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Dealing with the Middle East’s wildcard

By Karoun Demirjian

As American politicians continue to debate when, whether and under what conditions they may engage in diplomatic talks with Iran, they’ve paid scant attention to a quiet initiative already under way in the Middle East. Last month, confirmed reports surfaced that Syria, working with Turkey as a mediator, has opened a fresh round of negotiations with Israel over the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Those talks, which resumed last year after more than a decade of fits and starts since the Madrid framework for negotiations between the states debuted in 1991, mark the most recent noteworthy progress in the otherwise stalemated Middle East peace process. What’s more, they round out a series of indirect talks that Israel has lately conducted not merely with terrorist-sponsoring states such as the regime of Bashar Assad, but with terrorist organizations themselves. Earlier this month, Israeli officials announced that they had struck a deal with Hezbollah — the terrorist group largely funded and sponsored by Iran — to exchange the remains of soldiers and prisoners, with Germans this time acting as the intermediaries. Israelis have made overtures about similar talks with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, with Egyptian and European officials working as go- betweens.

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The talks with Syria are the primary focus, however. Observers note that the negotiations mark two striking departures from the region’s diplomatic history: First, they are proceeding without any attention to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in defiance of the long-held conventional view that meaningful Middle Eastern diplomacy can’t afford to ignore that one central issue; and second, the United States — the main Western guarantor of regional accords, especially those that concern Israel, since the Nixon era — has played no role whatsoever in the talks.

This latter development may be a portent, some observers say, and a product of the Bush administration’s overriding focus on the fortunes of occupied Iraq over other aspects of the regional diplomatic scene. “It’s not that the parties didn’t want the United States involved” in the Israel-Syria talks, said Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who now directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Bush administration has taken itself out of the game in what to me is an unprecedented and inexplicable way.”

The discussions between Israel and Syria date back several years, to a proposal to return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty, so long as Israeli and Syrian troops could jointly police the land. An unofficial draft agreement was later concluded through back-channel negotiators in 2006 that would have further refined the plan, pledging Assad to cease support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups and Israel to withdraw settlements from the Golan Heights. Then, both Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, fresh from the war in Lebanon, backed away from the framework — but they are evidently returning to these same issues in the present talks, observers say.

America could well re-enter the picture once talks grow more serious. “Both the Arabs and Israelis think it’s hard to make a deal now, with this administration,” said Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. But, he adds, “they have an interest in having a process, for their own strategic reasons.” Olmert, for example, is mired in a bribery scandal that could upend his government at any moment, and so may have strong incentive to show some progress — even if it involves the deeply unpopular option of surrendering Israeli sovereignty. And Syria is hovering on the verge of an economic crisis — it is projected to be a net importer of oil within three to five years — and has long been something of a free agent in regional diplomacy, harking back to its alliance with Iran during the 1980s war with Iraq and its decision to break ranks with many secular Arab states at the time. Even though Syria endorses pan-Arabist views, the regime remains estranged from the main alliances among Arab states.

“Any peace agreement is basically going to be tied to Syria’s regional foreign policy reorientation,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “They have one eye on these peace talks with Israel, but another eye on Washington.”

The reason is simple, experts say: The United States is the only player capable of securing the terms of an agreement once it’s finalized. “The United States doesn’t have to be there on the takeoff; it does have to be there for the landing,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Ultimately, what Syria really wants, it can only get from the United States.” Among the items on its wish list would be lifting current U.S. trade sanctions and restoring full diplomatic ties with the United States. President Bush recalled the U.S. ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; the United Nations tribunal investigating the crime is seeking to try Syrian officials in the case.

Israel also has another incentive to pursue an accord: the opportunity to engage, and potentially disrupt, a regional alliance against Israel and the West. “What intrigues Israeli leaders about peace with Syria is the chance to weaken the radical camp of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah — and of those four, the one who’s a non-Islamist actor is Syria,” Makovsky said. “But the only way you can peel them away is if they know what pool they’re jumping into — if there’s no water in the pool, they’re not going to jump.”

The View From Washington

To peel Syria away, however, U.S. diplomats would have to first pry themselves away from their own view of the region. “This administration has fought a regional ideological battle with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran — it lumps them all together and actively fights against them, and that’s why

it doesn’t want the Israelis to negotiate with Syria,” said Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper based in Beirut, Lebanon. “This is a stupid policy; it’s wrong, and ineffective and counterproductive.”

The policy has certainly been forceful. Bush has called Syria “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” citing its failure to effectively stanch the flow of Islamist terrorists across its border with Iraq. Bush has also pushed for democratization in Syria, which has failed to endear him to Assad’s dictatorship, while also pressing Syria to sever its diplomatic ties with Iran and Hezbollah, though the State Department has not followed up with any diplomatic alternative to such alliances.

But that distancing has come at a price, critics say. Since the initial overtures between Syria and Israel stalled out earlier this decade, Syria has drifted further and further into the orbit of Iran. But looking ahead to Iran’s 2009 elections, some observers say Iran could be in for a bout of upheaval, should President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lose his re-election bid.

An Iran in transition would create an opening for engagement, observers say. “You still have a number of uncertainties in Damascus’ role with Lebanon and Iran,” said Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. “There’s a very mixed appreciation of the situation. I think that it’s quite possible that if you make it attractive enough, that the Syrians would be willing to turn their face away, back towards the West.”

Other experts contend, however, that courting Syria is a dangerous proposition, especially if Ahmadinejad remains in power and Iran develops a nuclear arsenal. At the very least, they warn, Syria won’t change its standing as a dictatorship that sponsors terrorism, rendering it an unreliable negotiating partner.

“Once we’ve committed ourselves, we don’t like to say, ‘You know, we’ve failed; we can’t make peace,’” said Jim Colbert, a spokesman for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Colbert argues that U.S. diplomatic outreach to Syria would pressure Israel to make unacceptable strategic concessions, while also forcing the United States to make unwarranted economic giveaways. “The Israelis, for their own needs, can’t afford to let any opportunities slip by. But how far will U.S. policy go to make that happen?”

The Road Forward

That question will largely hinge on the election of the next U.S. president this fall. Presumed Republican nominee John McCain supported a 2003 diplomatic visit to Syria by then-secretary of State Colin Powell, and McCain’s Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama, has vowed to open direct diplomacy with states such as Syria.

A shift in the U.S. posture toward the present talks is no sure thing. “There is a greater urgency to the Palestinian negotiations in Washington,” Indyk said, citing the broad accord Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered with Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis, Md., last year to arrive at a peace agreement by the end of 2008. At the same, though, Indyk counsels that State officials should be open to a more flexible policy. “Washington cannot predict these things, in my experience. We should want to have a negotiation on both tracks, because

you can create a positive synergy by having these two proceeding at the same time.”

Middle Eastern observers say that the United States can’t afford to ignore the Israel-Syria talks, let alone permit them to stall out. “In the long run, if you solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that could have historic impact,” Khouri said. “But in the short run, the Syrian-Israeli negotiations are really the most important.”

Source: CQ Weekly
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