeeded and time will tell whether or not it will take further steps in this direction."
According to Vice President Abtahi, Iran will have no alternative but to keep walking this path, not only because confrontation would be unwise but because "this is the way the Iranian people want to walk and there is no going back".
Syria: recalling the wisdom of Mou'awia
"In the US State Department we believe that we have had enough of the Syrian game," one Middle East-based American diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that while some politicians may like to argue that US policy on Syria during the past months is due to Israeli pressure, the fact of the matter remains that the US administration can no longer tolerate any policies that overtly or covertly support "terrorism".
The US list of grievances against Syria is by no means short. Since its occupation of Iraq, the US has been accusing Damascus of exporting militants across the Iraqi border to carry out attacks against US occupation troops. Washington also accuses Syria of coordinating and facilitating the transfer of Hizbullah and Iranian militants to Iraq, where they have been masterminding attacks against American troops and Iraqis who support the Interim Governing Council.
Over the past few months, various US spokesmen have called on Damascus to check the flow of traffic across the Iraqi border. Last week Lt General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the US forces in Iraq, told reporters that the US was aware that hundreds of militants had crossed over the Syria-Iraq border to attack US targets in Iraq. And according to Israel, Syria was also involved in training Palestinian resistance fighters, including Hamas and Jihad, who carried out attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets.
For Syrian officials, however, Washington's tacit approval of Israel's attack on Syrian territory in October is the worst part of this accusation. "This was the first time in 30 years, since the cease-fire following the October war in 1973, that Israel attacked Syrian sovereign territories. They attacked Syrian targets in Lebanon, but never, during the last three decades, have they attacked targets within Syrian territory. This could not have been done without a green light from Washington," one Syrian diplomat said. Speaking to the Weekly, the source said that the Syrian government "took the strike as a message from Washington through its Israeli postman. In Syria now there is a clear understanding that the US is going to free Israel's hand against Syria," he added.
A few weeks after the Israeli strike in Syria, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shar' hinted that the Israeli settlement in the Syrian-occupied section of the Golan Heights could be targeted if Tel Aviv were to attack Syrian territory for a second time. Colin Powell was quick to condemn Al-Shar's statement, saying it did nothing to help efforts to contain tension in the Middle East.
"At the time, several Arab capitals allied with Washington carried quick messages of containment to Damascus," said one Arab diplomat based in the Syrian capital.
"Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying very hard to contain tensions between Syria and the US. The recent visit by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Syria was not only about a show of support for Damascus, but was also meant to ease tensions," commented Nahid Al-Husseini, a journalist and researcher at the Damascus-based Arab-American Centre.
The fact that Israeli Defence Minister Shaoul Mofaz renewed threats of further military action against Syria even after conducting top-level military talks in Washington, was a clear sign to many of Washington's tolerance of Tel Aviv's aggression.
PUNISHMENT BY PROXY: Ordinary Syrians feel the US is using Israel to "punish" Syria. "So what's going to happen now? Is the US going to get Israel to launch a war against Syria because we did not do as some other Arab countries which supported and facilitated the occupation of Iraq?" asked one Damascus vendor.
Syrian intellectuals, officials and public figures are not in favour of a confrontation with Washington. Over the past few weeks, Syrian officials, including President Bashar Al-Assad, have repeated their call for dialogue with the US despite evidence of hostility from Washington -- which includes Congress' adoption of the Syria Accountability Act on 12 November. "Dialogue is the only way to conduct international relations," the Syrian president said a few days ago.
"The Syrians want to stick to the Mou'awia line," argued Syrian commentator Hesham Al-Dajani.
Al-Dajani is referring to Mou'awia Bin Abi Soufian, a legendary figure in Syria who, in 661, founded the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty which lasted for over a 100 years. He was known for his shrewdness and political wisdom. He is often quoted as saying that, "if my relationship with others were a thread I would ease my grip on the thread when they pulled hard, and pull hard only when they eased their grip, to keep that thread from being torn apart."
According to many Arab and Western diplomats, this Mou'awia philosophy kept former Syrian President Hafez Al- Assad in power for almost three decades; the same philosophy which his son, Bashar Al-Assad, is trying to follow vis-à-vis his relationship with the US, and also, some argue, with Israel.
