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Can Syria break its Iranian bear hug?

As I find that a huge amount of bullshit has been said in the world, including on IN, on Middle East, I post an analysis to start a discussion (please avoid personal remarks, specially the offending ones like : "go back to school, read books" ; avoid offensive comments like "the monkeys at the UN". In other words, be civilised. And keep in mind what the French philosopher Pascal said :"ce qui se concoit bien s'enonce clairement", "what is well thought is well said").

And I'll try to be a moderator on this new thread.

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"The strategic partnership between Syria and Iran may be less solid than what Israeli intelligence has suggested. Proof? For the second time in a year Tehran appears clearly surprised by the actions of its partner in Damascus.

In September Protected content , following the air force strike that foreign media said had targeted a nuclear reactor in northern Syria, it turned out the Iranians had not been part of the secret project; President Bashar Assad was working with North Korea.

Now, Iran's official response to the news of indirect talks between Syria and Israel suggests that Tehran was not in the loop.

Extricating Syria from the Iranian bear hug, which includes petro-dollars funding Damascus' procurement of weapons from Russia and growing Iranian influence on Damascus, is a central consideration behind Israel's decision to renew negotiations. Damascus is perceived to be a key partner of Tehran and weakening its ties with Iran may have far-reaching effects on militant groups heeding instructions from Iran, such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad - and to a lesser extent, also Hamas.

This is particularly relevant if the U.S. reconsiders attacking Iran's nuclear installations as U.S. President George W. Bush approaches the end of his term. If this option is given further consideration in Washington - where officially the U.S. insists that it prefers the diplomatic approach - redrawing the political alignments has great significance.

The London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported Friday on tensions in the relations between Iran and Syria because of the talks with Israel. Damascus rushed to calm the waters, with an editorial in the official daily Tishrin stating "there should be no preconditions in the negotiations," and "Syria's international ties are not negotiable." These statements came in direct response to the demand by Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni that Syria cut its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Also yesterday, a military delegation headed by Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani arrived in Tehran to discuss defense agreements between the two states.

It is not readily obvious that Syria will rush to break ties with Iran, certainly not in the first stage of talks with Israel. Iran is an asset that will not be surrendered at no cost; Iran plays an essential role for Syria in terms of its involvement in Lebanon. The new rules of the game in Lebanon, established in recent weeks, have granted Hezbollah de facto control over the country. Retaining Syrian influence in Lebanon is more important to Assad than regaining the Golan Heights. That is very hard to do without Iran and Hezbollah.

Assad possibly will face a dilemma at a later stage, but even then it is reasonable to believe Syria will demand that Israel (and in particular the U.S) show consideration for its interests in Lebanon.

In any case, Syria is in no rush to decide now and its leadership is broadcasting contradictory messages. A former information minister, Mahdi Dakhlallah, explained that if there is peace, there would be no need for "resistance" (attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad against Israel). But his successor, Muhsen Bilal, said "Syria does not hide its good relations with the resistance groups," and that Israel should not ask it to break ties as a precondition to talks.

This suggests there is an internal debate in the leadership of the Assad regime. A commentator at Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abd al-Bar Atwan, wrote yesterday that Damascus is split into two camps - the moderates, headed by Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, want to move closer to the U.S., and the hawks, headed by Vice President Farouk Shara, who attribute supreme importance to ties with Iran. According to Atwan, the moderates currently have the upper hand, but it is still unclear whether this is a strategic decision or part of a tactical maneuver.

The people who apparently need to worry more than Iran are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are welcome in Damascus. Israel and the U.S. have repeatedly asked Damascus to expel extremist Palestinian factions from Syria. The value of the two groups to Syria is not great. At a more advanced stage in the talks between Israel and Syria, Khaled Meshal of Hamas and Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad may find they to look for new housing."

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