Syria mends US, Arab ties as ally Iran in turmoil


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May 6, 2009
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July 3, 2009, 3:56PM

BEIRUT — Syria's leader sent a July 4 message full of praise to President Barack Obama on Friday and invited him to visit Syria — the latest signs Damascus is hedging its bets in Mideast politics, warming up to its rival the United States at a time when its longtime ally Iran is in turmoil.

The United States and its Arab allies have been hoping to pull Syria out of the fold of Iran and Islamic militant groups in the region.

Damascus so far appears unlikely to take such a dramatic step, but it does appear worried about Iran's reliability and the long-term impact of that country's postelection unrest. Also, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah suffered a setback when its coalition failed to win June parliament elections, beaten out by a pro-U.S. bloc.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been expressing hopes for better ties with Washington for months. But the latest developments may make dialogue look even more attractive.

Assad sent a telegram to Obama on the occasion of the July 4 Independence Day holiday, saying, "The values that were adopted by President Obama during his election campaign and after he was elected president are values that the world needs today."

"It is very important to adopt the principle of dialogue in relations with countries based on respect and mutual interest," Assad said in the telegram, which was carried by state-run news agency SANA.

In an interview with Britain's Sky News, Assad invited Obama to visit Damascus to discuss Mideast peace.

"We would like to welcome him in Syria, definitely. I am very clear about this," Assad said in English. Asked whether such a visit could take place soon, Assad said: "That depends on him."

He added with a smile, "I will ask you to convey the invitation to him." The last time a U.S. president visited Syria was a 1994 trip by Bill Clinton.

For the U.S., even pulling Syria only partly away from Iran and its militant allies would represent a major shift and could help ease Mideast crises. The U.S.-Syrian rivalry has fueled instability in Lebanon, and the U.S. and Israel say Syria's backing of the Palestinian Hamas undermines the Arab-Israeli peace process. Syrian cooperation could make Obama's fresh push for a peace deal take off.

The Obama administration has stepped up its wooing of Syria. The U.S. is sending back its ambassador to Damascus after a four-year break over terrorism accusations. Obama's special Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, became the highest-level U.S. administration official to visit Damascus since 2005, and he acknowledged Syria's clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in forging Mideast peace.

In a separate interview with Sky News, Assad's wife, Asma, said she believed the Syrian and American leaders could work together.

"The fact that President Obama is young — well President Assad is also very young as well — so maybe it is time for these young new leaders to make a difference in the world," she said.

In one sign of Syrian cooperation on regional issues, Damascus is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in ensuring Lebanon's elections remained peaceful.

Damascus likely won't move away from its Iran alliance easily. Iran's regional clout has been key to boosting Syria's status in the Middle East, and Tehran gives considerable financial and military backing. Assad was the first Arab leader to congratulate Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for winning the disputed presidential election.

But Iran is now mired in the fallout from that election, following the widespread protests that erupted amid claims Ahmadinejad's victory in the June election was fraudulent. A heavy crackdown has largely quelled the protests, but the show of anger has raised questions over Ahmadinejad's long-term legitimacy.

"All the world around Syria on which it built its policy is falling apart," said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese As-Safir daily, which tilts toward Syria's Lebanese allies.

"Hezbollah lost the election in Lebanon, Hamas is being subjected to unprecedented attrition and Iran is drowned in its internal crises," he told The Associated Press. "All the elements of strength they (Syrians) built on their foreign policy are collapsing, so for certain they are going to reassess and look for alternatives, without abandoning their past."

Writing in the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, Saudi analyst Dawood al-Shirian urged Syria to "take this opportunity and rid itself of having to pay a price for the Iranians' reputation."

U.S. ally Saudi Arabia — one of the bitterest rivals of Syria in the region since 2005 — has been working in recent months to thaw ties with Damascus in hopes of drawing it away from Iran.

The oil powerhouse sent a senior envoy to Damascus on June 28. Assad and Saudi King Abdullah have twice met in recent months in Riyadh and Kuwait, and there has been persistent media speculation that Abdullah will visit Damascus in July — perhaps as early as next week — to crown the renewed relationship.

Assad and Jordan's king have also recently exchanged visits for the first time in several years.

Syria has several long-term aims in any reconciliation with the U.S. Assad has said he wants the U.S. to mediate Syrian-Israeli negotiations, in which Damascus seeks the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Syria also wants U.S. economic sanctions lifted and foreign investment, particularly Gulf Arab money for its economy. It is also wary of an international tribunal set up to try the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut at a time when Syria controlled the country.

Syria mends US, Arab ties as ally Iran in turmoil | World news | - Houston Chronicle

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