Does the road to peace lie through Syria?

Analysis: does the road to peace lie through Syria
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Syrian presidential palace in Damascus on Jan. 6, 2009. (Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press)

The intensity of the conflict in Gaza, now in its third week, has at least some world leaders scrambling for an agreement to stop the fighting.  

Chief among them has been French President Nicolas Sarkozy who has been working with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, on a formal ceasefire and is also tapping a much-shunned leader to get involved in the mediation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  

Since coming to power in 2000, following the death of his strongman father, al-Assad has played an ambiguous role in Middle East affairs.

Deen Karim is part of the team that produces the CBC world affairs show Our World and is a graduate of Queen's and Columbia University in New York.

For many, Syria is widely seen as a spoiler in the region, embracing Iran, destabilizing neighbouring Lebanon and cozying up to militant factions Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (in the Gaza Strip).  

So what might be behind the French president's thinking that Syria could possibly play a positive role in this current conflict? And is it realistic to think that Syria could influence the goals and ideals that motivate Hamas, which are often described as fanatical.

Jens Hanssen, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Toronto, says Syria is an important part of the puzzle and Sarkozy is pursuing a smart strategy to get al-Assad involved.

"Syria is the place to try out something new," says Hanssen.

Levers of influence

One of the most obvious levers of influence Syria could use is the fact that the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, as well as other top leaders of the group, are based in Damascus, a kind of safe haven.

As a result, al-Assad has the ability put pressure on Hamas's senior leadership to help achieve a ceasefire.

However, despite the long-standing ties between Syria and Hamas, getting al-Assad to rein in Hamas isn't automatic.

As Mohamad Bazzi, former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday and a professor of journalism at New York University, puts it, both Syria and Hamas use each other to further their own needs.

Syria, with its weak military and sputtering economy, finds it useful to have a militant ally to harass Israel, particularly over the disputed Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that separates the two countries and that has come under Israeli control since the Six Day War in 1967.

For its part, Hamas benefits from the patronage of Syria to protect its leadership and political network.

Bazzi also points to another reason why Syrian influence on Hamas might only go so far — Iran.

Iran has built closer relations with Hamas in the last two years in particular, Bazzi says. And, unlike Syria, whose support of Hamas tends to be moral and diplomatic, Iran has become Hamas's supplier of money and firepower, according to Western sources.

This means that Syrian demands on Hamas may only go so far because Iran can act as a counterweight, providing the militant group with what it needs.

Conflict and distrust

In fact, Syria's own relationship with Iran is also one of the main reasons why efforts to bring al-Assad into the diplomatic spotlight may sputter.

In recent years, while George W. Bush was in the White House, there has been only limited engagement with Syria, which some Middle East experts see as a mistake.

They point out that Damascus's alliance with Tehran isn't ideological but strategic. Iran is a mostly non-Arab Islamic state, while Syria is secular and nominally socialist. So can Damascus be peeled from Tehran's embrace?

Joshua Landis, co-director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, writes an influential blog on Syrian affairs and says Syria has formed a "community of interest" aimed at resisting Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.

The players in this so-called community include Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. Landis calls it "the essential dynamic" in understanding Syria's approach to the challenges it faces in the region.

As a result, experts such as the U of T's Hanssen believe that the road to stability in the Middle East goes directly through Damascus.

"Syria is holding a number of keys in its hand," says Hanssen. In his view, Syria can help achieve a comprehensive peace agreement in the region precisely because it's at the nexus of such a complicated web of conflict and distrust.

What can Syria do?

Assuming Sarkozy is successful in drawing the reclusive al-Assad into the negotiations, there are probably several things an engaged Syria could do to alleviate the current round of fighting.

One would be to help restrict the flow of arms to Hezbollah, which would give the Lebanese militant group on Israel's northern border greater incentive to work politically to win its objectives. Simultaneously, this would reduce Iran's expanding influence in that arena as well.

Iran's sway could also be dramatically diminished if Syria and Israel reached an agreement on the Golan Heights because Syria would then have little need for a bargaining chip in that dispute or a counterweight to Israeli power.   As for Hamas itself. Without Damascus' patronage, the group would be under more pressure to pursue other strategies.

For any of this to take place, however, Hanssen says more has to be done to bring Syria out of the cold, much of which can be accomplished by the West simply recognizing that Syria has legitimate interests as well as strategic concerns, such as the Golan Heights.

In some ways, even Israel recognizes the potential to change the regional dynamic through a Syrian channel. For almost two years now, Syria and Israel have been involved in a dialogue mediated by Turkey. However, those discussions have been put on hold because of the fighting in Gaza, another sign of how interlinked the challenges in this volatile region are.

This brings us back to Sarkozy, who is among the few high-profile Western leaders willing to hold direct discussions with al-Assad.

It's unrealistic to think that Syria can or will change overnight. (In fact, similar international entreaties to al-Assad during the bitter Israeli conflict with Lebanon in the summer of 2006 fell on deaf ears.)

But, in Hanssen's view, "Syria is the soft track for a comprehensive and lasting peace" in the region. So perhaps the French president isn't so far off the mark after all.

Meanwhile, in Washington, incoming president Barack Obama has signaled his willingness to seek more dialogue with Iran. Syria may also be a good option to add to the list as well.