Syria in US Middle East policy

As they review Middle East policy options, Barack Obama’s advisers face two fixed certainties. One is that there is no magic wand, no easy, pain-free way forward. Second, it is crucial to distinguish between what you want and what you can get. As Bill Clinton and others before him discovered, they are not usually the same thing. Analysts who assume Obama will somehow let Arab-Israeli peacemaking define his presidency overseas are firing wide.

All the indications are that his will be a “realist” foreign policy guided by pragmatism and self-interest, as shown by the hard-nosed message Hillary Clinton in China has just sent to the “free Tibet” movement. If, in four years’ time, military confrontation with Iran has been avoided, the Iraq withdrawal has been managed honourably and without internal collapse, and some kind of half-credible peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbours is in train, Obama’s people will probably call it a good result. Anything more would be a bonus.

As usual in the Middle East, these objectives are linked. What has been less evident until now is the degree to which improved US relations with Syria could hold the key to all three. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, certainly seems to think so. During a weekend visit to Damascus, Kerry spoke optimistically of Syria’s role in reconciling Hamas and Fatah and promoting a Palestinian unity government with which Israel (and the US and Europe) might negotiate.

He also claimed Syria was ready to help more on Iraqi security and Lebanon. Interviewed two weeks ago, Assad also seemed in the mood to talk. He stressed American indispensability in Middle East peacemaking and encouraged Obama to redeem his offer of resumed dialogue. He said he wanted actions, not words.

Officially Obama maintains the standard US positions that Syria must “change its behaviour” —meaning curb its backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, end political meddling in Lebanon, and more closely support US objectives in Iraq and Iran. But behind the scenes, it is becoming clearer to Washington’s policy reviewers that better relations with Syria would serve multiple American purposes and that, with a bit of imagination and flexibility, previous sticking points might be finessed. On theoretical offer in return is an easing of sanctions, security guarantees, and eventual diplomatic and economic normalisation - increasingly important given Syria’s financial straits.

Most intriguing of all is the possibility that Team Obama, less than enamoured with a new, rightwing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, could use improving US ties with Damascus as leverage to encourage moderate thoughts in Tel Aviv. More than anything, Assad wants the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Netanyahu insists he cannot have it —but Obama, like some leading Israeli centrists, may feel less strongly. If, as seems likely, he obstructs the Palestinian track, the Likud leader may have to give ground elsewhere, literally. Politically speaking, Obama cannot and will not turn his back on Israel.

But he may be prepared to squeeze, more so than his predecessors, in pragmatic pursuit of key US regional interests. If Assad is smart - and that’s another imponderable - he’ll seize the moment. — The Guardian