Posted by Joshua on Friday, March 20th, 2009
Eyal Zisser, in a recent Dayan Center policy piece, argues that Assad should be like Sadat and fly to Jerusalem if he wants Netanyahu to give him back the Golan. He decries the lack of imagination among Syrian statesmen.
I like Zisser. He is the head of the Dayan Center, one of, if not the, premier think thank in Israel. He has always been gracious and kind to me. He is a dependable and careful chronicler of politics in Syrian, the only Arab state to remain inimical to Israel. He has long warned that Assad’s mistakes will catch up to him. His book on Lebanon at independence is excellent.
It is never easy to write about one’s enemy – especially if one has ambitions to be a leading voice within the security architecture of one’s country. Zisser cannot be faulted for complaining that the region has too few original and BIG thinkers. Certainly it doesn’t have enough rulers with BIG hearts. Maybe Zisser is right that Netanyahu could be won over by an extravagant and rule-breaking gesture? Maybe Israel’s leader would be moved by a self-effacing visit from Assad? Counseling one’s enemy to be more humble and gracious can rarely be unwise. These are excellent and daring suggestions.
One quibble… Why doesn’t Zisser also insist on a smidgen of imagination and humility from his own leader? Why not tickle Netanyahu toward “big-think” mode? Why couldn’t he propose something refreshing and original ….. something like… giving back the Golan for peace? …. or stopping the expansion of settlements and the displacement of Palestinians as a means to reduce radicalism?…… or even… fudging on the possibility of a two state solution?
Washington in Pursuit of Damascus
By Eyal Zisser, March 15, 2008
Dayan Center, TEL AVIV NOTES
….. It appears that the assumption that Syria is prepared, and even desires to bolt from the Iranian embrace and embrace America has no basis in fact. In fact, the opposite is the case. In Syrian eyes, what is actually happening is that the Americans are the ones doing the embracing. Indeed, Syria expects the US to comply entirely with Syria’s demands: in Iraq – a total American withdrawal; in Lebanon – handing it back over to Syrian control; and with regard to Israel – the complete return of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for minimal Syrian concessions. In return for all of these things, Syria will be prepared to maintain friendly relations with the US, but is definitely not prepared to follow Jordan’s and Egypt’s lead and become a client state dependent on the good will and whims of Washington, especially with regard to matters dealing with human rights and democracy. President Bashar al-Asad explains to all those who want to listen that it is actually in America’s interest that Syria maintain its ties to Iran so that Damascus can act as a bridge and a mediator between Washington and Tehran.
Seemingly, the goodwill that the Obama Administration has demonstrated towards Damascus has opened up opportunities for Syria to promote its interests, but it appears likely that Damascus will fail to capitalize on the new circumstances, just as it did in the past. In order to do so, a leader of the caliber of Anwar al-Sadat is required. However, Bashar is neither capable of, nor interested in following the Sadat example. Rather, he is comfortable with his standing as the leader of the radical camp in the Arab world. The role is less dangerous to his life, and also confers upon him considerable popularity among the Arab public. In addition, from the standpoint of cold hard strategic analysis, Syria will not break off its ties from Iran so long as it is in a state of war with Israel, and so long as it does not attain a political settlement which insures the return of the Golan.
Moreover, Syrian foreign policy has always been characterized by hesitation, caution and passivity. It does not appear that Syria is seeking to promote a new direction, but rather to maintain the status quo, internally and in its foreign policy. According to the Syrian view, this policy has produced results, without obligating it to abandon its positions and principles. Hence, during the last few years, Syria’s work has been done by others. The US under Obama is closer than ever to withdrawing from Iraq. Israel under Olmert displayed a willingness to sign a peace agreement with Syria which would include a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights. And finally, with regard to the Lebanese arena, the assumption that it was possible to bring an end to Syrian influence in Lebanon turns out to have been exaggerated and unrealistic. It seems that only Syria is capable of insuring the existence of a stable Lebanese entity.
