Will Obama Put Syria at the Center of a Peace Plan?

Robert Burns of AP argues in an article, copied below, that Syria may emerge at the center of Obama’s Peace effort in the Middle East.

He quotes Aaron David Miller, who explains:

Obama has explained his goal — a reinvigorated peace effort — but left unclear how he will get there.

“This is a real problem, that the administration has identified a rhetorical policy, one that right now has no legs,” said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served for two decades in the State Department as a senior Mideast policy adviser

Miller suggests that Obama has no plan because he intends to bring down Netanyahu’s government first over the issue of stopping settlements – something most believe Netanyahu cannot do without splintering his coalition of right wing groups that include many settlers. Miller continues,

“If he’s trying to achieve an agreement, then he has to have an approach to demonstrate how being tough with the Israelis on settlement activity actually gets him to the negotiating table and then to an agreement,” he added. “It may be … that the president right now doesn’t care about reaching an agreement” if he has been advised that he will never get a viable deal as long as Netanyahu is prime minister.

Burns then argues that Obama may be looking to Syria for a plan. He writes:

At the same time, Obama is forging ahead on Syria, where U.S. relations have been in decline for years.

If this is true — and the Syrians clearly hoped it would be true when Obama was elected — their initial hopes have steadily diminished. It is hard to see the outlines of a Syrian plan today. Burns writes that Mitchell is heading to Syria. The State Department spokespeople, however, refuse to say he is headed to Damascus on his Middle East trip. Fundamental disagreements divide the two countries. Syria wants a US ambassador posted to Damascus. Washington wants Syrian action on Iraq. Both are in a “you-first-mode” that suggests deep distrust, built up by years of mutual demonization and sanctions. It is not clear whether the results of the Lebanese elections, no mater how they turn out, will help to resolve these disagreements. A number of observers have suggested that all US rapprochement with Syria is on hold until after the June 7 elections, but I cannot figure out how elections will resolve US-Syrian misunderstandings. On the contrary, they are only likely exacerbate misunderstandings and mistrust as each side maneuvers to influence the composition of Lebanon’s government.

What is more, Obama has not mentioned Syria in recent remarks. Instead, he has focused exclusively on the Palestinian track. Not only did he not mention Syria in his Cairo speech but he neglected to even give a nod toward “comprehensive” solutions in his Cairo speech. Both the Saudi plan and the new 57-country, Jordanian plan went unmentioned.

I wish Burns were correct in arguing that Syria is emerging as the focal point of Obama’s regional peace plan, but I see little indication that it is. When Obama was first elected, Washington had a significant group of Syria firsters. These included both Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller. They argued for Syria first because resolving the Syrian-Israeli dispute seems so uncomplicated compared to fixing Palestine, a problem that both hold little hope of seeing resolving.

If Obama does want Netanyahu fall, as Miller suggests, it is possible that Syria could emerge as the focal point of a peace plan in the distant future, or, conversely, it is possible that Netanyahu may still reach out to Syria and accept to sacrifice the Golan if he senses that his government is about to splinter. Martin Indyk predicted some months ago that Netanyahu would rather trade the Golan than see his government fall a second time. These later conjectures seem improbable to much to complicated to me. Most probably, the Obama administration has simple chosen to focus on the Palestinians, as it claims, and doesn’t really have a plan for how the endgame will work out.

Analysis: Broader US Mideast peace effort likely
By ROBERT BURNS

WASHINGTON (AP) — If “the moment is now” to push for Mideast peace, as President Barack Obama asserted in Germany, it may unfold with the administration looking to find a peacemaking role for Syria and exploring possibilities for dealing with Israel’s longtime foe, Hamas.

Obama raised expectations of progress at a particularly perilous point in the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. He faces a divided and hawkish Israeli government, a fractured Palestinian governing authority, a stubborn Iranian influence in the region and no obvious way forward to a lasting peace.

On Friday the president announced that he was sending his Mideast peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, back to the region to follow up on “a whole host of negotiation points.” The State Department said Mitchell will meet with Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians next week.

He also intends to visit Syria, which would mark the highest-level U.S. visit there since Obama took office in January.

Obama has explained his goal — a reinvigorated peace effort — but left unclear how he will get there.

“This is a real problem, that the administration has identified a rhetorical policy, one that right now has no legs,” said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served for two decades in the State Department as a senior Mideast policy adviser.

Obama has been clear about at least one element of his strategy: forcefully and publicly insisting that Israel needs to live up to what the Americans insist is a commitment to freezing the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians have long regarded that disputed land as part of a future state of their own.

In the short term, Obama faces long odds of getting what he wants from the Israelis.

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg said it’s unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can make significant concessions.

“I’d say during the next couple of months or longer than that, you’ll see some very intense negotiations where Obama and Netanyahu try to get a mutually effective vision they can implement,” said Steinberg, head of political science at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.

But while Netanyahu may dismantle some unauthorized West Bank settler outposts and remove some checkpoints, Steinberg said, it would be difficult for him to loosen the embargo on Hamas-ruled Gaza or make other major concessions without the risk of splintering his largely hard-line coalition government.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said Friday that the government plans to allow construction inside existing West Bank settlements to accommodate growing families — in direct defiance of Obama’s demand.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to further stiffen the administration’s position. She told reporters Friday that even if the Bush administration had an unofficial understanding with Israel that it could make exceptions to a ban on further settlements, Obama recognizes no such arrangement.

