Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Syria Edges In From The Cold

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is holding talks in Damascus with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The two countries had a big falling out a few years ago when the Saudi-backed Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri was assassinated, apparently on Syria's orders. The dispute between these two major regional players has hindered efforts to solve problems such as Israel/Palestine, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the security crisis in Iraq.

Just talking a bit isn't going to do much to tackle those big issues, but this sort of meeting can only be a positive sign for western governments. If the US and the west in general is going to improve the stability of the Middle East, it's important to have the major Arab governments agreeing with each other rather than not. For example, Syria has sway over groups such as Hizbollah, which it supports financially, and to a lesser extent Hamas. No meaningful peace is possible in the Middle East without the approval of those groups, and so there can be no 'peace process' worthy of the name without the support of Syria, and indeed the rest of the Arab countries.

How far Syria might go in co-operating with anyone, let alone the west, is difficult to say. After the death of Assad's father, the hardline Hafez al-Assad, back in 2000, there was an expectation that Syria would become more pro-western. But despite the odd hint, and the fear in Damascus immediately following the invasion of Iraq that it could be next on America's list, the Ba'athist regime in Syria remains more focused on acting in its own interests and ensuring its own survival. However, with most of the elder Assad's old cronies now gone from the Syrian political scene, it's possible this latest step by Assad junior might be a sign of warmer international relations to come. Just don't bet on it.

1 comment:

Benjamin Judge said...

I remember when Bashar came into power there was a lot of talk about how he wouldn't last five minutes because of his percieved pro-West stance. His father, like King Hussain of Jordan, was one of those major players in the Middle East who all seemed to die in the space of a few years. The projected shake up of the region though largely didn't take place.

Hopefully Bashar has been stabilising his position before a gradual move toward cooperation with the West (and surely a gradual movement is the only sort that will last)

It all depends on how Syria define that move though. Will it be the Saudi model of a kingdom, with no civil rights where women cannot vote, but has lots of oil and lets America have a few military bases? Or the Palestinian model of a democracy with rights for women? Unfortunately history has shown which the West would rather do business with.