It remains unclear, however, whether dialogue between Syria and Washington is possible, particularly in the short term. Several US politicians, especially in Democratic quarters, are warning of a rapid erosion of US tolerance towards Syria. There is a campaign to garner support for this less-than-tolerant stance on Syria, they say, while also mentioning that Washington's pro-Israel lobby is trying to get the US to force Syria to part with the $3 billion allegedly placed in Syrian-controlled banks by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
This lobbying may have been successful. The US has already demanded access to the Syrian-controlled banks, both in Syria and Lebanon, where Saddam allegedly stashed the money.
A joint ceremony due to take place last week in which Syrian President Al-Assad and King Abdullah of Jordan were to initiate the construction of the Al-Wehda Dam on Jordanian- Syrian border was cancelled at the last minute. The construction of the dam would have solved Jordan's acute water problems. Observers say the ceremony was cancelled by Amman in response to American pressure to cool its relations with Damascus. As a payoff, some argue, the US pressured Tel Aviv into releasing Jordanian prisoners detained in Israel.
SYRIA ACCOUNTABILITY ACT: A few figures in Washington, and many in Damascus, believe worse is yet to come with regard to Damascus-Washington relations. There have been warnings from Democrats and others in Washington about military action against Syria. However, Damascus and most Arab capitals seem to rule out US or Israeli military action. The passing of the Syria Accountability Act is more cause for worry.
"The alarmists may think that a strike against Syria may be just around the corner, but this is not what we fear," commented one Arab diplomatic source. What is feared now he said is further diplomatic and economic pressure.
Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, on the other hand, played down the possible effect of the Act. Had the country had strong economic ties with the US, he said, he would have been worried. "Our economic relations are very limited as it is. Syria does not receive US aid and as such it is not subject to serious US pressure," he said.
Trade between the US and Syria does not exceed $300 million per annum; Syria does not receive aid from the US and has received almost no dual-use technology from the US. Syrian aircraft are not permitted to fly in American air space, and the only manifestation of US-Syria economic ties are the presence of America oil companies in Syria. The Syria Accountability Act could, however, impose restrictions on US investments in Syria, reduce American diplomatic representation in Damascus and limit the movement of Syrian diplomats in the US.
Damascus has long been complaining about the dearth of US investment in Syria, as well as the difficulty experienced by Syrian nationals and diplomats with obtaining entry visas for the US, even to participate in UN events. "It was like this before 11 September, and things worsened after the attacks," one Syrian source said.
Nahid Al-Husseini maintains the Americans stand to lose more from the Act, particularly the oil companies in Syria. According to Al-Husseini and Khaddam, and many others, the real objective of the Act is to pressure Syria into complying to US- Israeli demands for the Middle East. Not all Arab and European capitals agree that confrontation between Damascus and Washington is inevitable, particularly if Syria shows a willingness to bow to US demands, however difficult it may be to comply.
ECONOMIC SANCTIONS UNLIKELY: Many analysts say that the US is not serious about imposing economic sanctions on Syria, pointing to the fact that Washington has recently appointed a new ambassador to Damascus. And despite the harsh rhetoric, President Bush seems to be taking his time in authorising the Syria Accountability Act. A few days ago Moustafa Talas, a senior Syrian military official commented that the aim of the Act is to force Syria to relinquish sovereignty over lands occupied by Israel prior to 1967.
The US, Syrian sources suggest, is also expecting Syria to further increase the restrictions it had already imposed on the activities of Palestinian groups residing in Syria. "The Americans know that the activities of these groups in Syria have been heavily downgraded and that whatever offices for the Palestinian groups in Syria now are merely acting as media offices but since Israel is telling them otherwise they are following the Israeli line," Al-Dajani argued.
Syrian sources also say that the Act, as well as the Israeli strike in Syria, coincides with a motion, supported by pro- Israeli members of Congress, to force hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to resettle in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and relinquish their right to return to their homeland. "The US knows it could influence the Jordanians, but it is concerned about Syrian and Lebanese opposition. Washington wants to coerce Damascus into succumbing to this plan, the way to which has been paved with the Geneva Accord -- which drastically curtails the Palestinians' right of return -- and for which international support is being gathered in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union," one Syrian commentator noted.
