ANALYSIS / Is Syria Usurping Egypt's Role in the Palestinian Conflict?

In contrast to Egypt, Syria believes that it wields leverage vis-a-vis Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"When we come to Syria we are coming to our second country," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Syrian President Bashar Assad flatteringly when the two met in Damascus on Sunday. This "homecoming" was initiated by Assad, who recently stepped up his involvement in the Palestinian arena - at Egypt's expense.

During his two-day visit, Abbas is expected to meet with several leaders of Palestinian factions, with the exception of Hamas politburo chief, Khaled Meshal. The meetings appear to be part of a broader Syrian effort to bring rival Hamas and Fatah closer to national reconciliation. Last Thursday, Assad met with Meshal and after Abbas' visit to the Syrian capital, another Fatah delegation is due to engage in a dialogue with Hamas.

Assad is competing in an arena which Egypt monopolized, until recently. However, the Egyptians have so far been reluctant in their involvement: They have avoided inviting rival Palestinian factions to Cairo to a joint meeting, in spite of supporting the reconciliation efforts. Apparently Egypt is concerned that such a meeting, without proper preparation, may end in failure, and that the damage may be very difficult to repair. Syria, by comparison, believes that it wields leverage vis-a-vis Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that its political "dialogue" with Israel excludes it from the group of those being boycotted - therefore allowing Abbas to visit Damascus without provoking Washington's ire.

Assad, who is scheduled to participate early next week in the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Paris, would like to arrive with two successes under his belt. The first is the forming of a new Lebanese government; the second is the beginning of a Palestinian national reconciliation. With two such achievements, in addition to the start of talks with Israel, Syria is hoping to pave its way out of the American "axis of evil," while emphasizing to the Arab states that it is a central player, still capable of fulfilling a role that countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have so far found difficult to play.

Palestinian reconciliation has become a central element in the media dialogue between Hamas and Fatah. In early June Abbas announced his initiative to bring about such a process, which could then lead to Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections. The basic precondition of the Palestinian leader is that the situation in the Gaza Strip be restored to that existing prior to the Hamas takeover in June 2007.

Hamas, which is not opposed to this principle, is asking that any deal be applicable to a broader framework: It wants a reconciliation agreement to include the "recognition of democratic processes" - which means that Abbas will recognize the outcome of the January 2006 elections in which Hamas won an overwhelming majority. In addition, an accord would include creation of an interim, national unity government that will prepare the ground for free elections in the Palestine Liberation Organization, where all factions will participate - including Hamas, for the first time - under the assumption that Hamas will win a majority and carry out both a structural and an ideological revolution in its organization. The agreement is also supposed to call for unifying the Palestinian security organizations, dividing up control over them on the basis of the relative size of the political groups involved, and ending the media war that Fatah is conducting against Hamas.

If the sort of reconciliation that Syria is putting forth does emerge, and an interim unity government is established, Israel may be faced with an old dilemma: Should it recognize such government and establish a working relationship with it - or adopt, anew, the policy of boycotting such a government, and thus bring the talks with Mahmoud Abbas to a standstill?