The Syrian Linchpin

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Everyone’s talking about Syria. And talking about talking to Syria. They’re echoing a refrain started this summer, that the road to peace in Jerusalem and Beirut goes through Damascus. Now the Iraq Study Group is saying the road to peace in Baghdad may go that way too, and Syria’s own President Bashar al-Asad has been emphasizing his country’s importance for Middle East stability:

This summer’s war in Lebanon has lent urgency to President Bashar al-Asad’s repeated calls for a resumption of peace talks, culminating in his statement in a recent BBC interview that Syria was ready to live side-by-side with Israel. “No Syrian has ever said that before,” Vice-President Farouk el-Shara’ reminded me in an interview this week.

…The Syrians…appreciated German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent remark that “We can’t deny that Syria is a main player in the region.”

Such statements accord with Syria’s own sense of its regional role, and of the positive influence it can bring to bear on Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — if its own interests are addressed. A top Syrian priority is the recovery of the Golan seized by Israel in 1967. Secondly, and perhaps more immediately, is the need to maintain Syrian influence in Lebanon and prevent a hostile power establishing itself there.

Patrick Seale, Syria’s Peace Offensive, Agence Global, 11/8/06

As we did in our Lebanon show, we’re aiming for a deeper understanding of this country and its role in the region. Is it a linchpin for solving the US’s problems in Iraq or Israel’s in Lebanon? Can the US accomplish its foreign policy goals in the Middle East without involving Syria? What has been the historical relationship between Syria and the US, and how does this latest chapter fit into that dynamic? Is Syria now part of the axis of inevitable partners?

Rime Allaf

Associate Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

Blogger, Mosaics

Nasser Rabbat

Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Najib Ghadbian

Associate Professor, University of Arkansas

Author, Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World

Extra Credit Reading

Rime Allaf, Patching things up with the neighbours, The Guardian, November 16, 2006: “Even if they’re not willing to rejoin the world of diplomacy, London and Washington should at least become more level-headed and factually think of Syria and Iran as the ‘axis of inevitable partners’.”

via Potter: Joshua Landis, Is Syria Asking Too Much?, SyriaComment.com, November 17, 2006: “Last year a leading Syria told me that the attitude of the countries leaders was that if the US believed that it could use Iraq and Lebanon as a base from which to launch an anti-Syria campaign, Washington would be sorely disappointed.”

Imad Moustapha, Weblog of a Syrian Diplomat in America, “The journal of Imad Moustapha, Syria’s envoy to the US.”

Patrick Seale, Syria’s Peace Offensive, agenceglobal.com, November 8, 2006: “This summer’s war in Lebanon has lent urgency to President Bashar al-Asad’s repeated calls for a resumption of peace talks, culminating in his statement in a recent BBC interview that Syria was ready to live side-by-side with Israel. ‘No Syrian has ever said that before,’ Vice-President Farouk el-Shara reminded me in an interview this week.”

Sami Moubayed, Syria also wants carrots, Mideastviews.com, November 17, 2006, “The Syrians are confused. They are indeed getting contradicting signals from the international community, and particularly the US. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who is expected to head the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, said the US should convene an international conference on Iraq with the participation of both Syria and Iran. These positive remarks are drowned out by the remarks of Rice and McCormack.”

Samir Aita, Syria: a monopoly on democracy, Le Monde diplomatique, July, 2005: “It is worth recalling how Syria was built on a democratic compromise after the first world war.”

Reuters, Syria, Iraq Restore Ties to Combat Militants, New York Times, November 21, 2006: “Saying the United States appeared to be “trapped in Iraq,” unable either to stay or go, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Iran and Syria to be “part of the solution.”

James Bennet, The Enigma of Damascus, The New York Times, July 10, 2005: “‘When you talk about upgrading society, you talk about open-minded,’ he said. ‘When you talk about open-minded, you mean freedom. Freedom of thinking.'”

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