DIALOGUE AND STEADFASTNESS: Syrian officials maintain that it is in Washington's interest to initiate dialogue with Damascus. The Syrian government can only put up with so much, they argue, and the US cannot afford to have another Arab regime fall apart at a time when the full consequences of the Iraqi occupation have not been dealt with or realised. Syrians, they argue, have made many gestures of goodwill towards the US, namely cooperation with the US in relation to Al- Qa'eda militants; requesting Hizbullah to abate activities against Israel; and accelerating negotiations with Israel regarding the exchange of prisoners. Damascus has also made efforts to broker a truce between Palestinian militant resistance factions and Israel, gestures which it feels were met with American ingratitude.
Syrian officials, for their part, are not giving up on the notion of reconciliation with the Americans. Key Arab US allies have conveyed this message. In addition to Cairo and Riyadh, Doha is also engaged in brokering a diplomatic truce between Washington and Damascus.
Syria is also counting on Arab Americans, particularly Syrian Americans, to ease the tension. A few weeks ago President Al- Assad appointed a minister for expatriates, Bouthaina Sha'aban. She has already initiated contact with Arab American members of Congress, as well as other Arab American groups, in order to explain the Syrian side of the story.
"Regardless of what some quarters in Washington may suggest, Syria remains a strategic Middle Eastern country, and it is not in the interest of Washington, particularly in relation to the 'war on terror', to alienate Syria," commented Syrian- American Zakariya Khalaf, chairman of the Damascus-based Arab American Centre. "America needs the Middle Eastern market," he says. Moreover, "if US companies want to gain a better foothold, American foreign policy needs to accommodate the Arab point of view." Reconcilliation with Syria, he said, would be a big step in this direction.
Syria is also counting on Arab Americans, particularly Syrian Americans, to offer their good offices in resolving the situation. In his September cabinet reshuffle, President Al-Assad appointed a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Bouthaina Sha'aban, as minister of expatriates. Sha'aban's task has already been initiated by contacts with Arab American members of Congress and Arab American groups with the aim of directly explaining the Syrian perspective to Americans without the biasing influence of "Israeli distortions".
"It is not at all in the interest of Washington, particularly it is not in the interest of the American war against terror, to alienate Syria," observed Zakariya Khalaf, chairman of the Damascus-based Arab American Centre. Khalaf, who is a Syrian American and a personal acquaintance of President Al-Assad, argues that the Syrian leadership is keen on salvaging its relationship with Washington, which the Bush administration should be in favour of as well.
There are several possible steps towards a more flexible relationship between the US and Syria. First, Damascus wants the Bush administration to stop its threatening rhetoric towards Syria, especially pertaining to accusations of alleged Syrian involvement in harbouring terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction. It also wants Washington to put pressure on Israel, both to back off from its belligerent stance towards Syria and to cease its strong-arm tactics in the West Bank and Gaza.
In return, Syria indicates a willingness to upgrade its already active patrols along the Iraqi border. "It is a very costly process, but Syrians are setting up checkpoints almost every three kilometres of the over 600-kilometre-long border, and the Syrians are indicating they are willing to go through the trouble and cost of added checkpoints," a Syria-based diplomat said.
The Syrian stance on Iraq further soured relations between Washington and Damascus. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Syrian foreign minister called the war an "act of armed robbery". Arab and European diplomats alike cite the wave of similar rhetoric preceding and during the coalition occupation of Iraq as incurring US wrath against Syria.
Syrian officials have already stopped this rhetoric, while also publicly stating that Damascus does not wish to interfere with Iraqi internal affairs. In fact, Syria has turned back many members of the toppled Iraqi regime and, according to Damascus sources, has asked some who were given refuge immediately after the outbreak of war to look for alternative venues.
However, the US, and by affiliation the Interim Governing Council (IGC), relentlessly demand further compliance. They are pressing Syria to prohibit any kind of propaganda that may be seen as supportive of the attacks against US troops in Iraq. A few weeks ago, Sha'aban and Khaddam spoke of the right of Arab peoples to resist military occupation -- statements which were denounced by both the US administration and the IGC.
