Is Assad overplaying his hand?

The BBC reports:

The head of the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has made a rare public appearance in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Sheikh Nasrallah attended a dinner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is part of a visit to Damascus from Iranian President Ahmedinejad. Predictably, as a result of this meeting – and spectacular photo-op (see above) – Israel is calling on the US to delay sending its new envoy to Damascus. How the US respond to this is interesting. It is highly likely that Obama and co will ignore Tel Aviv’s calls and continue engaging Syria as they plan. However, perhaps Assad should be cautious not to overplay his hand on this.

Whilst Syria clearly has no intention of severing its ties with either Iran or Hezbollah – they give it regional prestige as an intermediary for the West to talk to – Damascus must be aware of the debate about engagement with Syria currently underway in Washington. Evidently, Hilary Clinton and others have been arguing that engaging Syria is part of the wider, more pressing issue of dealing with Iran, and are trying to sell this idea of ‘detaching’ Damascus from its alliance from Tehran. This debate is still far from won in the US and there were many objections in the right wing press, notably the Washington Post, following Obama’s decision to appoint a new ambassador.

It strikes me that whilst Syria need not even pay lip service to this theory that they can be ‘flipped’ it is important at this delicate stage not to appear to be overtly reject it. Photos like the one above will make it much harder for pro-Syria engagement advocates in Washington to win the argument. Perhaps it might have been wiser to reassure Iran privately of Syria’s good intentions until the US ambassador had arrived and relations normalised, and leave the more public endorsement seen above until later down the road.

That said, in a game of brinksmanship, Assad might still win this one. If the US ignores Israel’s pleas and sends the envoy on time, the extent of Obama’s realism will be there for all to see. Syria will feel legitimized in being able to maintain its ties with Iran whilst reengaging with the US. Watch this space.

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