It’s not altogether clear what Obama believes he can achieve by pressing the Israelis on settlements.

“Even if the Israelis are at fault — and in this case they are, by continuing to expand settlements — the question is, what is the strategy? What is the overall objective that the president is trying to achieve?” Miller asked.

“If he’s trying to achieve an agreement, then he has to have an approach to demonstrate how being tough with the Israelis on settlement activity actually gets him to the negotiating table and then to an agreement,” he added. “It may be … that the president right now doesn’t care about reaching an agreement” if he has been advised that he will never get a viable deal as long as Netanyahu is prime minister.

At the same time, Obama is forging ahead on Syria, where U.S. relations have been in decline for years.

Syria held indirect talks with Israel last year mediated by Turkey. But the discussions were halted during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December and January.

Syria has since said it was ready to resume indirect talks with Israel’s new hard-line government as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Syria and ally Iran are strong supporters of militant Islamic groups in the region, including Hamas. One possible motive for Obama’s outreach to Syria could be to get the Syrians to pressure Hamas to meet international demands, including that it accept Israel’s right to exist.

Obama has followed the Bush administration’s policy of not talking directly to Hamas, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization. But in his remarks in Cairo on Thursday he seemed to suggest some basis for believing that the militant Islamist movement might be drawn into the peace process.

“If they are serious about delivering a Palestinian state, then they should renounce violence, accept the framework provided by the previous agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Obama told reporters in Cairo. “That still leaves enormous room for them to negotiate on a whole host of issues.”

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said Friday that while Obama’s language on Hamas has been similar to that of his predecessor in the White House, his tone is gentler.

The approach by former President George W. Bush was to spell out conditions for Hamas to meet and wait for them to respond.

“With Obama (in Cairo) it was almost as if he was negotiating with them in public,” Brown said, adding that he believes a focus on Hamas will be among Obama’s next moves.

___

EDITOR’S NOTE — Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

Paul Salem, of Carnegie in Lebanon, stated that these are the first proper free elections since 1972 and outlined three posts-election scenarios:

1. Hung parliament what Salem sees as most likely. “This is where each camp holds large minorities and a group of independents, close to the President, holding the balance of votes,” Salem said. Outside powers of Saudi, US and Syria are directly and indirectly trying to push for this occurrence Salem stated. Interestingly, Salem claims that Syria does not want an all out March 8th victory because Aoun has a difficult relationship with Syria and Hezbollah is closer to Iran. So for Syria the best result is a hung parliament and Syria successfully sold this idea to the US and Saudi as the best option, according to Salem.

2. March 14 win. March 14 have stated that they will refuse to grant veto power to March 8 but Salem warns this could lead to violence and should instead get clear commitments from March 8 to move forward on key political and economic issues.

3. March 8 win. Salem states that this could lead to a situation where there is a collapse in support for Lebanon from the international community and the Gulf states. This could lead to “a collapse in confidence in Lebanon and a precipitous decline into economic and social unrest.”

Planned De-Mining of Turkey’s Border with Syria Referred to Court
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 108
June 5, 2009, By: Lale Sariibrahimoglu

The bill has stirred nationalist passions to an extent that has prompted the opposition to accuse the government of treason. Speculation that an Israeli company might win the contract [to remove landmines from the Turkish-Syrian border, has inflamed sentiments and revealed endemic prejudice towards Israel, even among the staunchly secular lawmakers of the CHP in this constitutionally secular but predominantly Muslim nation. This is despite Turkey’s continued close military and defense procurement ties with Israel, under the Islam-sensitive rule of the AKP.

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in response to severe criticism over his government’s draft bill said, “We should first clear the mines in our heads” (Hurriyet, June 3). During a speech on June 2 at his party’s parliamentary group, Erdogan similarly criticized the opposition for hyping fear over the issue throughout the country. “Opposition parties have planted so many mines on the borders of their own minds that they cannot walk past them,” he noted.

Comments (3)


1. majedkhaldoun said:

The most important thing for Obama is Iran Nuclear power,Obama does not care about the Golan Heights,in Lebanon it seems that Aoun and HA will win,Assad will not sever relations from Iran,and will not abandon HA,till he gets the Golan,there is only one solution for Obama,Assad must fear Obama.who will work hard to remove Assad.

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June 7th, 2009, 12:19 am

 

2. Jo6pac said:

This is really great news but won’t happen. I wish it would but we all know if wishes were ponies then we all would have won. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some day in the near future this is true.
jo6pac

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June 7th, 2009, 1:14 am

 

3. majid said:

حوار إستراتيجي مصري أميركي بالقاهرة

بيرنز سيناقش مع ممثلي منظمات المجتمع المدني قضايا حقوق الإنسان (الفرنسية-أرشيف)
وصل إلى القاهرة السبت مساعد وزيرة الخارجية الأميركية للشؤون السياسية وليام بيرنز في زيارة يجري خلالها جولة جديدة من الحوار الإستراتيجي بين البلدين.

ووفقا لمسؤولين مصريين فإن مباحثات بيرنز مع وزير الخارجية أحمد أبو الغيط تأتي في إطار إعادة بناء العلاقات بين البلدين التي أكد عليها الرئيس الأميركي باراك أوباما خلال زيارته إلى مصر نهاية الأسبوع الماضي.

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June 7th, 2009, 5:05 am

 

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