Sunday, July 13, 2008

Syria is Preparing for a Major Shift

Syria accepted a visit by French President Sarkozy this weekend, and started making noise about major policy shifts that are likely to set the balance of the Middle East well in favor of the West.

First, they accepted a visit by Sarkozy at all. Sarkozy, of course, has been on a foreign policy blitz since he took over for Chirac. Counter to all his economic impotence, he has deeply improved ties with the US, UK, and Germany, re-entered NATO as a full member, taken his own tough stance against Russia and Iran in a way that Europeans have been highly averse to for a very long time. He has proposed a Mediterranean Union, one in which France would likely lead states like Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and other middle-sized states. Syria is a small-but-critical piece of making a great deal of French geopolitical re-positioning possible. For the Syrians to accept them shows an opening-up to their former colonial overlords, despite years of almost-jihadist rhetoric coming from the government.

Second, they are upgrading to full diplomatic relations with Lebanon, for the first time since they declared independence. Such a move, even if it does include Hezbollah as a political party, likely shows an intent to work together with the anti-Syrian majority that ousted the Syrians in multiple bloody steps, ending in 2005. Such cooperation would make it difficult for Hezbollah to make gains from its minority position, and also much harder to acquire weapons. The Syrians are investing in the success and stability of the Lebanese government, and are thus helping to assure it. A willingness to deal with the ruling party in Syria means that Hezbollah will no longer be their only option, and so they are likely to put their limited eggs in multiple baskets.

Finally, the Syrians are seriously looking to continue peace talks with Israel--as soon as the US election is done. This not only shows us how important the US is in such things, but also that it is weighing the timing of the decision seriously, even if it is not clear exactly how. Would McCain scare them into siding with the West? Or would Obama convince them that a friendlier, more regionally hands-off US presidency makes the next 8 years a better time to experiment with pro-Western stances? Or is it as simple as they state--they want either candidate that is not George Bush to work with? I simply don't know. But the sign that they are waiting for the US election shows serious policy consideration on the issue--it is not a matter of whim, but of real conditions. The Syrians want this peace deal. They just need the conditions to be right.

And so they are planning something big. Peace with Israel would mean an Israel secure from any land invasion except by Hezbollah insurgents from Lebanon--and combined with good relations with Lebanon, peace with Israel would lead to a Syria much less excited about supporting unpredictable Shiite insurgent groups that are likely to both destabilize Lebanon and anger Israel. This would also necessitate a moving-away from an Iran that would feel abandoned by its ally. No doubt, the Iranians are likely screaming at Syrian policymakers to reconsider, which may be why they are waiting until the US election. The move would leave Iran relatively isolated by--if not an enemy of--the Middle East, much in the same way that Japan is the black sheep of East Asia. The Syrian abandonment is likely going to give the next US president bargaining power with Iran to come to a deal in Iraq favorable to the US. Iran knows that Iraq will be a Shiite-dominated country, the only question is how much. They may be willing ot hedge their bets on Iraq and ensure a friendly neighbor rather than use brinksmanship to create an idealistic ally, at risk of alienating their last chance in the region.