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Syria's fortune cookie future

Syria has long been governed by fortune cookie philosophy, as in:  “The first step to better times is to imagine them.” The government, although that’s a big word for the clan rule that the country is under, thinks that it can emulate China and achieve economic development without democracy. Syrian officials have actually uttered this with a straight face, although I’m pretty sure I heard one fart nervously while saying it.

Into this delusional political landscape steps the Obama administration in pursuit of rapprochement. It sent Democratic US senator John Kerry to Damascus to test the waters and maybe to convey a message. But the only message that the hereditary president, Bashar Assad, is interested in is one guaranteeing the survival of his regime.

That is the bottom line and by reaching out to Syria, the US is once more going into the business of propping up a dictatorial Arab regime. Because the basis on which the US and Europe are trying to lure Syria is one of promising the type of economic benefit that it thinks the Assad regime needs in order to pursue the China option.

Cynical? Maybe but probably also misguided. Damascus has long been a master at the art of make-belief negotiations and gestures. It never gives up its cards unless it is faced with the threat of force, as was the case with Turkey and Syria’s support of the PKK. And despite the noises that it is making about the China option, the regime probably still fears an opening up more than ongoing economic hardship.

Syria has been in the throes of an ugly government crackdown for the last couple of years and it has also heavily restricted the entry of foreign journalists. Judging by the stories coming out of the country, it should be one happy paradise of sexy lingerie stores, cultural silk road festivals and foreigners learning Arabic in a safe yet exotic environment.

Western policy spinners have contributed to this rosy picture by talking up “changes in the Syrian behaviour”. Aid flowing to the insurgents in Iraq, money, weapons and militants, is said to have diminished. Syria has supposedly played a more positive role in Lebanon, where a unity government has been in power since its allies shot up the country in May last year. And president Assad and his men have made all the appropriate noises indicting that they’re interested in kissing and making up.

The US and Europe are mostly interested in Syria because policy boffins think that if it can be weaned away from its alliance with Iran, Teheran will be weakened. That is like saying that removing a wart from your foot will weaken it. Seriously, Syria is a partner so junior in this alliance that it’s actually wearing nappies.

OK, it’s nice for Iran to have a pseudo-Shia minority regime in charge of Syria, it provides a bit of strategic depth, a kindred anti-American satellite in the region. But on the big questions, such as isolating Lebanon’s Hezbollah or the Palestinian’s Hamas movements, not much is going to change. First of all, president Assad seems to assume that he can get a peace deal with Israel without giving up on these groups. But even if he does, Iran will continue to get weapons to Hezbollah, through Beirut’s airport for example. And Hamas has a beef with Israel that defies Syrian control, even though its leader is based in Damascus.

This brings us back to the supposed changes in Syria’s behaviour. The reports on its support for Iraqi insurgents have been cyclical, following the winds of political expediency, both in Syria and in the US. If the flow to Iraq has lessened, could that be because the insurgency there is drying up? As for Lebanon, Syria’s allies were quiet as long as they thought that they had the upcoming elections in the bag. Shifting alliances and a fickle popular mood mean that a June victory is slightly less likely and already the violence is starting again.

Most inconveniently for the Obama administration a bit of explosive information came out at the time of the Kerry visit to Damascus. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that more uranium traces have been found at the site in the east of Syria that the Israelis bombed in 2007. The attack presumably happened because Israel suspected the Syrians of constructing a nuclear plant based on a North Korean design on the site. Syria claimed it was just a “military building”.

The Syria Accountability Act of 2003 on which US sanctions against the country is aimed among other things at Syria’s development of weapons of mass destruction. The budding nuclear controversy could yet blow Obama’s outstretched hand off course.