First analysis of the Mitchell Meeting

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 …

Arab paper: Major breakthrough expected in Israeli-Syrian talks

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.

Comments (16)


1. Shai said:

Joshua,

Could it be that Obama has determined that the only way to reach his goals is with giant steps, rather than small ones? And that rebuilding relations slowly is… simply too slow? I’m happy to see what appears to be a renewed understanding on the Administration’s part that without Syria, no Palestine could be created. And that, in fact, Syria and the rest of the Arab world might have to come first (at least in the sense of warming or normalizing relations with Israel). It is absolutely clear to me and I believe also to Netanyahu that Katzrin is far easier than E. Jerusalem. And if Israeli public opinion must substantially change before a Palestine could be created, then Katzrin may have to go long before E. Jerusalem does.

Over 12.5% of Obama’s first term in office is gone! It’s not coming back. Time is running out, and I know Obama doesn’t want to write in his memoirs one day “We tried everything we could…” His is a goal-oriented policy, not a process-oriented one. It’s going to be 2-3 years full of “Hail Mary’s”, I believe.

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July 27th, 2009, 6:30 am

 

2. Shai said:

Israel is about to be tested on multiple fronts. On the Palestinian front, it will have to prove its ability to freeze all building activity in the settlements, to move forward. On the Syrian/Lebanese front, it will have to prove its readiness to give back land. And, on the Hamas/Hezbollah front, it will have to prove its self-restraint, by not bombarding anything and everything that moves in this upcoming period of peace-talk turbulence.

History in our region has shown, that when certain groups feel ignored or disrespected, they tend to “voice themselves” by diverting attention back to their concerns and grievances. Israel has proven that the only way it knows how to respond is by force. And that usually ends whatever peace initiatives had been going on at the time. Obama’s challenge will be no less to bring Israelis and Arabs to the table, as it will to restrain Israeli response to likely provocations.

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July 27th, 2009, 8:52 am

 

3. Qifa Nabki said:

Dear Josh

Thanks for the link. But just to clarify… money could well have bought the election for M14. The research does not disprove that… it merely suggests that the number of people flown back from abroad may not have been as high as previously imagined.

But all the caveats are in the article.

Thanks again,

QN

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July 27th, 2009, 12:26 pm

 

4. Qifa Nabki said:

The problem with nafis tawil is that if your desired outcome doesn’t materialize — years later! — all you really end up with is a lot of hot air.

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July 27th, 2009, 12:29 pm

 

5. syria1 said:

http://www.albawaba.com/en/countries/Syria/250777

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.

So does that mean Syria Air is alive again?

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July 27th, 2009, 1:11 pm

 

6. Kano said:

Hi Josh

Thanks for the link. Almost record visitor numbers to my blog today and we are still 15:00.

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July 27th, 2009, 2:11 pm

 

7. t_desco said:

I’m glad to hear that the authors of the studies quoted by Qifa Nabki may try to undertake “a third joint study”.

Factoring in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression sounds like a really really (really) good idea…

In contrast, the operation to affect the vote in those few decisive electoral districts was probably very sophisticated, given the involvement of organizations like IRI (Eva Golinger’s book, “The Chávez Code”, is very interesting in that regard).

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July 27th, 2009, 4:03 pm

 

8. Ghat Albird said:

Dr. Landis’s analysis of the Mitchell Meeting does not come across as positive as one would have hoped for given the pr efforts as well as the multiple visits by Gates and Jones along with Senator Mitchell. A Middle Easter web site carried the following item as opnion.

“According an un-identified source the most popular joke circulating among the Israeli prime minister’s senior advisors is as follows:

“What does an American do when he discovers his house is a wreck, or that his washing machine is not working?”

“Easy, he calls on Obama to give a speech. Problem solved.”

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July 27th, 2009, 6:43 pm

 

9. Alex said:

Regarding Syrian American relations, in real life, going from OFF to ON does not take place in an instant like it does in digital signals. There is always a transition period with lots of oscillations.

http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/cpu/intel/penryn-oc2/transient_no_offset.jpg

We should not try to analyze those instantaneous changes, but to accept them and to look at the direction of the overall trend instead.

I think if we start from the last day of the Bush administration and compare to today, there is an obvious improvement in US Syria relations … despite the occasional negativity in between.

