Posted by Joshua on Monday, July 27th, 2009
First analysis of the Mitchell Meeting
by Joshua Landis
Syria Comment, Sunday July 25, 2009
Mitchel did not say what the United States expected from Syria, especially on Hamas as he left his meeting with Assad. Mitchell said after meeting President Bashar al-Assad that restarting talks between Syria and Israel was a “near-term goal” for Washington. “If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor,” he said. “I told President Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Mitchell told reporters.
Mitchell’s brief is Israeli-Arab peace. The main sticking point in US-Syrian relations at this time is the Iraq intelligence sharing deal, the details of which seem to be concluded, but which Syria is not implementing. Some analysts suggest that Damascus is dragging its feet out of fear of al-Qaida, which might launch a terror campaign against Syria. I find this argument dubious. Damascus insists on US compliance on concerns it has been raising with Washington for some time. I do not know exactly what these concerns are other than having an ambassador appointed, ending the era of public demonization of Syria, and normalizing relations.
Speaking of normalizing relations, the Airbus export license on which Syria had hung it hopes of reviving Syria Air and launching Pearl airlines was rejected last month. Because the US refuses to sell new Boeing planes to Syria and has put every impediment in the way of Syria purchasing spare parts to repair its aging fleet, Syria Air is all but grounded. To remedy this embarrassing situation, President Assad has sought to buy European planes, but it turns out that over 10% of these planes are manufactured in the US, permitting the US treasury department to refuse permission to the Europeans to sell them to Syria. This means that Obama can effectively close down the Syrian air industry, which it is doing. The embargo on planes and aviation parts is just one aspect of the US imposed economic sanctions Syria believes Obama should end.
The US clearly has a pack of economic, military, and political cards to play. If, for example, the US demands Syria satisfy US concerns on an entire portfolio, such as intelligence sharing and Iraq, in exchange for normalizing one element of economic relations, such as aviation, Syria will have to hand over much of its foreign policy bag of tricks simply to purchase normal relations with the West. This is undoubtedly not an exchange rate Damascus likes.
Western diplomats are not sympathetic to Syrian complaints that they are being treated unfairly. “Syrians think they are the center of the World,” one non-American Western diplomat complained to me in June. I replied that most Syrian officials I know become indignant when Westerners reminded them that they are bit players on the world stage. They insist that they have “nafis tawiil,” or long breath, meaning that they will refuse deals on terms they consider humiliating or bad even if refusal costs them a heavy price.
To predict how negotiations may turn out is pointless. It is too early to say. We don’t know what sort of deal is shaping up in Damascus or where the stickiest points are. Syrian officials explain that US-Syrian relations have been dormant for eight years and suggest that it is quite natural that only a few months of dialogue cannot break down the great distrust and misunderstanding built up by the Bush years.
Addendum (July 27, 2009): US lifts Syrian aviation and IT industry sanctions (Via Syria1)
According to the Kuwait News, United States President Barack Obama lifted bans on exporting goods and materials to the Syrian aviation industry. Also lifted were bans on exporting Industrial Technology products, including hardware and software. Obama was considering lifting more bans with Syria. The sanctions had been in place since the mid 1980’s. Imad Mustafa, the Syrian envoy the to US said these economic sanctions would be discussed thoroughly this week with President Bashar Assad and US special envoy to the Mideast, George Mitchell in order to improve bilateral relations between the two countries. © 2009 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)
“I don’t see any major changes on Bashar’s part,” Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post last week.
“And whatever changes there are, [they] are very incremental and very hard for the US to pick up.” …
“What I think is they want to be able to get the Golan [Heights] back in exchange for some sort of change in their relationship with Iran, which is not described, and where they can politically support Hizbullah and Hamas but perhaps without supplying them” militarily, Tabler said. …
“The question is: Are Israelis the kind of people that will give back the Golan [in a peace agreement] for a maybe?” Tabler said. “Probably not. I can’t see it.”
U.S. wants Syria help in Israel-Palestinian talks
Sun Jul 26, 2009
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – The United States wants Syria’s help in forging a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. envoy George Mitchell said on Sunday. Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East, said after meeting President Bashar al-Assad that restarting talks between Syria, which backs the Palestinian group Hamas, and Israel was a “near-term goal” for Washington. “If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor,” he said.
The indirect talks between Syria and Israel, which were being mediated by Turkey, were suspended during the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip in December. Turkey said this month it was ready to resume mediation of those talks. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks backed by a quartet of international mediators — the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia — are also frozen. Mitchell, who is on a regional tour that includes Israel, described his discussion with Assad as “very candid and positive” but he did not say what the United States expected from Syria, especially on Hamas.
The Islamist group, which has controlled Gaza since defeating forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, opposes Abbas’s approach to peace with Israel. Hamas has also resisted international pressure to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
U.S.-SYRIA TIES IMPROVE
Syria’s support for Hamas has contributed to deteriorating ties between Damascus and Washington in the last several years, which improved after President Barack Obama came to office in January, and said Middle East peace was a U.S. priority.
Syria remains under U.S. sanctions but Obama has decided to return a ambassador to Syria. Washington withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest against the assassination in Beirut of Rafik al-Hariri, a Lebanese parliamentarian and former prime minister.
“I told President Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Mitchell told reporters. Syrian officials privately say Damascus has played a role in bringing Hamas to a more accommodating position on peace with Israel, including recent statements by the group calling for the establishment of Palestinian state within the borders of land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.
Abbas has said he will not revive the negotiations unless Israel halts settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, in accordance with a 2003 peace “road map” that also commits the Palestinians to control militants.
Israel has been trying to work out a compromise on the settlement issue with Washington, linked with progress toward normalization of relations with Arab countries.
Mitchell said the normalization issue was “the ultimate aim” that a five-year-old Arab peace initiative also backs.
Reuters Video of Mitchell’s visit.
How Many Lebanese Were Flown In To Vote? Qifa Nabki has done some extraordinary sloothing to argue that money did not buy the vote for Hariri in the June elections.
“Eat and Drink in Damascus, What the Lonely Planet left out,” – See the Syrian Foodie in london – Blog. It is new, fun and promising.
Haaretz: Miliband said Syria was in a “unique position to influence Iranian policy choices.” …
“How to Stay in Charge: Not Just Coercion, Sham Democracy Too.” Economist on Middle East and Syria.
Tal Pavel writes: “In Syria, Twitter enabled a wave of protests against the decision by the website, ‘LinkedIn’ – a social networking geared towards those interested in business – to block its services in Syria, and the decision was ultimately reversed.”
Water crisis uproots Syrian farmers
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis SHAIZAR CASTLE, Syria, July 27 – Only a few decades ago, fish were plentiful in the Orontes river which for thousands of years has …
FEATURE-Water crisis uproots Syrian farmers By Khaled Yacoub Oweis SHAIZAR CASTLE, Syria, July 27 – Only a few decades ago, fish were plentiful in the Orontes river which for thousands of years has …
A major breakthrough is expected in peace talks between Israel and Syria in the next few days, London-based Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Saturday.
The paper, quoting ‘senior sources,’ reported that the progress was the result of “unprecedented” intensive action on the part of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Turkish mediators in recent weeks.
According to the report, Israel has relayed messages to Damascus that it is willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for Syrian guarantees and a commitment to cut ties with Iran and Hizbullah.