Syria recalibrating policy on Iraq?

Damascus Nov. 13. Anticipating that a U.S. led military campaign in Iraq will affect it adversely, Syria, which is known to be a hardline Arab State, has signalled that it is ready to engage Washington constructively.

The first clear indication that Syria does not want to be on Washington's wrong side came when as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it agreed to side the with a tough new U.S. sponsored resolution on Iraq. Syria was earlier expected to abstain during the vote. Several factors appeared to have influenced Syria's decision, which is being interpreted as possible expression of a major shift in its foreign policy. Analysts point out that Syria fears that without a deviation in course on Iraq, there are good chances that it could along with Iran be Washington's next target after " regime change" in Baghdad is accomplished.

Already the U.S. had designated Syria, along with Iran and North Korea as part of a global " axis of evil." Syria may have also factored the disposition of Israel, with whom it has had adversarial relations, and whose influence over the Bush administration is substantial in making its decision. Not surprisingly, Syria responded positively when the U.S. — instead of blatant threats — assured it that it could benefit greatly by siding with the resolution.

According to the official Syrian news agency Sana, the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, prior to the U.N. vote sent a letter to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Shara'a, urging a unanimous vote on the grounds that it "would serve to avoid a future military confrontation''. Two other factors may have also influenced the Syrian decision. First, France with whom Syria appears to be developing special relations, especially after the recent visit by the French President, Jacques Chirac, who has also been pressing Damascus to support the new resolution.

Second, Syria wants that the war against Iraq is avoided and is hoping that the new resolution can help achieve that. Syria so far has had no difficulty in its dealings with the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein. In fact, it has benefited from the Iraqi oil for food programme and its trade with Baghdad is substantial.

Observers point out that there are indications that the Syrian endorsement of the Security Council resolution may be part of a wider shift in its external policies. For instance, Syria, while opposed to the creation of an independent Kurdish State, has nevertheless begun to recently engage northern Iraq's pro-U.S. Kurdish leaders. The Kurds, ensconced in their mountain strongholds are expected to play a major role in opening a northern front against Iraq. Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani was recently in Damascus and held talks with a senior Syrian Baath party leader and there have been reports that some of the key countries bordering northern Iraq may have a presence during an Iraqi opposition meeting in Brussels on November 22.

In another significant development, Israel's daily Haaretz reported on Monday that Syria had over the weekend sent a message to Israel, through an unnamed European diplomat, saying it has no intention of attacking Israel and that it wanted to be involved in the peace process. A thaw in Syria's relations with Israel, diplomatic sources say, will be the key to the overall improvement of its relations with the industrialised world, especially the U.S. But Syria's alleged links with the militant anti-Israel Hezbollah and some of the extremist Palestinian groups are still major hurdles in achieving a rapprochement with Tel Aviv.

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