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July 27th, 2009, 7:39 pm

 

10. t_desco said:

Wow, that was fast… :-D

“Imad Mustafa, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, said the embassy was informed that Washington had lifted economic sanctions related to civilian aviation and the export of communications equipment to Syria, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reports.”
UPI

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July 27th, 2009, 8:33 pm

 

11. Alex said:

Syria back as regional player impossible to circumvent .. Bashar Assad assumes his late father’s regional power.

La Syrie redevient un acteur régional incontournable

LE MONDE | 27.07.09 | 14h20

BEYROUTH CORRESPONDANTE

ans les luttes d’influence qui agitent le Moyen-Orient, Bachar Al-Assad peut se targuer d’avoir remporté une belle victoire en récupérant, au moins provisoirement, la place qu’avait jadis occupée son père, Hafez Al-Assad, celle de leader incontournable dans la région. En atteste la visite, dimanche 26 juillet à Damas, de George Mitchell, l’envoyé spécial de la Maison Blanche pour le Moyen-Orient. Le 14 juin, George Mitchell rencontrait déjà Bachar Al-Assad à Damas pour ce qui constituait alors la première visite officielle d’un diplomate américain de ce rang en Syrie depuis 2005.

En quatre ans, Bachar Al-Assad est parvenu à hisser la Syrie de statut d’Etat infréquentable au rang de puissance incontournable, courtisée par presque l’ensemble de la communauté internationale, sans pour autant avoir répondu concrètement aux exigences des uns et des autres.

Entre 2005 et 2008, le régime syrien apparaissait fragile, menacé par l’administration américaine de George Bush, boycotté par la France, l’Arabie saoudite et l’Egypte qui le suspectaient d’avoir partie liée à l’assassinat du premier ministre libanais Rafic Hariri en 2005.

Aujourd’hui, la situation du leader syrien est à ce point confortable qu’il peut appuyer verbalement l’aile dure de Téhéran, incarnée par l’ayatollah Ali Khamenei et le président Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en pleine crise iranienne, tout en se voyant offrir par les Etats-Unis un signe tangible de normalisation avec le retour, annoncé le 24 juin et après quatre ans d’absence, d’un ambassadeur américain à Damas.

Le 3 juillet, M. Assad, décontracté, invitait, sur la chaîne britannique Sky News, son homologue américain Barack Obama à venir à Damas. “Le président Obama est jeune. Le président Assad est aussi très jeune. Peut-être est-il temps pour ces jeunes dirigeants de faire une différence dans le monde”, avait déclaré son épouse Asma.

L’Arabie saoudite, à l’instar des Etats-Unis, très préoccupée des ambitions nucléaires iraniennes, a elle aussi décidé de dépêcher un ambassadeur en Syrie, à un poste vacant depuis un an. Sans avoir renoncé à soutenir ni le Hezbollah libanais ni le Hamas palestinien, deux menaces armées aux portes d’Israël, Damas a également repris langue, indirectement, avec Tel-Aviv, grâce à la médiation de la Turquie. “Les Syriens possèdent la clé de la région”, souligne le président turc, M. Abdullah Gül.

Le même constat avait été fait, en 2008, par la France qui, pour sauver le projet d’Union pour la Méditerranée (UPM) cher au président Sarkozy, avait initié le retour tangible de la Syrie dans les bonnes grâces internationales. M. Assad figurait ainsi parmi les invités d’honneur au défilé du 14 juillet, en 2008.

L’élection d’un président libanais après des mois de blocage, l’échange de représentations diplomatiques entre le Liban et la Syrie et le bon déroulement des législatives libanaises du 7 juin ont été autant de démonstrations, selon la France, de la fiabilité de la Syrie. Elle se voit récompensée pour sa “non-nuisance” dans le dossier libanais.

ANCIEN RÔLE D’ARBITRE

Les rapports entre Claude Guéant, le secrétaire général de l’Elysée, et le maître de Damas sont officiellement “constructifs”, voire amicaux, en tout cas réguliers. Le chef de la diplomatie française, Bernard Kouchner, a aussi présidé dans la capitale syrienne une conférence régionale des ambassadeurs français le 11 juillet. A cette occasion, il a rencontré les autorités syriennes, auxquelles il n’accordait pourtant que peu de crédit lors de ses premières tentatives de démêler l’écheveau libanais.

