Following an unexpected proxy victory in Lebanon, the Syrian regime currently seems intoxicated with power and confidence, reveling in its recovered status as an incontrovertible accomplice to any regional arrangement. For the time being, everything seems to be vindicating its stated positions and alliances in the ongoing war for regional domination, and the latest episode's various losers (from Washington through London to Lebanon) can't help but notice the schadenfreude glowing from Damascus.
Indeed, the Syrian regime is not even trying to be subtle about its mood. It had been on the defensive for a long period trying to deal with an isolation it partly brought upon itself after a series of strategic miscalculations and that was partly forced on it by a truly condescending American disposition. Blamed repeatedly for every problem in the region, the Syrian regime now seems to be reaping the rewards for its perseverance in sticking to its guns, as many in the proverbial Arab street begin to wonder why Hizballah has managed such successes, and why these shouldn't be repeated elsewhere--simultaneously--and as the perceived line between authentic Arabism and popular Islamism begins to fade.
While not necessarily oblivious to the fact that the Syrian regime is trying to take undeserved credit for Hizballah's performance, people know that Syria's was the only government supportive of resistance to Israel, in word if not in deed. The regime hopes that this wave of national fervor will cover its severe deficiencies elsewhere, especially regarding the economy and human rights. Meanwhile, another nail has been hammered into the coffin of the Syrian opposition.
For now, things are not only looking good from Damascus, but they are likely to stay just as good in terms of international issues, given that some elements of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which gives Syria enough reason to complain about foreign troops on its borders) are just as vague and as difficult to implement as they were in Resolution 1559.
Meek reminders about the ongoing Hariri investigation have not dampened the spirits of the regime. On the contrary, practically irrespective of what UN investigator Serge Brammertz's report will say this month, and although he can't conceivably retract everything Detlev Mehlis had claimed (assuming the smoking gun has not been found), Syria is now poised to regain significant influence in Lebanon more than a year after its humiliating retreat. As Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah made clear this week, the party's relations with Syria (and Iran) are open and appreciated. More importantly, Nasrallah promised a recalculation of the party's position within Lebanon; in other words, Hizballah will no longer accept a back row seat.
All of this is music to the ears of Syrian officials who are suddenly receiving positive signals from everywhere, including Israel. While the debate hosted by Israeli and American media about whether to engage Syria or isolate it further is ridiculous (international law should be applied universally), it nevertheless shows a development: before the war, voices advocating engagement were not given a platform, and, even worse, it had somehow even become acceptable to refuse discussing the Golan Heights.
Repercussions from the bizarre incident at the American embassy in Damascus this week show just how much Syria's position has changed for the better. Assuming it truly was an attack foiled by Syrian security forces, the latter were simply doing their duty in protecting foreign embassies and personnel. And yet, a muted but clear thanks came promptly from Washington, from an administration that isn't given to thanking when it should, and even less so when it doesn't need to. This American reaction was not necessary and is therefore interesting, signaling that the Bush administration is tentatively testing the waters with Syria--a Syria so confident that it responded to the thanks by criticizing the US for being responsible for extremism in the first place.
This comes just weeks after Condoleezza Rice had insisted that bad relations with Syria were overstated, given that the two countries have diplomatic relations. Rumored to have unsuccessfully pushed Israel to expand its attacks to include Syria, is the US now getting ready to acknowledge it needs to pursue diplomacy rather than force?
All of the above would have not seemed possible before the ceasefire that brought an end to Israel's aggression on Lebanon, and Syrian rhetoric proves this by having dramatically surfaced after weeks in hiding. Bashar Assad's triumphant speech of August 15, followed by his interview on Dubai Television the following week, show just how the end to hostilities in Lebanon can be (and is) milked.
Despite such unforeseen circumstances, caution should be exercised by the regime. First, the Bush administration is not exactly turning to the Syrian regime out of friendship or out of a real change in policy; rather, it is responding to strategic needs and can change tactics at any juncture. The current regime failed to understand this before and has often proved to be a poor analyst of trends.
Second, Syrian rhetoric can only go so far in convincing a growing population not only of nationalist credentials, but also that national interests lie above personal ones. This is not to mention the rather embarrassing fact that all has been quiet on Syria's southern front when it technically could have been used to help Hizballah in resisting Israel.
Third, important Arab leaders who felt slighted by Bashar Assad's post-war speech may not be in a forgiving mode and might hold a grudge for some time. It was one thing to accuse the Lebanese prime minister of being his master's slave, but it is quite another to accuse Arab leaders of being "half-men". Judging by the way various Syrian officials rushed to damage control subsequently, it is clear that the regime at least knows what the stakes are, which makes its attitude and actions even more incomprehensible.
This should convince the Syrian regime to resist the temptation to gloat disproportionately and begin to consider that today's advantages might not last, as it has often wasted opportunities to capitalize on events and positions. But so far, the sky is rosy in Damascus.- Published 14/9/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org