Incidentally, and against expectations, the Obama Administration has displayed an entirely realistic approach to Syria. Its newly-appointed Special Envoy to the region, George Mitchell, avoided visiting Damascus himself. Instead, two lower level diplomats were dispatched to make the first contact there. The US made it clear that it still expects a change in Syrian behavior with regard to the issues of terrorism, Lebanon and Iraq. And it seems that the bulk of US energies are going to be invested in trying to develop a dialogue with Iran. The degree of success of such an effort will clearly have ramifications for Syria, which in recent years essentially made itself a client state of Iran. If Bashar is sorry about this, he need blame no one but himself.
In conclusion, the Syrian-American relationship has returned to the spotlight and is likely to witness a flurry of diplomatic activity in the coming months. Its importance will only increase in light of the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections in June 2009, which are likely to result in a further strengthening of Syrian power and influence in Lebanon. A possible failure of the dialogue which the US is seeking with Iran would only increase Damascus’s standing in Washington. At the same time, it seems doubtful that the American effort to warm up relations with Syria will be sufficient to bring about a real change in Syrian foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iran, as well the peace process with Israel. Nor is it likely to free Lebanon from its clutches, nor effect real social, economic or political change at home. The experience of the last few years taught Bashar that by sticking to his positions and refusing to alter them, he was able to break out of isolation and survive in power. Hence, there is no reason, according to his understanding, to change his positions, particularly as there is no compelling reason or pressure to do so. The fact that the chances of advancing the Israeli-Syrian peace process appears less likely than ever in light of the expected composition of the next Israeli government will also serve to prevent Damascus from accepting the terms of Washington’s embrace.
Nevertheless, in light of the failure of Washington’s policies towards Damascus in recent years, the notion of instituting a dialogue with it is not a bad idea. Dialogue is always preferable to tension and violence, and can potentially prepare the ground for breakthroughs when conditions have sufficiently ripened. Still, such a dialogue also requires a realistic and nuanced understanding of what may or may not be achievable at any particular point in time. Currently, at any rate, the answer to the question of what can be achieved is a simple one: very little.
US-Syria relations still mired in mistrust
By Natalia Antelava, BBC News, Beirut
…. The pro-Syrian politician Lebanese Weam Wahab told me why it would be so hard for the United States and Syria to find a common language…. Syria has cautiously welcomed President Obama’s efforts. But mistrust still runs deep on both sides, differences are vast and Washington’s agenda in Syria is still the same. The US wants Damascus to stop its support for the two anti-Israeli militant groups – Hamas and Hezbollah, play a more constructive role with its neighbour Lebanon and distance itself from Iran.
Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, believes that the plan is realistic.
“I think beneath the bravado, Syria is in fact uncomfortable with Iran and that both President [Bashar] al-Assad and his people would prefer to look to the West,” he says.
Mr Wahab laughs at this assumption. “Iran is the only country that stood with Syria through the hard times. It’s an illusion to think that you can distance Syria from Iran,” he says.
He also questions the value of what Washington could offer Syria in return: relief of economic sanctions and the end of its isolation from the West.
Mr Wahab’s personal experience tells him that Syria can easily carry on without either.
“Two years ago George Bush decided to ban me from entering America and to freeze my assets in the States. I laughed: I have nothing to lose in America. And the people of this region feel the same – we have nothing to lose,” he says….
Karim Makdisi: Obama’s silence on Gaza was noted in the region, and I don’t think that the US administration has taken a real decision in the way they view the Middle East…
AMMAN (Reuters) – Jordan’s King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held talks in Amman Friday, part of a flurry of diplomatic moves to close Arab ranks ahead of a summit later this month in Qatar, officials said. Full Article
Lebanon’s fate has become part of a larger struggle for power and influence that is playing out across the Middle East, a struggle pitting the United States and its friends against Iran and its proxies. The outcome of that struggle will have strategic implications for the United States that extend well beyond Lebanon.
