Monday, September 8, 2008

Difficult decisions loom for Syria's Assad

Probably one of the most balanced assessments out there of the tough choices now before the Syrian leadership.

Mon Sep 8, 2008
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis - Analysis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - After basking in international limelight, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces difficult decisions that could change the political landscape of the Middle East.

Peace talks with Israel and cooperation on Lebanon have helped bring the once international outcast in from the cold, culminating in a visit last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the first Western head of government to visit Syria since the 2005 killing of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.

But Assad, shaped by his late father's lifetime of struggle with Israel, is facing pressure to change old alliances with Iran and militant groups, and take specific action on Lebanon to dispel the impression that Syria still refuses to accept the sovereignty of its smaller neighbor.

Sources familiar with Sarkozy's visit told Reuters that Syria has asked France for help on stalled peace talks with Israel. A round that Assad termed crucial was postponed several times after the resignation of an Israeli negotiator.

"Assad wants to keep talking with Israel without committing to anything. It is understandable since Israel has also not given him anything," one diplomat in the Syrian capital said.

"But Syria cannot keep on dancing with everybody without kissing anyone. Assad has shown no signs of burning bridges with Iran. Hamas is an easier card to play," he added.

Syria and Israel announced the talks in May, months after Israeli planes raided a target in eastern Syria. Washington, Israel's chief ally, said the site was a nuclear reactor.

Four rounds of indirect talks so far have centered on the fate of the Golan Heights. Israel captured the fertile plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Damascus demands the return of all the Golan. Israel, in turn, wants Syria to scale back ties with Iran and cut links to the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which could mean expelling the Hamas leadership from Damascus and cutting an alleged supply line to the Lebanese Shi'ite group from Syria.

Hamas has denied an Arab press report that its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal was moving to Sudan, but the group stands to lose politically if a peace deal is signed between Israel and Syria.

Turkey, which is acting as a mediator, said the Syrian-Israeli talks should resume later this month. Israel has not confirmed this and diplomats in Damascus doubted they would be held so soon with Israel facing political uncertainty over the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Syria favors moving to direct talks only after a new U.S. administration comes to office. Assad said an American role was necessary but Turkey will continue to be a main mediator.


Careful to keep lines open to Iran, Assad agreed to Sarkozy's request to try and help ease the confrontation between Tehran and the West over its nuclear program. But Syria is itself under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency over the site raided by Israel last year.

Assad has also visited Russia to discuss arms purchases, which angered Israel, and he kept contact with U.S. foes in Iraq which added to tension with Washington and London.

And Syria's proposed economic association agreement with the European Union faces opposition from Britain if Damascus does not cut its alleged support to infiltrators into Iraq. The agreement needs approval of all European Union members to pass.

"Syria is still seen as having a behavior problem, and a new U.S. administration will not change this. One way of doing so is to deliver on (opening) embassies with Lebanon, start physical work on the demarcation of the border and stop backing insurgents in Iraq," another diplomat said.

Assad recently agreed to open diplomatic relations with Beirut and border demarcation, but these issues are mired in committees. Sarkozy made it clear that French rapprochement would not last without specific Syrian action.

Leading Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said the lure of returning the Golan and the economic benefits of peace -- Syria's economy has woefully underperformed for decades -- would drive Syrian rulers to change their external posture.

"Syria always puts its interests first," Salem said. "The issue is not whether Syria can disengage from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas but if Israel does not give back the Golan and the talks fail. We're then back to point zero."

(Editing by Dominic Evans)

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