AMMAN — Speculation is growing that Syria is ready to distance itself from Iran and come to the Western fold if the United States and its allies ultimately reward Damascus with political, financial and military support. 

Officially Damascus insists that its third-party negotiations with Israel, held through Turkish mediation, and which are expected to soon be upgraded to face-to-face talks, are not taking place at the expense of its strong strategic relationship with Tehran.


But leaked information says otherwise.


The latest such leak came from Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat involved in back channel talks that led to the current peace negotiations, in which Syria is seeking to retrieve the Syrian Golan Heights that Israel captured and occupied in the 1967 war.


“They are asking not only for the Golan Heights, but a change in Washington that will break the Syrian isolation internationally,” Liel was quoted as saying in London’s Daily Telegraph. “I also think they will not do it unless they are assured they can have an alternative to Iran.”


The former envoy’s remarks were closely similar to those made by a top French government official, who privately told a few Arab journalists in Paris last week that Syria has sent “some signs” it was willing to distance itself from Iran.


The source, who was not identified, said Syria was seeking France’s good offices with Washington for a rapprochement and to persuade the United States that real progress in the peace progress can only be made with American engagement.


Syria’s President Bashar Assad and his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, have on a couple of occasions asked for U.S. involvement in these negotiations. But the Americans have been reluctant to open up toward Syria until they have a commitment that it would disengage itself from Tehran, as well as from anti-Israeli Palestinian and Lebanese groups described as “terrorists” in Washington’s books.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead to offer Syria Western accommodation, inviting Assad to the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris and to join other leaders, including Israelis, in the launching of the Mediterranean Union project.


After halting high-level contacts with Damascus last year for fueling tension in Lebanon, the French president resumed these channels with Syria following its “positive role” in persuading its Lebanese allies to accept the Doha accord, which defused an explosive Lebanese crisis between the pro-Western government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, as well as the election of a president.


While the U.S. George W. Bush administration has remained lukewarm to the French rapprochement and the resumed Syrian-Israeli negotiations, diplomats from Arab states allied with the United States say Washington has given its tacit approval to both Paris and Tel Aviv to pursue their contacts with Syria.


Hours after the Lebanese rivals signed the Doha pact in May, Syria and Israel simultaneously announced that they had resumed the Turkish-mediated peace negotiations, which were suspended in 2000.


Many analysts argue that the moment that Damascus decided to publicize the negotiations, it had began the process of distancing itself from Tehran – although Syrian and Iranian officials are ready to deny that their relationship was being jeopardized by the prospect of a Syrian-Israeli deal.


In public, it was business as usual for the Syrians and Iranians, and the Syrian defense minister went to Tehran in late June to discuss joint defense agreements and boosting their ties.


Iranian officials have said they supported Syria’s decisions if it meant retrieving their occupied territories, but diplomatic sources close to Tehran say the Iranian leadership has been uneasy about the resumed contacts with Israel and suspects Damascus was giving enough signals to show it is willing to give up its alliance with it if it has Western support.


Last month, the conservative Iranian Khayan newspaper commented that Syria should not abandon its strategic alliance for the sake of “an unimportant piece of land,” in reference to the Golan plateau.


“Syria will abandon Iran as soon as it can,” according to Lebanese political analyst George Alam, who added that Damascus can do without Iran in financial terms.


He told the Middle East Times Syria would quickly receive additional assistance from U.S.-allied, oil-rich Arab Gulf states, so the Arab country was not losing much by giving up its relationship with Iran.


Other commentators say that ideologically, the secular Baathist Arab regime in Syria has little in common with Iran’s Persian and Shiite Islamic revolutionary leaders – another factor that raises speculation of Syria shifting its alliances and improving its strained ties with some of the powerful U.S.-allied Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.


Alam argued that the Syrian-backed Hezbollah – Iran’s closest ally in Lebanon – was aware it would be the “first to pay a price” in any progress being made in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations and a future rapprochement with the United States, which labels Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization.


Many Lebanese analysts privately believe that the cracking point between Syria and Hezbollah began in February with the assassination of the group’s military leader, Imad Mughnieh, in a car bombing in Damascus.


They suspect Syrian involvement in the assassination was a covert signal that Damascus was ready to switch its “rejectionist” role and alliances to return to the Western fold.

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