Posted by Joshua on Thursday, June 25th, 2009
U.S. sees Syria as key player for Mideast peace
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is examining a proposed Israeli-Syrian peace plan that is based on demilitarizing the Golan Heights and transforming it, along with a strip of the Jordan Valley, into a nature preserve, or “peace park,” that would be open to visitors during the day.
The decision to send an American ambassador to Damascus after a four-year absence, along with the recent visit to the Syrian capital by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, were meant to prepare the ground for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks under American auspices.
A senior diplomatic source told Haaretz yesterday that Washington has concluded that including Syria in the peace process is key to the effort to bring about an internal Palestinian reconciliation, without which the chances of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track are small.
The Americans believe the crisis in Iran has created an opportunity for the United States to draw Syria closer and resume Israel-Syria negotiations, the source added. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has encouraged Obama to recruit Syrian President Bashar Assad’s support for Egypt’s efforts to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas by July 7. Under the Egyptian proposal, all the various Palestinian factions would set up a joint committee, answerable to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to govern the Gaza Strip. The main obstacle to this proposal is Khaled Meshal, the Hamas politburo chief, who is based in the Syrian capital.
Uri Saguy, who headed Israel’s negotiating team with Syria during Ehud Barak’s term as prime minister, said in a lecture in Jerusalem several days ago that Assad is not exaggerating when he says it is possible to consider 80 percent of the differences between Israel and Syria as having already been resolved.
Saguy pointed out that the main obstacle was not water rights or security arrangements, but where the border would pass. He said the Syrians’ attitude changed when they realized that the June 4, 1967 lines are less advantageous to them than the international border in certain important respects. It was at that point, he said, that they agreed to discuss proposals for bridging the gaps on the border issue, including the notion of a “peace park.”
Fred Hoff, who serves as Mitchell’s deputy and is charged with the Syrian and Lebanese files, put forth a proposal under which much of the Golan Heights would be turned into a nature reserve open to visitors from both Israel and Syria during the day. The demilitarized area would be under international supervision, led by U.S. officers, while the pullout and dismantlement of Israeli settlements on the Golan would be carried out over several years, in parallel with a normalization of ties between Syria and Israel.
Fictions on the Ground
By TONY JUDT
June 22, 2009, Op-Ed Contributor
….. Despite all the diplomatic talk of disbanding the settlements as a condition for peace, no one seriously believes that these communities — with their half a million residents, their urban installations, their privileged access to fertile land and water — will ever be removed. The Israeli authorities, whether left, right or center, have no intention of removing them, and neither Palestinians nor informed Americans harbor illusions on this score.
To be sure, it suits almost everyone to pretend otherwise — to point to the 2003 “road map” and speak of a final accord based on the 1967 frontiers. But such feigned obliviousness is the small change of political hypocrisy, the lubricant of diplomatic exchange that facilitates communication and compromise.
There are occasions, however, when political hypocrisy is its own nemesis, and this is one of them. Because the settlements will never go, and yet almost everyone likes to pretend otherwise, we have resolutely ignored the implications of what Israelis have long been proud to call “the facts on the ground.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, knows this better than most. On June 14 he gave a much-anticipated speech in which he artfully blew smoke in the eyes of his American interlocutors. While offering to acknowledge the hypothetical existence of an eventual Palestinian state — on the explicit understanding that it exercise no control over its airspace and have no means of defending itself against aggression — he reiterated the only Israeli position that really matters: we won’t build illegal settlements but we reserve the right to expand “legal” ones according to their natural rate of growth. (It is not by chance that he chose to deliver this speech at Bar-Ilan University, the heartland of rabbinical intransigence where Yigal Amir learned to hate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before heading off to assassinate him in 1995.)
THE reassurances Mr. Netanyahu offered the settlers and their political constituency were as well received as ever, despite being couched in honeyed clichés directed at nervous American listeners. And the American news media, predictably, took the bait — uniformly emphasizing Mr. Netanyahu’s “support” for a Palestinian state and playing down everything else…..