Le pari stratégique français visant à éloigner la Syrie de son allié iranien a montré ses limites. En revanche, les bonnes dispositions françaises ont drainé ce que Damas espérait : une reprise des relations avec Washington.

La Syrie occupe aussi un rôle pivot dans la résolution de la crise interpalestinienne entre le Hamas et le Fatah. Parce que la capitale syrienne est la base arrière des radicaux palestiniens. Mahmoud Abbas, le président palestinien, s’en va consulter très régulièrement Bachar Al-Assad. Début juillet, Omar Suleiman, le chef des moukhabarrat égyptien, infatigable mécano du processus de réconciliation, a envoyé son adjoint et son directeur de cabinet à Damas.

Mais le rapprochement le plus spectaculaire, reste celui entamé avec l’Arabie saoudite en janvier, à l’occasion du sommet arabe du Koweït. De sources informées, cette “réconciliation” a été décidée par le roi Abdallah, qui s’en est ouvert à Bachar Al-Assad dans un tête-à-tête en marge du sommet, sans avoir consulté au préalable son partenaire égyptien, Hosni Moubarak. Une visite du roi Abdallah à Damas est attendue prochainement. Le sort d’un nouveau gouvernement libanais pourrait se jouer à cette occasion.

Ainsi la Syrie, dont l’armée avait été chassée sans ménagement du Liban après l’assassinat de Rafic Hariri, retrouve son ancien rôle d’arbitre des querelles libanaises. Malgré la victoire du clan dit “anti-syrien” aux législatives du 7 juin. L’importance de la représentation de l’opposition (dont le Hezbollah) dans le gouvernement libanais sera négociée sous l’égide de la Syrie.

Fortement symbolique de la “victoire” syrienne dans la région sera, enfin, la visite à Damas du nouveau chef du gouvernement libanais, Saad Hariri. Il avait pourtant accusé la Syrie d’avoir assassiné son père. Mais comme tant de Libanais, avant lui, il devra reprendre l’éternel chemin de Damas.

Cécile Hennion

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July 27th, 2009, 10:31 pm

 

12. Alex said:

Syria key to regional power shift

http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/07/2009727105039364414.html

By Mark Levine, Middle East historian

Three senior US officials are the Middle East in a bid to kick-start peace talks [GALLO/GETTY]

It is hard not to feel like it is déjà vu all over again. A US Middle East peace envoy travels to Damascus and then to Israel in an effort to jump start Israel-Syrian negotiations over a land for peace deal involving the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1967. At the same time progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front seems stymied and the US remains reluctant to impose a final solution on the two parties.

The push towards Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations fits a familiar pattern in the larger Middle East peace process, one that returns to the first years of the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s.

The logic is simple: while Israel could never achieve peace without an historic compromise with Palestinians, it could never achieve security without reaching a peace agreement with its last remaining front line confrontation state since it signed peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Indeed, while ideologically committed to an anti-Zionist, Baathist foreign policy, and despite its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria has been reliable in upholding the ceasefire along the de facto border with Israel since the disengagement agreement between the two countries brokered by Henry Kissinger, the then US secretary of state, in 1974.

Carrot and stick

In the context of the heady early days of Oslo, it is not surprising that Bill Clinton, the then US president, was able to convince Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, to agree in principle (but not in writing) to withdraw to the 1967 borders with Syria in return for a formal peace treaty. This even though Israel had effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, 15 years after their conquest.

George Mitchell, left, met with the Syrian president before going on to Israel [EPA]
The Israel-Syrian negotiations early in the Oslo process faltered because Israel was not ready publicly to agree to a withdrawal, while Hafez al-Assad, the then Syrian president, was unwilling to accept various Israeli demands for a continued security and economic presence in the territory.

But that tangibly close brush with peace remained a “deposit in the pocket” of Clinton, ready to be taken out and unfolded at the opportune moment.

While it might have been imagined that such a moment would occur as Israelis and Palestinians arrived at a final peace agreement, in fact just the opposite happened: Israeli-Syrian negotiations seemed to pick up steam again whenever Israeli-Palestinian negotiations hit a major impasse.

