David Lesch on Bashar’s Fence-Hopping

I recommend this piece by David Lesch, a Syria specialist and confidante of President Bashar al-Assad, for Foreign Policy’s Mideast channel.

Lesch makes a similar point to the one I made on this blog a few weeks ago, only to earn the ridicule of many of my Syria Comment buddies (!) Here are the crucial paragraphs, from Lesch:

Bashar has repeated to me on a number of occasions how he would like to position his country as a regional facilitator, engendered by its unique ability to play both sides of the fence. Syria has displayed the potentiality of this role by helping to bring stability to Lebanon, trying to reconcile Hamas with the Palestinian Authority, and mediating with Teheran on occasion. And some officials in Washington were beginning to realize and appreciate this.

Then Bashar goes and hugs Ahmadinejad and proclaims solidarity with Iran. What I have found more often than not in Washington is an institutionalized enmity toward and frustration with Syria. Washington tends to hold a grudge-big time. There are many who are still viscerally angry at Syria for its role in facilitating Iraqi insurgents across the border. So, embarrassing the Obama administration at this particular moment was unwise. On the other hand, Syria cannot play the role of regional facilitator unless it cultivates its diverse connections. Policy: understandable; timing: awful…

There are those who say that the US may have overplayed its hand with Syria too soon. Syria also has to be careful not to overplay its hand. Maybe Bashar feels the Obama administration is too disorganized and weak right now to worry about making positive impressions, but this might not always be the case, especially if the US president’s perceived standing improves due to the passage of the time-consuming health care legislation. Bashar worked hard to finally be taken seriously in Washington and in the region, but straddling the fence can be dangerous too if you don’t know when to-or can’t-get off of it when the time is right.

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