Analyzing the Syria-Hezbollah connection

Posters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, left, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are on sale in Damascus, Syria.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Tony Snow had an interesting turn of phrase today. The White House spokesman was asked about the Middle East and whether Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice would go to Syria. Snow said he didn't think so, that talks with Syria's president Bashar Assad had been, his words, "blazingly pointless" and that Syria's ties with Hezbollah are too close. Depending on who you ask, that's exactly the point. That talking to Syria is the key to ending the fighting that's gone on for more than a week now. Joshua Landis studies Syrian politics and economy at the University of Oklahoma. I asked him what Syria stands to gain from its connection to the militant group.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Syria's benefit of having Hezbollah is it gives them a front on this Arab-Israeli conflict and in the last year what we've see is that Syria has come up holding all the cards on the Arab-Israeli conflict. A year ago they had almost no cards, but Syria hung onto Hamas and the more radical Palestinian groups as America put pressure on Syria as America said you've got to kick these guys out, we want to eliminate them. But what happened is that Hamas won the elections in Israel last year and become the Palestinian Authority. So Bashar was proven a very smart calculator and his investment paid off in spades

RYSSDAL: I can't help but think that pretty soon we're going to see a photo op of Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State, and Bashar Assad sitting in one of those very uncomfortable conference rooms that they have probably at the Syrian foreign ministry somewhere.

LANDIS: Well that's clearly the Syrian objective here and I think the United States is trying to hold off that meeting as long as they possibly can.

RYSSDAL: Do you think they can hold it off?

LANDIS: I think that it will be very difficult because what they're trying to do now is get Hezbollah to say uncle and to give up and that's not going to happen.

RYSSDAL: They find themselves, the Bush administration does, in this position of needing Bashar Assad but having pushed him away for many, many years now.

LANDIS: Yes the United States has frozen all relations with Syria in order to isolate it. Bashar Assad came to the pot in 2000 after his father died. And he had a very simple plan. He wanted to do the China model he said for Syria and that was basically to put a chicken in every pot to increase and modernize the economy but without giving up political power or changing the political dynamic within the country. That was fine until the Iraq war when he came out against the United States. Since then things have gone dramatically downhill. America closed down the major pipeline that runs from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Baynas on the coast of Syria and out to the Mediterranean. That cut off almost $2 billion in oil and other trade. That was a major blow to the Syrian economy. Since then it's frozen relations with the commercial bank, which is essentially the central bank of Syria, and tried to get European banks to also cut relations with the banking community in Syria.

RYSSDAL: Well has Syria done anything to get around these sanctions?

LANDIS: It has improved relations with Iraqi officials and they are planning pipelines and other stuff which will in theory go into effect as soon as the United States influences declines to the point where Iraq can open up that border. They have allowed in lots of commercial banks now and diversified the banking community. They have switched away from the dollar to the EU as the denominator for the Syrian pound. So they have been able to rather dexterously dodge all the bullets and America has come up empty handed in an attempt to starve the Syrians and crash their economy.

RYSSDAL: Now the White House finds itself needing the Syrians. Do you think there are incentives that Condoleeza Rice when she inevitable goes to the Middle East, are there incentives that she can offer that will make the Syrian government change its mind?

LANDIS: yes the first and most important is for Syria to get a phone call from Condoleeza Rice. America has isolated Syria entirely. Bashar is very upset and he's humiliated in this position and he needs to break out of it. So to have America go and knock on his door and ask for his help would be a major concession on the part of the United States.

RYSSDAL: Joshua Landis is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Landis thanks so much for your time.

LANDIS: My pleasure.

RYSSDAL: There's a longer verson of my talk with Professor Landis on our Web site. It's Marketplace.org.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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