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Reshuffling the cards? (I): Syria's evolving strategy

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Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 14 December 2009: Syria's foreign policy has long been a contradictory mix of militancy and pragmatism, but new dynamics create opportunities for the U.S. if it does more to deepen its engagement.

Reshuffling the Cards? (I): Syria's Evolving Strategy*, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines changes in Damascus's outlook and concludes that further shifts will hinge on the regime's assessment of the costs - in terms of domestic stability and regional standing - of its choices. That, in turn, largely will depend on what other parties do.

"At the heart of the problem is a profound mismatch of expectations", explains Peter Harling, Crisis Group's Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Project Director. "The West wants Syria to fundamentally alter its policies - loosen or cut ties to its allies and sign peace with Israel - as a means of stabilising the region. Syria, before contemplating any fundamental shift, wants to know where the region is headed and whether its own interests will be secured".

Despite a turbulent and often hostile neighbourhood, the Syrian regime has proved remarkably resilient. Still, on virtually all fronts, it can see hazard. The economy is wobbly; to prosper, it will require significant reforms and massive investment. Regime policies have done little to stem Islamist sympathies that chip away at its secular foundation. The potential for domestic spillover of regional tensions - the spread of sectarianism, stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process and threat of confrontation over Iran's nuclear program - is real. As a result, while Damascus is keen to maintain close ties with Tehran, it has sought to rebalance them through new alliances that broaden its strategic portfolio.

This is an opportunity to be seized, but to do so the U.S. and Syria need to devise a diplomatic process through which both test their intentions, promote their interests and start shaping the Middle East in ways that can reassure Damascus about the future. This should start around realistic goals that could include containing Iran in arenas such as Iraq or Yemen; cooperating to encourage national reconciliation in Iraq; and encouraging the Lebanese government to insulate itself from the regional tug-of-war by refocusing on governance. Washington and Damascus could also work together by combining Syrian efforts to restrain Hamas with a more welcoming U.S. approach to intra-Palestinian reconciliation.

"The U.S. is looking for evidence that, at the end of the day, Syria is prepared to cooperate on regional issues", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East Program Director. "But so too is Syria - in its case, for proof that the risks it takes will be offset by the gains it makes. The region's volatility drives it to caution and to hedge its bets pending greater clarity on where the region is heading and, in particular, what Washington is prepared to do".

Crisis Group will analyse changes in Syria's regional approach and prospects for improved relations with Washington in further detail in a companion report to be published shortly.

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*to read the full Crisis Group report click here.

Contacts:

Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1602

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The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.