Syrian leaders in upbeat mood despite IAEA visit

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian leaders host U.N. nuclear sleuths next week, but the intrusion may not spoil a sense of confidence generated by indirect peace talks with Israel, gains for their allies in Lebanon and a rapprochement with France.

This undated image released by the U.S. Government shows a building under construction in Syria. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will investigate U.S. charges that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor with North Korean technology at a site bombed by Israel nine months ago. Damascus denies any such covert work. REUTERS/U.S. Government/Handout

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will investigate U.S. charges that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor with North Korean technology at a site bombed by Israel nine months ago. Damascus denies any such covert work.

The Syrians clearly do not relish the visit by the U.N. team due in Damascus on Sunday, but for now their mood is buoyant.

“The Syrians feel very confident because things on all fronts are progressing towards a kind of reconciliation or cooling down,” pro-government analyst Samir al-Taqi, director of the Orient Centre for Studies, said by telephone from Damascus.

Apart from Syria’s Turkish-mediated talks with Israel, he cited attempts to mend the rift between the Palestinian Fatah group and its Syrian-backed Islamist rival Hamas, the Gaza truce between Israel and Hamas, and a calming of conflict in Lebanon.

Syria, whose troops left Lebanon in 2005, was delighted by last month’s Qatari-brokered deal among rival Lebanese leaders which translated a military victory won by Hezbollah and other Syrian allies against U.S.-backed factions into political gains.

“The Syrians were thrilled to see them wiping away the facade of U.S. power,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University. “It was clearly very sobering for the Americans, who are trying to figure out where to go from here.”

The Doha deal, which gave the Hezbollah-led opposition veto power in Lebanon’s next government, broke an 18-month political deadlock and allowed the election of President Michel Suleiman. This in turn prompted France to reward Syria diplomatically.

France froze high-level contacts with Syria last year after accusing it of sabotaging French mediation efforts in Lebanon.


Crediting Syria with a positive role in the Doha agreement, President Nicolas Sarkozy has invited his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad to Paris for a July 13 Euro-Mediterranean summit which Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert is also due to attend.

Assad has damped speculation he might encounter Olmert on the sidelines, saying “this is not like drinking tea” and that a meeting would be meaningless without progress in negotiations.

Syria, demanding that Israel return all of the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, insists peace talks can only succeed with the full involvement of the United States -- unlikely to materialize under President George W. Bush, who views Damascus as an “evil” ally of Iran and of groups hostile to U.S.-Israeli interests.

So are things really going Syria’s way, especially with the prospect of a new president in the White House next year?

Those who believe Syria is serious about peace with Israel and ready for the major foreign and domestic policy realignments this would entail are keeping their fingers crossed.

“The attitude is not wait-and-see,” said Taqi. “We have to produce the necessary momentum so that when the new U.S. administration comes it will find something to work on, and not treat the Middle East as the Bush administration treated it.”

Washington, grappling with the Iraq war and other setbacks to Bush’s “freedom agenda”, has seen nations like Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and others step in as mediators in Middle East conflicts to fill what al-Taqi called “a vacuum in American vision”.

After surviving U.S.-led attempts to isolate and punish it with sanctions during Bush’s presidency, Syria may feel it has proved it is still a regional power that must be accommodated.

But it is not at all sure that the next U.S. president will accept this or make any major policy changes in the Middle East.

Nor is it clear Israel is ready to trade the Golan for peace and without certainty on this Syria will not loosen its ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, let alone its durable alliance with Iran.


Those who believe Syria is more interested in reasserting its grip on Lebanon than regaining the Golan view the indirect talks with Israel as a way to escape isolation and gain time.

“The Syrian and Iranian strategy is clear: survive to the end of the year. Then they will have a year while the next U.S. administration gets its act together, to consolidate whatever gains they have had and maybe add new ones,” said Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese analyst at the Chatham House thinktank in London.

The benefits of a deal with Israel that would regain lost land, restore Syrian prestige and open prospects of Western aid and investment for Syria’s struggling economy might seem clear.

But some analysts question whether Syria’s Baathist rulers, dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, could survive without the legitimacy they claim from opposing Israel.

“If the regime converted itself to a peaceful one, less military in nature, on what grounds would it continue?” asked Hazem Saghiyeh, a columnist for the Arab daily al-Hayat. “What guarantees that majority Sunnis wouldn’t try to overthrow it?”

Other imponderables loom for Assad -- and for anyone trying to pierce the secrets of what drives his policy.

One mystery is whether a U.N. tribunal set up to try the assassins of Lebanese ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri will reveal the truth. Washington suspects Syria of orchestrating the 2005 killing and later assassinations in Lebanon. Damascus denies it.

The IAEA quest for clarity on Syria’s alleged nuclear work could also have wide repercussions, but may get nowhere.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has urged Damascus to cooperate with the inspectors, while flaying the United States for failing to alert the agency to its suspicions before the Israeli strike.

“It is doubtful we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything there in the first place,” he has said.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

For a preview of the IAEA mission, click on nL17129416