It was a busy week of hospitality for Bashar Al-Assad. As visitors from America and China graced the halls of the presidential palace in Damascus, longer-staying guests continued to depend on Assad’s welcome and shelter to make trouble across Syria’s borders.
Senator John Kerry, still in presidential campaign mode, visited Syria last weekend and came away bearing apparent good news: Syria would like to open a new page in its relations with the U.S. Kerry arrived in Damascus immediately following the departure of U.S. Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage had been there to discuss Syria’s failure to prevent armed supporters of the former Iraqi regime from entering Iraq and launching attacks against American troops and Iraqis. Assad told Armitage that Syria is doing its best to control the terrorists and that Syrians are largely uninvolved in Iraq. Imad Mustafa, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, who also attended the meeting, asked Americans to stop their criticism of Syria in the media since “they have nothing to support” it.
Armitage arrived while Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Lu Guozeng was touring the Syrian capital, and Kerry’s plane touched down as he was departing to return to China. The objective of the Chinese minister’s visit was to secure Syrian backing for his “One China” policy, and he released a statement from Syrian Prime Minister Mahammad Naji Otri supporting the reunification of Taiwan and China, perhaps another signal to the U.S. of Syrian good will.
The unexpected Assad-Kerry meeting constituted a clever move that served both men well. For Assad, isolated and subject to American sanctions, it served as a perfect outlet to claim that the accusations against him are baseless and unfair. For Kerry, who advocates a policy of engagement with Syria and opposes the current U.S. policy in Iraq, it provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom and effectiveness of his strategy.
In their meeting, described as a ”moment of opportunity,” the two discussed the importance of dialogue with the United States on all issues of common concern, the importance of holding democratic elections in Iraq, and Syria’s role in the war against terrorism. On the issue of border control and in response to U.S claims of malicious Syrian meddling in Iraq, Kerry heard a slightly different claim than that made to Armitage: The Syrians denied the American accusations but said they cannot fully control the border with Iraq and prevent the activities of a small group of terrorists despite the best efforts of the Syrian army.
But the words that made a positive impression on Kerry appeared much less convincing to Syria’s Iraqi neighbors. Gen. Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi chief of staff, said in an interview on December 26 that foreign fighters are still entering Iraq from Syria. A day later, six Arabs using forged Iraqi identity cards and carrying explosives were captured near the Syrian border.
Gen. Zebari’s remarks came a day after Najaf’s police commander, Ghaleb al-Jazaeri, reported that an arrested Iraqi confessed to having received training in a camp in Syria under the supervision of a Syrian military officer. Nothing on that scale occurs in Syria without the explicit support of President Assad.
In the aftermath of the conversation with Kerry, Hizbullah, Syria’s agent in Lebanon, decided to heat up the border with Israel with an attack on an Israeli patrol that killed an Israel Defense Forces officer.
In the meantime, sources inside Syria have told RPS (the Syrian Reform Party) that the Syrian government is not planning to leave Lebanon and that the new strategy of the authorities in the Ba’ath Party is to allow Hizbullah to influence the Lebanese elections. Following the electoral victory of president Emile Lahoud, Hizbullah head Nasrallah, who supports Lahoud, will claim that the legitimate will of the people of Lebanon has prevailed in democratic elections.
The Syrians will then turn back to the international community and claim that the people re-elected Lahoud, who in return will ask the Syrians to stay in Lebanon, thus legitimizing their occupation – another act of hospitality.
Assad is engaged in a time-honored Syrian policy game: Heat up the neighborhood, escalate the crisis, and then ease off when outside pressure becomes unbearable. At worst the Syrians come out no better off than when they started; at best they can gain a bit, as the situation doesn’t fully return to the status quo ante and they will possibly be praised for their efforts in reducing the tensions that they instigated in the first place.
Fortunately for Assad, the Hizbullah attack on Israel was timed to coincide with the Palestinian elections and Kerry was busy in his role as observer in the West Bank. Thus the Syrian president was spared the embarrassment of having to explain why his proxies in the west were ambushing Israelis while his agents in the east were attacking Americans, since it might just have been too much even for the master of illusion to make it all disappear. Apparently Assad’s new page in American-Syrian relations is looking quite a lot like the old one. It will take more than simple hospitality to change it.