DAMASCUS -- As the United States attempts to push-start peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, a comprehensive peace agreement may depend on one of Israel's long-time enemies.
Neighboring Syria is a vital player in President Barack Obama's plan to to isolate the nation of Iran and bring peace to the Middle East.
Syria - Friend or Foe?
In January of 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, President Hafez al Assad announced Syrian troops would join U.S. and coalition forces in an attempt to force Iraqi troops from Kuwait. But 18 years later, the question remains whether the Assad regime is a friend or foe of its neighbors and the United States.
Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki suggested Syria is a foe that can't be trusted. Earlier this month he lashed out at the regime for sheltering armed terrorists who launch deadly attacks on the Iraqi people. The Syrian government described the Iraqi president's accusation as immoral.
"This is big, this is really important to listen to," Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told CBN News. "That is really telling about the Syrian regime's behavior."
Phares says Syrian intelligence agents have facilitated terrorist strikes in Iraq for more than six years.
"The Assad regime began its warfare against the United States and the Iraqi people in April 2003. As soon as we were in, as soon as Saddam was down, Assad's terrorists were in," Phares said.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell made no public mention of Syrian behavior when he visited Damascus last July. Instead he announced the Obama Administration's desire to improve relations with Syria without preconditions.
"In terms of the Syrian American relationship the United States is committed to a dialogue based on mutual interests and mutual respect and a solid foundation for a discussion of our shared goals and of our real differences where they occur," said Mitchell.
There were no demands going into negotiations, no preconditions.
A Dangerous Strategy
Elliott Abrams, former Deputy National Security advisor for President George W. Bush, says the Obama administration's approach to Syria is dangerous because the totalitarian regime hasn't changed its behavior.
"It's dangerous because it makes us look like a bunch of saps if we continue down this road, that line if we don't get anything in return," Abrams explained. "Where's the quid pro-quo? Are they throwing Hamas out of Damascus? Will they finally stop sending jihadists through the Damascus International Airport to kill people in Iraq?"
And Abrams says it's dangerous because the U.S. will be viewed as abandoning human rights and democracy advocates in Syria. Some have been jailed for their causes.
Mitchell and Obama believe a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved without Syria.
The U.S. goals are to:
- Isolate Iran by drawing Syria away from Tehran and moving the Assad government into a closer alliance with the West.
- Use Syria to pressure the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas into moderating and joining the peace process with Israel.
- A negotiated settlement of the Golan Heights dispute leading to a peace treaty between Syria and Israel.
Can the United States successfully lure Syria from its friendship with Iran? Abrams says only if Iran is viewed as a regime that is in decline in the Middle East.
"Iran today doesn't look as good as it did six months ago from the Syrian point of view - I mean there is all this internal trouble now since the Iranian election," Abrams said.
"But ultimately I think that you can't take Syria away from a victorious Iran. You can only take Syria away from an Iran that we've beaten," he said.
Phares suggests Iran, not Syria has the greatest influence over Hezbollah and Hamas and Syria will not be drawn away from Hezbollah as long as it remains allied with Iran.
"You cannot distance Syria from Hezbollah without distancing Syria from Iran and the other way is also true. You cannot hope that Assad is going to distance himself from Iran without making sure he isolates Hezbollah and both are impossible today," he said.
Role of the Golan Heights
And what about the Golan Heights? Israel captured it from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
"As long as you have this really close relationship, alliance between Iran and Syria, they would have to be crazy in Israel to give the Golan Heights back to Syria. So, I don't see where that negotiation goes," Abrams concluded.
The United States has moved forward to improve ties with the Assad government regardless of the outcome of possible future talks between Syria and Israel.
Ambassadors are being exchanged and some sanctions against the regime have been lifted.
While the Obama Administration moves forward slowly in establishing improved relations with the Syrian government, in Syria most of the people CBN News talked to said they welcome the improved relationship.
One Syrian woman said, "I'd like to have good relations between the States and Syria."
Two teenage boys shouted enthusiastically, "We love America!"
A male senior citizen was asked if he preferred a relationship with Iran over America.
"Iran no," he insisted.
"You don't like Iran?" CBN News asked. He shook his finger and said "Ah, no!"
"They are not happy at all with the regime of Iran," Phares explained. "They are secular people, they are moderate people. Most of them are just conservative people who want to maintain their tradition."
"They don't want the ayatollahs and they don't ant the Baathist regime and it's about time for the American public to understand that," he added.
It may become more apparent to Washington in the days ahead that the road to peace may actually depend more on decisions made not in Damascus, but in Tehran.
*Originally published September 16, 2009