Wednesday, December 27, 2006

TEHRAN — Recent visits by Syrian 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.

Such a move would fulfill a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary 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 policy analyst who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan.

“If you put this together with the ‘Obaid initiative’ to mobilize Arab action to stop Iran’s encroachment in Iraq, it almost has the appearance of a regionally coordinated campaign.”

Nawaf Obaid was fired this month 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 11 days ago 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 of the timing. “They know the views of the United States.”

In another apparent overture yesterday, Mr. Assad told visiting Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, that he was willing to host a conference where all the factions of Iraq could seek a consensus on the 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 wooing Assad as an intermediary to Iran to transmit their concerns and hopefully to achieve greater Iranian moderation.”

Iranian analysts also doubt that Mr. Assad will give up his role as the 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, “We aren’t worried … because we know that this isn’t happening and will not happen.”

Nevertheless, Syria has faced immense pressure since the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which it has been widely blamed. Lacking a strong army and without substantial oil reserves, it is the weak link — and the only Sunni member — in the Iranian Shi’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.

“If that’s what’s going on, the UAE 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 Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “But soon everybody will be wowed by how little they actually have to offer and by how bent they are on overplaying their hand.”

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