ANALYSIS / Assad working post-Georgia world to his advantage
As America's standing erodes, Syrian President sells country to highest bidder after long int'l isolation.
Georgia's war was brief and took place in a remote region, but is already considered a historic turning point in superpower relations. Russia said nyet to the West and stood its ground. The conclusion is clear: The old world, where America ruled by dint of its military and economic might, and preached to others in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy, is yielding to a bipolar system. In the new world, starring leaders like Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is no meaning to noble ideals, only to power.
The change in the balance of power was evident in the Middle East even before the war in Georgia. The concept of "moderates versus extremists" that guided the Bush administration for the past seven years, with Israel's enthusiastic backing, has been replaced by a system of understandings and temporary truce agreements. The threat of a strike on Iran has been lifted, for the time being at least, Hezbollah has seized control of Lebanon, and Hamas has won partial recognition of its rule over Gaza. Maintaining quiet is more important now than educating rivals.
The leader who understood the significance of the change better than others, and is working to leverage it to his advantage, is Syrian President Bashar Assad. In these days of uncertainty and searching for allies, Assad is putting Syria up for sale. After a prolonged isolation, which reached its climax in a series of humiliations - his army's expulsion from Lebanon, accusations he murdered Rafik Hariri, the bombing of the nuclear reactor, Imad Mughniyeh's assassination, and the failure of the Arab summit in Damascus - Assad launched a diplomatic offensive. The previously ostracized president is now highly sought after. Even his wife Asma this week received the Arab League's award for "Outstanding Arab Woman of 2008."
Assad was quick to take Russia's part in its war with Georgia, lent it public support, and agreed to heighten Russia's naval presence at its port in the city of Tartus. In return, he asked the Russians for advanced weapons systems, which even if they are not supplied soon, raise the level of concern in Israel and improve Syrian deterrence. Putin, who wants to revive Russia's influence in the region, has an excellent grasp of this game.
French diplomacy, like its Russian counterpart, relies on a long tradition of power games. The French invented the doctrine of raison d'etat, and Nicolas Sarkozy is turning out to be a gifted student of it. Early in his term he rushed to embrace America and Israel, assuring himself a free hand in the Middle East. Sarkozy, who is to visit Damascus next week, cut a complex deal with Assad. Syria promised to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon, for the first time since these countries' independence, undertook to buy 14 Airbus planes and lease another four, and offered Sarkozy a key seat at peace talks with Israel. In return, Assad won recognition of his indirect takeover of Beirut through appointing President Michel Suleiman and the Doha Agreement, as well as a royal welcome in Paris.
Assad resumed peace talks with Israel, at a low profile, signaling that the border will remain quiet if Israel leaves Lebanon to him and respects his new standing in the region. Ehud Olmert assented, without paying a price politically. As for the Americans, Syria offered to upgrade talks with Israel to direct negotiations if the United States agrees to mediate and provide backing, and opens Washington's door to the Syrians. Turkey, a neighbor and old rival, got the respected role of mediator in the talks. Syria even signed a friendship agreement this week with Cyprus, Turkey's foe, and exchanged declarations against the occupation and the settlements - by the Turks in northern Cyprus and Israel on the Golan Heights.
Assad is waging the most delicate and sensitive game with Iran: He wants to preserve the strategic partnership with Tehran, while he offers the West and Israel a weakening of those ties if they present him with an alternative. Assad did not join in the hate-filled diatribes of his ally Ahmadinejad, and agreed to take in stride the Iranian criticism of his talks with Israel.
Israel is currently preoccupied with domestic political crises and criminal cases; the upheavals in the region and in superpower relations are of zero interest. But these are reshaping Israel's strategic horizon, and Olmert's heirs will have to adapt their policy to fit a new and different world. They will have something to learn from Bashar Assad.