A clear-cut electoral victory for Hizballah would greatly undermine U.S. prestige and credibility in the region…. The result could well be the consolidation of a permanent Iranian military outpost on the eastern Mediterranean and a major presence of Iran’s Qods (Jerusalem) Force — a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — directly on Israel’s northern border….
Washington should aggressively use its engagement with Syria to deter Damascus from resorting to violence in Lebanon, either in the run-up to elections or in their aftermath. In mid-March, President Bashar al-Asad gave an interview in which he issued veiled threats against Lebanon should the Hariri tribunal reach the wrong conclusions or should the March 14 coalition win the elections and actually attempt to govern as a democratic majority. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that violence remains an integral part of Syria’s strategy. The Obama administration should act now to put the Syrian regime on notice that the relatively smooth passing of Lebanon’s elections will be a critical metric by which the United States assesses the value of engagement going forward.
If Engagement Fails
It will be important for the administration to have — and for Syria to know that it has — a contingency plan should engagement be given a fair trial and shown not to address key American concerns. At a minimum, such a contingency should include the option of significantly ramping up multilateral pressure and sanctions against the al-Asad regime. In this regard, the administration should do everything in its power to ensure that the two most important levers available — the Hariri tribunal and the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of Syria’s secret plutonium reactor — remain robust and hanging over the head of the al-Asad regime….. It bears remembering that the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon four years ago — arguably, the high point of American policy vis-a-vis Syria in the past several decades — was itself the product of a policy of intensely focused confrontation, multilateral pressure, and veiled threats against the al-Asad regime.
“…The Lebanese army lacks the capacity or the will to take on Hezbollah, while the Christian militias, active in the civil war from 1975 to 1990, have been disbanded. That leaves Lebanese democrats almost entirely dependent on outside support. They are cheered that the U.N. tribunal set up to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Hariri assassination has now convened in The Hague, but they still fear they will be sold out by Western powers intent on doing a deal with Syria or Iran….”
Tom Dine, former Executive Director of AIPAC, has visited Damascus 5 times in the last year and become a leading voice for engagement between Isael and Syria. He explains how difficult it will be to build trust between the two countries in his article: “Slow and Opaque Engagement.”
Yes, Syria is a pivotal player in the region but, as the Syrian leadership is making clear to the Americans, disengagement cannot be overturned and upgraded overnight. A number of Congressional and non-profit delegations have recently visited Damascus to explore what can be done; the weekend official delegation was also exploratory, but came away sullen. What can be exclaimed is that the end of American isolation of Syria has commenced. But until major adjustments and changes in behavior are made by Syria, according to Administration officials, a new policy day in the bilateral sphere will not begin.
We are thus only at the early talks phase. Talks are not a substitute for substantive give-and-take in the international arena. From the American perspective, officials are asking these questions: Will Syria stop foreign fighters from traveling through its international airport and crossing its borders into Iraq to cause havoc and oppose the sitting elected government in Baghdad? Will Syria control and secure its borders not only with Iraq but also with Lebanon. Will Syria change its supportive arrangements toward Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and other groups in order to begin the process of exiting from the U.S. terrorist list, a place it has been since 1979 and a move that would have direct consequences on Palestine’s current divisions and weaknesses as a crippled entity? Will Syria allow for a free and fair forthcoming election in Lebanon? How will Syria participate or not in the U.N.-sponsored Tribunal investigating the death of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri? What are Syria’s nuclear intentions; is it pursuing a nuclear option or was that last year’s news? Can Syria and Israel at long last bring to a mutually satisfactory conclusion all of the Golan Heights territory for a full peace? Then there is the anxiety-creating issue of Iran.
Laura Rosen in the Cable Via FLC
Ashkenazi is scheduled to meet with national security advisor Gen. James L. Jones, special advisor Dennis Ross, and top military ….”Netanyahu brought up Iran,” the Israeli diplomat told Foreign Policy. “He told her it was the be all and end all. And [he said] that there is a reverse link: If [Washington] wants anything to move on the Palestinian front, we need to take head on the Iranian threat, diplomatically, with sanctions, and beyond that.”