Moving towards a separate Israeli-Syrian peace became both a threat to wield against Palestinians when they refused to accept demands for compromise, and a carrot to entice Israel into making politically unpalatable concessions on the Palestinian track.

This dynamic was in fact fully in play during the final year of Clinton’s second term, when Ehud Barak, the then Israeli prime minister, pressed for direct negotiations with Syria, precisely because he was unsure he could bridge the remaining differences with the Palestinians.

It was only when Barak apparently got cold feet about bringing an agreement for a
full withdrawal to an increasingly right-wing Israeli public and the negotiations collapsed that he focused full attention on the Palestinian track.

‘Axis of evil’

After the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, followed by the election of George Bush as US president and the “war on terror” that emerged with full force in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Israeli-Syrian negotiations became moribund.

Syria’s close relationship with an increasingly belligerent Iran (especially after Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005), and its inclusion in the enlarged group of “Axis of Evil” in 2002, made it impossible for the US to meaningfully play the “honest broker’s” role between Israel and Syria.

Syria was never shut completely out of the negotiating loop, however.

Despite the belligerent public tone in US-Syrian relations under the Bush administration, the government of Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian president, quietly provided the US with occasional intelligence and help along its hundreds of miles of shared border with Iraq after the US invasion and occupation.

And in the absence of American leadership, Turkey brokered several rounds of talks between Israel and Syria during the last year of the Bush administration.

Blow to Iran

With the election of Barack Obama as US president and the resumption of a more “pragmatic” and “respectful” US attitude toward dealing with regimes across the Middle East, it is not surprising that the US would once again seek to engage Syria with an eye to restarting negotiations with Israel.

Besides the direct benefits of achieving a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian peace, the Obama administration likely see several other potential positive outcomes to a sustained engagement with Damascus.

First, the US would clearly like to lure Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Both the US and Israel consider a nuclear Iran the primary strategic threat in the region,
and if Syria could be enticed away from Iran and towards the US-axis it would be a major blow to Ahmadinejad’s prestige and strategic position.

At the moment it is hard to see why Syria would abandon its traditional ally in favor of an untested relationship with a superpower that is committed to ensuring the superiority of Syria’s primary adversary.

But al-Assad’s ultimate goal, like his father before him, is to pursue a path of gradual development for Syria that maintains rather than threatens his regime’s hold on power.

Hamas

Although improbable, the right combination of carrots and sticks by the US could put Syria in a position to reconsider its strategic positioning in the same way that Libya has done in the last few years, especially if Washington’s relationship with Tehran becomes increasingly belligerent and the Syrian government fears being caught in the perilous cross-fire of a major US/Israeli-Iranian confrontation.

Syria also remains a critical power-broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – far more so than during the Oslo/Clinton years, when Israel and the locally based Arafat/Fatah-led Palestinian Authority were the primary negotiating partners.

Today it is the Syrian-supported Hamas, specifically its political leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus, that holds the key to any serious resumption of negotiations between the two peoples towards a final status agreement.

The Syrian government can either encourage or frustrate “moderation” by the Hamas leadership depending on what it feels it stands to gain from such a development, and such a calculus will be impossible to undertake before detailed conversations take place between the Obama administration and the Syrian government.

Warning to Palestinians

This is precisely why George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, visited Damascus on his way to Israel last week, where he declared both that the president was “adamant” about reviving the peace process – not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but towards a “comprehensive peace” between Israel and all its Arab neighbours.

Will the Obama administration learn from Bill Clinton’s mistakes? [GALLO/GETTY]
Mitchell stated before leaving Damascus that his talks with al-Assad were “very candid and positive”.

Given the distrust of the right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, for the religiously oriented government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, it is not surprising that despite Turkey’s announcement that it was ready to resume its mediation Israel would prefer that the US take over that role.

Finally, the US reactivation of the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track could, as it has in the past, serve as a warning to Palestinians that if they do not make more painful compromises in order to achieve a final status agreement, they could find themselves left in the cold as Israel moves towards peace with its one time nemesis.

The logic of such a move is clear. On the most crucial remaining areas of contention – Israeli settlements, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem – the Obama administration has shown little willingness to pressure Israel to make meaningful concessions, such as agreeing to a major territorial withdrawal from the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

If this dynamic persists, the only chance for achieving a peace agreement would be if Palestinians compromise on these issues, something there is little chance Hamas will agree to in the current balance of forces.