On the Lebanese side, the US is demanding that Syria bring its weight to bear against Hizbullah and also pull its forces out of Lebanon. Syria's tiny neighbour has long been considered a vital national interest, but Bashar Al-Assad may prove unable to fill his father's shoes and maintain Syrian domination of Lebanese politics. "Bashar knows that he is not treated like his father was and that he does not have the same strategic weight that his father enjoyed," one anonymous Syrian source told the Weekly.
For all pragmatic purposes, Syrian sources say, Bashar knows that he will have to continue, and possibly even finish, the redeployment of Syrian troops out of Lebanon by the year 2005.
"This is not just about the US, but it is also about the Lebanese factions who oppose the Syrian military presence in their country and who have been increasingly raising their voice to demand an end to this presence since the passing away of Hafez Al-Assad in 2000," the Syrian source added.
MAKING FRIENDS: The American occupation of Iraq, the increasing Lebanese hostility at the Syrian presence and the Sharon administration's aggressive tendencies are only some of the worries that the young president must contend with.
Additionally, despite a common enemy at the gates of both nations, the long-standing Syrian-Iranian alliance appears to be faltering. Tehran, which used to threaten retaliation against Israel if Israel were to attack Syria, waited for a full three days before it condemned the Israeli strike in October.
Also of high priority to the Syrian leadership is their relationship with fellow Arab countries. By the time Iraq was occupied by the US, Damascus was already highly disliked by most Arab Gulf capitals for its vociferous denunciation of the war. "Syria was opposing the war because it did not want to be caught between the US in Iraq and Israel. It also wanted to maintain the many economic benefits it had due to its massive trade with Iraq under the oil-for-food programme. But this does not at all mean that it was at any point sympathetic to the toppled Iraqi regime," Al-Dajani argued. This was not the understanding of the Gulf states, especially Kuwait, who reacted harshly to expressions of opposition to the war.
To contain this problem, top Syrian officials have recently been going on record with harsh criticism of the atrocities committed by the Saddam Hussein regime. Trying to mend ties with the Gulf states allied with the US, President Al-Assad went on a trip to Qatar a few weeks ago and is planning a visit to Kuwait before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Syria is trying to strengthen its ties in the Arab world, both from the Arab League and from individual countries. Egypt is one country that Syria is counting on during these hard days, Syrian commentators suggest. Hazem Khaiyrat, Egyptian ambassador in Syria, characterised Egyptian-Syrian relations as "excellent" and mentioned the warm welcome given to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his recent visit to Syria.
In parallel with its Arab diplomatic efforts, Syria is currently busy improving its European relations. Syrian flexibility has been demonstrated on the conditions agreed upon of the European Union for the signing of a EU-Syrian partnership agreement.
"What we are seeing now is an intensive Syrian diplomatic effort to improve relations across the board," Al-Dajani said.
NOT ALL QUIET ON THE HOME FRONT: While fighting for its survival in foreign policy, the regime also has perhaps equally pressing domestic concerns.
Like many other Arab countries, Syria's domestic concerns are predominantly economic. Syria has a 17 per cent unemployment rate and an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Economic reform has been very slow and haphazard.
Meanwhile, political reform, which was promised priority by Bashar when he was sworn in office in the fall of 2000, is still largely theoretical. The young and modernising president of Syria, even most of his critics will admit, is sincere about his wish to induce political reform. This dream, however, has not materialised, but rather has been sidelined indefinitely.
The reasons for the declining interest of the Syrian leadership in political reform are readily apparent. As one senior European correspondent to the Middle East said, "Bashar is the president but he is still not alone on the top, not yet." Behind Bashar is a powerful political clique dating from his father's rule. "These are not just advisors. They are influential members of the regime and it was not in the interest of the regime to ignore the concerns expressed by these influential men on the grave cost of political reform for the future of the regime and that of the president himself," said one diplomatic source.
For now, Syria seems to be occupied with neither political nor economic reform but rather with administrative reform. The strategy is one of revamping the Syrian state bureaucracy, which has become but a breeding ground of alarming corruption. This revamping, it is hoped, would open the door for economic reform followed by political reform.
To many observers in and out of Syria this is a roundabout approach that may fail to induce any degree of tangible change for the Syrian people. And as one Syrian commentator put it, "Bashar Al-Assad enjoys considerable popularity in Syria, but what he needs now is strong public support for some very painful foreign policy concessions. To get this support, he needs to give the people a better life".