Clinton responded, “I am aware of that,” the Israeli diplomat relayed leaders ….
“For the last eight years, the U.S. has been pretty adamant on settlement expansion, rhetorically,” the Israeli diplomat continued. “Nothing happens on policy. … My point is, in terms of U.S. policy, it’s either a modified or more polished version of what you and I already know from the last 15 years.”
“I think she is under pressure,” the Israeli diplomat observed. “One side is pressing her to go forward on the Palestinian issue,” the Israeli diplomat observed. But for “the other side,” he said, referring to professional Middle East observers, “let’s face it, the Palestinian issue is about maintenance, not breakthrough.”
WASHINGTON — Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi cut short his visit to Washington after getting an extraordinarily cool reception from the new U.S. administration.
Last year, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi had no problem setting up meetings with top officials in the U.S. government…..
Diplomatic sources said Ashkenazi failed to obtain access to any Cabinet member, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Israeli military chief, who sought to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat, was also unable meet his counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff….
On March 12, Ashkenazi left for a five-day visit to the United States meant to lobby the Obama administration to abandon the planned U.S. dialogue with Iran. Ashkenazi, scheduled to meet with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was expected to have brought new Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
But the diplomatic sources said the administration made it clear that nobody in a policy-making position was available to sit with Ashkenazi. This included the president, Vice President Joseph Biden, Gates, National Intelligence director Dennis Blair or Mullen….
“The administration is sending a very clear message to Israel, and this is we want to talk about Palestine and not Iran,” a diplomat who has been following U.S.-Israel relations said.
Ashkenazi has obtained a meeting with National Security Advisor James Jones. But the sources said the meeting would focus on U.S. demands for Israel to ease military restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The Obama administration believes that Israel is as much or more of a problem as it is an ally, at least until Israel’s disagreements with its neighbors are resolved,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said….
The Israeli population in the West Bank rose from 191,600 at the end of 2000 to 289,600 at the end of 2008, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, a rate of growth more than double that of the nation as a whole. So far the White House has not released a detailed position on the issue, and it will be one of Obama’s more closely watched first steps…..
Israel’s top contender for defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, has opposed territorial concessions to the Palestinians for security reasons. As military chief of staff under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he opposed the Gaza withdrawal and lost his job. A collection of religious parties expected to be in the coalition hold out hope that settlements can be expanded and more of the West Bank brought into Israel…”
Benjamin Netanyahu will likely shelve recently revived Israeli peace talks with Syria given its territorial demands and alliance with Iran, a senior adviser to Israel’s prime minister-designate said on Thursday. A panel of expert advisors have told Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to devote his attention to negotiations with Syria, thereby creating a chance for regional peace.
From the White House Blog: President Obama released a special video message for all those celebrating Nowruz.
“…He invoked the shared humanity of the Iranian and U.S. peoples and appealed directly to Iran’s leaders for “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” Obama added that he hopes Iran will assume its “rightful place in the community of nations” but that doing so “comes with real responsibilities” and that the goal “cannot be reached through terror or arms.” Obama’s apparent efforts at outreach come ahead of a March 31 international summit on Afghanistan policy, to which Washington has invited Tehran.
Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy’s, The Cable includes this remark from Parsi:
“This is huge,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that supports U.S. engagement with Tehran. “First of all, he is addressing the people and the government, which has not been done before. At one point he talks about the Islamic Republic. He’s signaling he’s not looking for regime change; he’s recognizing Iran’s system. “You always heard Rice and Bush say ‘Iranian regime,'” Parsi noted. “It’s a big difference.”
TEHRAN (Reuters) – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Friday world powers had been persuaded they could not block Iran’s nuclear progress, but he made no mention of a message by U.S. President Barack Obama to his country. Full Article
Saad Hariri, said on Monday that the general election in June will be a straight choice between Hizbullah and the country’s sovereignty. …Hariri said if his coalition wins, it will invite the opposition to join a unity government but on condition there is no blocking minority, as is currently the case.
