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SYRIA: Damascus getting courted from all sides

March 12, 2009 |  5:14 am

Syriasaudi

The Syrians know what they want: to have their cake and eat it too.

The government in Damascus wants to enjoy good relations with moderate Arab regimes and Western powers while conserving its strong ties with Iran and non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, analysts say. 

But what do the Americans want in the Middle East?

From the point of view of Arab observers, the U.S. policy in the region has been inconsistent .

One day, it’s waging war in Iraq. Another day, it is stating support for the creation of a Palestinian state while approving of Israeli politicians who don’t seem to want it.

Then lately, with President Obama in office, it is engaging with the Syrians to woo them away from the influence of the Iranians.

After the visit of senior U.S. diplomats to Damascus last week, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are courting Syria to join the U.S.-allied Arab front instead of sticking with Iran, a non-Arab state.

The kingdom on Wednesday hosted the Egyptian and Syrian leaders in a bid to reconcile their diverging views of the region.

But many wonder whether the U.S. and its regional allies are really serious about delivering what Damascus expects in order to loosen its relations with Tehran.

The Syrians have expressed their willingness to hold peace talks with Israel -- but only if they are brokered by the U.S. They have repeatedly said that they expect nothing less than the return of the water-rich and strategically important Golan Heights, which were seized by Israel in 1967.

Most expect Syria to remain on its best behavior in Lebanon and Iraq for a while in case it is rewarded with better economic and diplomatic relations with the West.

Egypt needs Syria to help mediate a reconciliation between the Islamic militant group Hamas and the Palestinian Authority led by the Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas.

Saudi Arabia is, meanwhile, trying to get Syria back on the wagon of an Arab initiative, which offers Israel peace in exchange for the return of Arab land. 

But if Syria doesn't regain control over the Golan Heights, politicians and diplomats say, it's hard to imagine why Damascus would let go of proxies such Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has not appeared eager to give back the land. So the task of wooing Syria might not be easy after all.

Relations between Syria and the so-called moderate Arab states soured tremendously after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, when Syrian President Bashar Assad described leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as "half-men" for their failure to act to stop the Israeli counteroffensive.

Iran and Syria back Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group in Lebanon that is viewed with suspicion by predominantly Sunni Muslim Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, center, speaks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Credit: Hassan Ammar /Associated Press

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