POLITICS: US to Name Ambassador to Damascus after Four Years
Inter Press Service
All Things Considered, June 24, 2009 · Syria’s border with Iraq has long been a line of tension. The U.S. and the Iraqi government have accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq. But these days, the border is a potential business asset, as Syria looks to Iraq to help improve its economy….
On the Iraqi side, consumer demand is high, says Joshua Landis, an American academic who writes an influential blog on Syria, SyriaComment.com.
“Syrians are shoveling all sorts of things across to Iraq, because Iraq doesn’t have any factories; it doesn’t have electricity. Nothing is working in Iraq, and there are 24 million people. … [The Syrians] see the potential for real, new trade,” Landis says…..
Landis, the U.S. academic and blogger, says this could be a business partnership with political consequences.
“Syria is the natural route for taking oil out of northern Iraq because it’s just flat desert. There are plans to build a big new toll road. This means a lot of things. It means that Syria wants to work with the United States on stabilizing Iraq,” Landis says.
The partnership would also help stabilize Syria’s economic prospects.
The controversial move reverses the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus in 2005.
By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, june 24, 2009
Washington – The Obama administration’s decision to return an ambassador to Syria after a four-year absence reflects the president’s desire to start making good on a pledge to broaden American diplomacy to include dialogue with adversaries.
The move, announced formally to the Syrians Tuesday night, also hints at how seriously Obama takes both his initiative to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace and his intention to mend US relations with the Arab world.
“We’ve heard a lot of good language from Obama about our relations with Arab countries, most recently in Cairo, but he’s actually done very little in terms of concrete steps,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and author of the SyriaComment blog. “So normalizing relations with Syria is a small demonstration that we really are changing our approach to the region.”
Out, the move suggests, is the Bush administration’s preference for ostracizing problematic countries and openly advocating regime change.
In, on the other hand, is a more pragmatic approach that sees US interests served by garnering information and intelligence from prickly or even adversarial relationships.
“This is a decision that was in the works for a long time and that is based on reality,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington and the author of various books on the region. “This is not a transformative event in US foreign policy, but it comes out of the perspective that diplomacy is learning more about what your interlocutor or opponent is doing.”
President Bush removed the US ambassador from Damascus in 2005 over Syrian involvement in Lebanon, including a suspected Syrian role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The move sent a clear signal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that the US found Syrian actions unacceptable, but it also complicated US efforts at eliciting Syrian cooperation in neighboring Iraq.
Obama’s decision reflects US recognition that Syria will be a key factor if a comprehensive peace is to be reached in the Middle East, State Department officials say. That sentiment was reflected by Obama Middle East envoy George Mitchell’s recent visit to Damascus, and in particular by Mr. Mitchell’s statement that Syria plays an “integral role” in the quest for “comprehensive peace” in the region.
“Those were the magic words for the Syrians,” says Mr. Landis, who returned Tuesday from Damascus. The Syrians were anxious to see a US ambassador return, Landis says, but not without reassurances of a new tone and recognition of Syria’s interests, particularly with regard to Israel.
“‘The Americans can’t cherry-pick,’ is what I heard,” says Landis, “‘They can’t have what they want on Lebanon and Iraq without helping us get the Golan [Heights] back and reaching a peace deal with Israel.’”
Still, Landis says he expects the announcement to encounter objections from some forces on Capitol Hill who will see it as rewarding bad behavior and as putting Arab interests above Israel. “Washington has been split on this, and there are still a lot of people who are not eager to see this happen,” he says.
Syria also has a strategic relationship with Iran, something the US would like to see weakened or even severed. Yet while the recent political turmoil in Iran may have played some role in the timing of the announcement, the Wilson Center’s Mr. Miller says that the move would have come anyway.
“The Syrians have to be thinking about what the events of June 12 [Iran's contested presidential election] mean for their relationship, so this would seem an opportune time to move on what was already coming,” he says. At the same time, “with Iran hot right now and given the ties between the two, it’s critical we have a mission in Damascus that is up to speed.”