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U.S. Follows a Self-Canceling Mideast Policy

October 04, 1987|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen has covered the Middle East for many years.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The United States is following a dual policy in this part of the world. That would be nothing unusual, except for the fact that the two approaches tend to negate each other. In one case, Washington is trying to weaken and humiliate Iran militarily in the gulf and diplomatically at the United Nations; in the other, the United States is showing signal favor to Syria, Iran's only ally, and thereby strengthening Iran's position in the area.

At a meeting in Tunis on Sept. 20, the Arab League foreign ministers considered a break between all 22 Arab countries and Iran. Syria opposed the move, and the decision was deferred to an Arab summit on Nov. 8. If the resolution had passed, Iran's prestige would have been much diminished and the Soviet Union would have been warned against Iranian flirtations, making it easier for the Security Council to decide on an arms embargo.

There is no doubt that Syria's determination was stiffened by indications of U.S. friendship in the weeks preceding the Tunis meeting. The U.S. ambassador returned to Damascus bearing a letter of personal greetings from President Reagan to President Hafez Assad, and then the ban on oil and gas prospecting by U.S. companies in Syria was lifted. Earlier, Washington had fallen over itself when presenting fulsome thanks to Damascus for helping with the "release," as the Syrians put it, of U.S. journalist Charles Glass, even though the Syrians had nothing to do with his escape.

It is typical of the strange and shaming relationship between the United States and Syria that real motivation cannot be mentioned--and would even be denied--by both sides. For years there has been a strong, unspoken triangular alliance between the United States, Israel and Syria. Israel's continued existence is a prime factor in U.S. Middle Eastern policy and, despite Syria's rhetoric, Syria has never really threatened Israel.

Furthermore, Syria has been cooperating with Israel in Lebanon since 1976 to keep militant elements, like the Palestinians, in check; this cooperation continues against the Shias of Hezbollah (the "Party of God," which follows the Khomeini line) in southern Lebanon. Thus there are basic interests shared by the three countries. In addition, the United States has indicated that its friendliness is meant to encourage Syria to abandon pro-terrorist policies and to help with the release of hostages in Lebanon. This optimism is not well-based--Syria's current anti-terrorist stance is only a tactic, and it is Iran, not Syria, that makes the effective decisions on the hostages.

There is also a suggestion that the United States, by showing Syria how it can have other friends, may be trying to woo her away from Iran and the Soviet Union. This is a forlorn hope because Syria is too deeply indebted to the Soviets. Syria is also firmly linked to Iran by the age-old dictum of Realpolitik (which antedates even Machiavelli), that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This consideration--Syria's direct, bilateral hatred and fear of Iraq--is what keeps Syria close to Iran, not any real approval of Iranian policy or Iranian economic assistance.

Syria helps Iran so as to keep the Gulf War going, to weaken and distract Iraq. If ever peace came, Iraq would undoubtedly punish Syria for its hostility, perhaps militarily. In peace, Iraq would ineluctably resume its position as the leading power in the eastern Arab world, with a diminished Syria very much in its shadow. Then Syria, currently the only Arab country closely linked to Iran, would no longer play the role of mediator between Iran and the gulf states. Though there is no proof that Syria has, in fact, moderated Iranian territorial ambitions in the gulf, this claim produces profit because it is one reason why Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reluctantly and skeptically, go on paying Syria subventions without which the country would be bankrupt.

These advantages are so solid that Syria continues to cling to Iran despite differences in Lebanon, where they are increasingly at odds. The differences are strategic and tactical. It was Syria that in 1982 permitted the Iranians to establish themselves in the Bekaa Valley, a move Syria now privately regrets. The ultimate Iranian objective in Lebanon is to establish an Islamic--that is to say Shia--republic in all or part of that country.

This is anathema to the secular socialists of the ruling Baath Party in Syria, where a large Sunni Muslim majority is unfriendly to the Shias. Tactically, Iran is encouraging the militants of the extremist Hezbollah to carry the war from southern Lebanon into Israel, which Syria for various reasons does not want at all. Violent clashes have begun, sporadically, between Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Shia group, Amal. Since Hezbollah is slowly winning the struggle, there will be increasing strain between Damascus and Tehran.

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