DAMASCUS - There were many layers to the groundbreaking "thank-you" from French
President Nicolas Sarkozy to Syria, after Damascus this week helped free Nazak
Afshar, a French-Iranian citizen, from captivity in Tehran.
Afshar was arrested on charges of participating in a move to stage a "soft"
revolution in Iran after the elections in June that saw President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad win a second four-year term. Afshar worked at the cultural service
of the French Embassy in Tehran and was caught up in the massive street
demonstrations that broke out when loyalists to losing presidential candidate
Mir-Hussein Mousavi claimed the elections were rigged.
Although no specific details were given on how Syria and several European Union
(EU) countries helped orchestrate the deal, there are several indicators on how
Damascus used its considerable
influence in Tehran to bring smiles to the faces of top Paris officials.
Sarkozy credited France's EU partners and other countries, specifically naming
former French colony Syria as one "who provided their support". A French
presidency statement also called for the release of a French woman, Clotilde
Reiss, a teacher who is still being held on more serious spying charges.
Iranian authorities have said they want Reiss to remain in the country until
there is a verdict in her trial.
Appearing in court on Saturday, a tearful Afshar admitted she had been involved
in post-election unrest, saying that "brothers at the Intelligence Ministry
made me understand my mistake", the official Islamic Republic News Agency
The decision to arrest Afshar would have needed the approval of either
Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khemanei; only top officials
can order such an arrest, given Iran's troubled relationship with Europe.
The decision to release her, however, would have needed the consent of Khemanei
as it involved overriding the judiciary that had her on trial. The fact that
Syria was a go-between is testimony to the excellent relations Damascus enjoys
with the supreme leader.
Syria has played a similar role in mediating conflicts with Iran. In 2007, it
helped secure the release of 15 British sailors abducted in Iranian waters -
mainly because it had the ear of the grand ayatollah. It also helped win the
freedom in 2007 of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who was being held captive in
Gaza by an Islamic group close to Hamas.
During the long years of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), Syria helped
secure the release of American hostages, notably the president of the American
University of Beirut, David Dodge, after he had been abducted by militias
linked to Tehran.
The latest release comes as part of a long list of initiatives made by
Damascus. Long accused of being a source of instability in the region, Syria
has proved yet again that countries that can destabilize can also play a
crucial role in stability.
This week's developments raise the possibility that Iran and Syria are sending
a message to the world by showing how they have the ability to coordinate their
efforts to diminish Western influence in the Muslim world.
Beyond that, what matters is how influential Syria is not only within Iran but
also with non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the
Palestinian territories. It illustrates that US President Barack Obama - who
never embraced the notion of breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance - was right
The US president does not see the merit in trying to drive a wedge between
Damascus and Tehran; rather, he sees the Syrian-Iranian friendship as a
blessing in disguise. He clearly believes the Syrians are a people with whom he
can do business, especially as they do not have a history of anti-Amercanism,
as the Iranians have had since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, faced a difficult reality in 2006 when the
Baker-Hamilton Report  was issued and it advised working with Syria and Iran
to restore normalcy and security to war-torn Iraq. Bush then had a choice:
either talk to Damascus, or talk to Tehran. Talking to both was too
Bush thus approved some contact with Syria, notably at the Sharm al-Sheikh
summit in Egypt of 2007, when then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met with
her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Mouallem. The Syrians at the time, however,
reasoned that any meaningful breakthrough with Bush was close to impossible, so
they kept all their cards close to their chests until Obama entered the White
House in January.
Since then, there has been a chain effect of positive gestures between Syria
and the US. Military delegations from US Central Command have twice visited the
Syrian capital to discuss security in Iraq. Syria used its considerable
influence in Baghdad to get angry Sunni tribal leaders to vote in provincial
elections this January.
The Sunni street of Iraq - which Obama needs to get in order before the
Americans are totally out of the country by 2012 - has traditionally been
divided between Syria and Saudi Arabia. As long as these countries were in
disagreement over Lebanon, progress in Iraq would be minimal, at best.
Now that the two have settled their differences over internal Lebanese affairs,
the prospects of real results in Iraq are high. Syria has one advantage in
Iraq, however, that the Saudis do not have - a strong influence in the Shi'ite
This was made very clear last month when the Syrians hosted Shi'ite heavyweight
Muqtada al-Sadr in Damascus, proving that when it comes to cross-sectarian
influence, they have the upper hand in Iraq. The Iranians only have influence
among Shi'ites, making Syria a valuable player - in American eyes - for real
rapprochement in Iraq.
This is yet another point the Syrians can use to market themselves as stability
makers in the region, in addition to the weight they can push around in the
Palestinian territories and Lebanon.
What matters at this stage to Obama, however, is Iraq and Iran. The US and
other countries suspect that Tehran's uranium-enrichment program could evolve
into the development of nuclear weapons and have for several years tried
unsuccessfully to get Iran to halt the program, despite the United Nations
slapping sanctions on Iran.
The Syrians understand that if they want the US to apply serious pressure on
Israel - for the sake of restoring the Golan Heights to Syria - then they need
to deliver to Obama these issues that are high on his priority list.
Put simply, Syria wants the resumption of peace talks on the Golan, Obama wants
to moderate the behavior of Iran and get all parties to restore peace to Iraq.
There is progress from the point of view of the Syrians, with a special US
envoy, Fredrick Hoff, in Damascus to push the Middle East peace process
Not only Sarkozy and Afshar are smiling this week, so are the Syrians and the
Americans, thanks to a formula that is rapidly developing into a win-win
situation for all parties involved.
1. "The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward - A New Approach" was a report
of the Iraq Study Group, as mandated by the US Congress. It was an assessment
of the state of the war in Iraq as of December 6, 2006. It was co-chaired by
James Baker and Lee H Hamilton.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.