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December 27, 2006
Will Assad Flip?

The Washington Times reports this morning that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad might be considering a change in foreign policy that would move him out of the Iranian orbit and closer to the other Arab states. Recent visits to American allies in the region and a snub towards Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has observers buzzing with anticipation:

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. ...

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.

Assad's visit to the UAE came after his no-show at a regional conference in Teheran, hosted by Ahmadinejad, that was supposed to be a show of regional unity. He didn't even bother to offer a public excuse, the Times notes, and his immediate trip to Dubai demonstrated that he had some space on his dance card. This really started tongues wagging about the opportunity to split Assad away from Ahmadinejad.

Well, maybe, but I rather doubt that it will come to anything. Assad may have some financial reasons to separate himself from the collapsing Iranian economy, but the West doesn't have much to offer Assad. We pressured him out of Lebanon and won't ever acquiesce to his return there. We support Israel's right to exist and will undoubtedly side with Israel if hostilities break out between them. We want his help mostly to help establish a democracy on his eastern border with the (mostly) unspoken aim of destabilizing his regime. We've made it clear that we want Assad and his lieutenants investigated for conspiracy to murder Rafiq Hariri, among others.

Other than that, of course, he'd jump at a chance to align himself with the West.

This appears much more to be an attempt to set himself up as the moderate, Arabic wing of the Teheran axis. The other Arab nations in the Gulf worry about Persian domination, spiritual as well as political, and they have created a need for an Arab liaison to Teheran. This offers Assad a golden opportunity to expand his influence and to quietly ease the path for Teheran to achieve its hegemony in southwest Asia. If that means playing a little nicer with their Western allies, including the US, then Assad will do just that -- but don't expect him to act against all of his interests this late in the game.

The ISG couldn't get this right, either. I'm surprised the Washington Times fell for it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 27, 2006 6:07 AM

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