“The current government is not functioning,” he said. “Because there is a blocking minority and tension inside the government. Nobody is able to do anything. We haven’t been able to pass a budget, approve laws or reforms.”
Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri said on Saturday Lebanon would be the first to benefit from a Syrian-Israeli peace deal, adding that Syrian-Saudi rapprochement is needed in order to unite the Arab stance on the Arab Peace Initiative. In an interview with Radio France International, Hariri said that Western openness toward Syria would not occur at Lebanon’s expense adding: “We would be the first to benefit from the peace, because when Syria signs, a lot of things would change.”
Hariri explained that Syrian-Saudi rapprochement is “a needed Arab process” in light of the existing tensions in the region, particularly when “the new Israeli government is not a centrist one.”
The Lebanese Parliamentary Elections:Outcomes May Jeopardize U.S. Security Interests in the Middle East
Sent by Charbel Moussa, MD, PhD, AAN
President, American Lebanese Assembly
The upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections (June 7th, 2009) signify a momentous shift in Lebanon’s modern history. The democratic forces of the March 14 alliance are campaigning against pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian factions, which constitute the March 8 alliance……
Iran not only aims at religious and ideological domination of the Middle East, but also threatens the strategic assets that the U.S. considers vital to its interests in the region. Iran recognizes that the Islamic expansion, which constitutes the main pillar of the Islamic Revolution, will be hindered by pro-American forces, especially moderate Arab states. To overcome this dilemma, Iran actively attempts to undermine America’s influence in order to secure a strategic regional role.
Destabilization of moderate Arab states. Iran deeply resents the Sunni domination over Islam in the Arab world, and has orchestrated an aggressive campaign to strengthen Shiite Muslims all over the region…..
Threatening the strategic oil reserves in the Middle East. A Hezbollah victory in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections will provide Iran with a valuable strategic and tactical opportunity to win the hearts and minds of people in the region. Iran’s ideological expansion, as declared by the Islamic Revolution, will incite the Shiite population in moderate Arab States and that will lead to political instability. ….
Violating the security and peace of the State of Israel. The friendship between the United States and Israel necessitates that the U.S. binds to the security commitments towards the Jewish State. Should Hezbollah win the Lebanese elections, it will continue its war strategy domestically unopposed and threaten Lebanon and Israel’s national security. Hezbollah will drag the Lebanese institutions, and mainly the army, into confrontation with the Israelis. It is essential for the U.S. to protect the security of Israel via support of human rights in Lebanon and to actively prevent Hezbollah from turning Lebanon into another Gaza. Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon is far more serious that the GAZA model, since Hezbollah enjoys more strategic, economic and military support in Lebanon and the entire Shiite Crescent.
U.S. Policy Recommendations:
1- Continue to push for the Implementation of UNSCR 1559 and the disarmament of all militias and groups in Lebanon…..
5- Assist and protect the March 14 forces to adopt a strategy of peace in contrast to Hezbollah’s war and resistance strategy
6- Enable the Lebanese Armed Forces to become the sole protector of Lebanon’s security and peace by maintaining consistent U.S. support and training
7- Assist Lebanon to lobby moderate Arab states and the Arab League into adopting a framework of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel
American Lebanese Assembly (ALA), American Lebanese Coordination Council (ALCC), American Lebanese National Mission (ALNM), Lebanese American Renaissance Partnership (LARP)
in upcoming legislative elections and will continue to fully support the Doha agreement, French diplomats have said. The remarks come ahead of a three-day visit by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to start on Monday.
France “will not boycott any government that might emerge after the June 7 legislative elections,” a French diplomat told As-Safir daily in comments published Saturday.
The diplomat, who was not identified, said the French government was “not worried that Hizbullah could possibly accede to power.
“The party is considered like any other element (taking part) in the Lebanese game. We believe that everybody will accept the election results.” … Chevalier reiterated his government’s support of the Doha agreement, which he said was instrumental in “stabilizing (Lebanon) … and appeasing tensions.”