Why No One Really Wants a Syria Regime Change
Claude Salhani

Preparations for the November Middle East peace conference, an initiative by President George W. Bush intended to break the deadlock in the region''s stalled peace negotiations, are proceeding, as tension between Syria and Israel is at its highest point since the end of the October War, which started 34 years ago next Saturday.

Yet even as it prepares for peace, the Bush administration continues to lay out plans to change the political landscape in its ongoing effort to democratize the Middle East.

The November peace conference is to be held in the coastal city of Annapolis, MD, some 56 kilometers (35 miles) from Washington, DC. Annapolis is the home of the United States Naval Academy and, according to British Broadcasting Corporation television, the conference is to take place on the academy grounds; as safe a venue as one can find.

Meanwhile, in a political parallel universe, preparations are also under way for next November''s Middle East peace conference, only the planning this time is being carried out in Syria and Iran; two countries who find themselves at great odds with Washington.

Syria has recently been invited to the talks. Iran, on the other hand, has not been asked to participate. Inviting Syria to join the peace negotiations was a wise move by the Bush administration, regardless of how the US president and, more particularly, the vice-president feel about Syria or Iran.

And yet, these Muslim countries, despite their political-and- military alliance and allegiance to one another, could not be more different.

Certainly, Damascus and Tehran are close allies who have entered into an agreement of mutual assistance in case of foreign military aggression; they share the same antipathy of America''s policy in the region; both have been accused of supporting terrorist groups, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon; both countries have been accused by the Bush White House of fomenting trouble in the region, primarily in Lebanon and Iraq.

However, Syria and Iran are fundamentally different. Syria is an Arab country and largely secular, while Iran is mostly Persian and an Islamic republic ruled by theocrats. And the differences are reflected in the White House''s policies vis--vis the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Even if President Bush lumps the two regimes together in the same "Axis of Evil."

Much as the Bush administration is intent on bringing about a change of regime in Iran, hoping to replace the mullahs, the ayatollahs, and the radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a more moderate, secular government, when it comes to Syria, it''s a whole different ball game.

And although Washington would as soon like to see Syria''s President Bashar Al Assad replaced as well, any talk of regime change in Syria is instantly shot down by the political realities. Iran is already governed by an Islamic theocracy. Opting for a change of regime in Iran can only bring about positive change, or so the thinking goes. Whereas in Syria, despite ranting and raving between Washington and Damascus, dealing with President Assad, a known quantity, is far more preferable to the United States, and to Israel, than the risk of overthrowing him and ending up with either an Iraq-type situation, or with another Islamic republic, this one much closer to Israel.

Indeed, since the Baath Party has been in power, the only other political party that was somewhat tolerated was the Muslim Brotherhood.

The big fear among officials and analysts in Washington is that a change of regime in Damascus, at best, would mirror Tehran, at worst would resemble Iraq. Interestingly enough, and strange as it might sound, Bashar''s staunchest defenders are the Israelis. The very last thing Israel wants, at this point, is to have an Islamic Syria on its northern border.

The question, now, is if the Syrians will accept the invitation to the November peace talks, which would distance Damascus from Tehran, something both the United States and Israel would like to see happen.

Claude Salhani is Editor of the Middle East Times.