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Syria Offers to Mediate With Iran

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Syrian President Bashar Assad at emergency Arab leaders summit on Gaza in Doha, Qatar, 16 Jan 2009
Syrian President Bashar Assad at emergency Arab leaders summit on Gaza in Doha, Qatar, 16 Jan 2009

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is proposing to mediate between the West and Iran, telling an Italian newspaper that he's prepared to act as a go-between to improve relations that have been further strained over Iran's nuclear program.

President Assad's offer to mediate is a diplomatic initiative that could further help in Syria's own rapprochement with the U.S. and Europe.

He told the Italian daily La Repubblica that he was "ready to serve as a mediator with Iran," if western nations came up with a "concrete proposal" to submit to Tehran.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy urged Mr. Assad, during a conference in France last July, to use his influence to help resolve Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.

President Assad noted that dialogue was the best means to end long-standing disputes with Tehran, arguing that any attempt to contain a country ends by strengthening it.

Hilal Kashan, Professor of Politics at the American University of Beirut, thinks it is unlikely the United States will take Mr. Assad up on his offer.

"I think that the Americans want to improve their relations with Syria to weaken Iran and to further isolate it in the region, so I don't think the Americans need Syria as a mediator with Iran, because that would improve relations between Tehran and Damascus," said Kashan. "The Americans want to distance Damascus from Tehran, plus, the Syrians are lacking in credibility to be used as mediators. [President] Assad would be more than eager to play the role of a mediator between the U.S. and anybody. You know he's willing to do anything to win the new administration's support, to listen to him and accommodate him."

President Assad praised U.S. President Barack Obama in his interview with La Repubblica, saying that "he has shown himself to be a man of his word....with the withdrawal from Iraq, the willingness for peace [and] the closure of Guantanamo."

Professor Fouad Ajami, who directs the Middle East Studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, thinks President Assad is well placed to act as mediator with Iran.

"We know this in the court system as plea bargaining," said Ajami. "When you consider the situation of Bashar al-Assad, he himself is hunted down by a tribunal, now sitting in the Hague, investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Syrians straddle the fence between the order of conservative nations on the one hand and this alliance with Iran on the other and it would make perfect sense for Bashar al-Assad to pose as the mediator with the Iranians, which means: hey, if you folks think I'm bad, think of the Iranians, they're much worse, but I have credit in their bank and I can deal with the Iranians."

Syria has been allied with Tehran since the outset of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980. Its ties with moderate Arab states Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been strained since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria has denied involvement.

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