A change in tune by its Syrian patron, however unlikely, could however force it to adopt a more flexible position, which is no doubt what Mitchell is hoping al-Assad might do, if he was offered the right incentives.

Balance of power

Ultimately, the most likely scenario whereby a more (from a US perspective) productive relationship with Syria could help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian, and through it, regional, peace agreement, would be if a serious improvement in US-Syrian relations convinced Israelis and Palestinians that the balance of power between them was at a tipping point, with Israel in an unprecedented position of strength and Palestinians too weak to hold out for better terms, thus bringing both sides to make compromises to close a final status agreement.

Of course, this was the same logic behind Oslo, which ultimately failed to produce peace or security for either Israelis or Palestinians.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will repeat, or instead learn from, the mistakes of the last Democratic administration to shepherd the peace process.

It is impossible to know precisely what Mitchell offered to al-Assad during his recent visit.

What can be said with a high degree of confidence, however, is that the solutions to the myriad impasses between the Israelis and Palestinians lie not in Damascus, but in the painfully entangled landscape of Jerusalem and the West Bank, precisely where the administration has yet to be willing to tread.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

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July 27th, 2009, 10:52 pm

 

13. Yossi (Rumyal) said:

Whadaya know Israel wants to negotiate with Syria, what happened to accountabilty, didn’t Netanyahu get elected by promising to negotiate only under the principle of “peace-for-peace”?!

So… when do you guys in Syria get to download Google Chrome?

Also in Syrian news today:

Scoop: Paula Abdul’s ‘Idol’ deal still up in the air

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32175007/ns/entertainment-gossip/

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July 28th, 2009, 4:07 am

 

14. Nur al-Cubicle said:

“some analysts suggest that Damascus is dragging its feet out of fear of al-Qaida,”

Wow, there are analysts who are so completely dim-witted?

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July 29th, 2009, 2:30 am

 

15. SimoHurtta said:

BERİL DEDEOĞLU: Syria’s importance

During the George W. Bush administration, Syria was systematically kept apart from the international system. It was then supposed that this country, which was presented as a “rogue state,” was about to re-establish close ties with Russia and a so-called axis of Iran-Russia-Syria would recreate the Cold War balance.

And when this happened, it was hoped that a pro-American counter axis, composed of Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel (and maybe Turkey) would resist this pro-Russian axis, allowing the United States to legitimate its Middle Eastern policies.

This scenario didn’t come into effect as the US couldn’t prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan; besides, Turkey’s attitude toward this scenario was more than reluctant. Despite the expectations, Turkey didn’t help the US occupy Iraq, and it didn’t support the idea of isolating Syria from the international system. Because Turkey promptly understood that it would be the country that would suffer more than any other from a new Russian-US Cold War, it did its best to stop such a scenario. Turkey’s stance became very meaningful in the context of the new US policy introduced by Barack Obama and his administration. Apparently, Turkey’s efforts to “win” Syria were adopted by the new American administration, which is actually implementing diplomatic and economic measures to support this policy.

All these developments offer some kind of explanation for the frequent visits of George Mitchell, who is President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, to Damascus. It’s known that he is working hard to ensure that Syria doesn’t make mistakes in case of an armed conflict between Iran and Israel. It appears that Turkey and the US’s joint efforts intend to avoid a probable regional madness; that’s why, on the one hand, they keep proposing cooperation to Syria through Syrian-Israeli peace talks and, on the other, they pressure Israel by threatening it with isolation.

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July 29th, 2009, 8:36 am

 

16. t_desco said:

STL investigating the Halabi angle?

Or just covering all bases?

Jumblatt doesn’t like the ‘civil war option’ (for the time being):

“He also said that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “has become a synonym for nightmare” for some Lebanese, especially following the Der Spiegel report, which accused Hezbollah of plotting and executing the Hariri assassination, and that “initially aimed at instigating Sunni-Shia strife.”
Jumblatt added that some people believe that the tribunal intentionally leaked the information to be used in the report, saying that such a thing would allow all kinds of theories to flourish and would confirm that the tribunal is easy to manipulate.”

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July 29th, 2009, 1:31 pm

 

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