Has the US Missed a Chance for Arab – Israeli Peace?

A Syrian-Israeli Breakthrough?
David Ignatius
Washington Post
August 27, 2008

DAMASCUS — Of all the wild cards in the Middle East deck, this one may be the most intriguing: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears ready for direct peace talks with Israel, if the United States will join France as a co-sponsor.

That’s the word from senior advisers to Assad, who spoke with me here this week. The same assessment comes from top French officials in Paris. A direct meeting would raise the Syrian-Israeli dialogue to a new level; so far, it has been conducted indirectly, through Turkey.

The Syrians would like to see a clear signal from the Bush administration that it supports the peace process and that the United States is prepared to join the French as “godfather” of the talks. But Syrian officials are pessimistic and say they doubt that the administration, which has sought to isolate and punish Syria, will change its policy in the few months it has left. That would disappoint some of Assad’s advisers, who prefer to move quickly, rather than wait for a new U.S. administration to organize its foreign policy priorities.

The prospect for direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations will come into clearer focus next week when French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to visit here for talks with Assad. That meeting follows Assad’s trip to Paris last month for a summit of Mediterranean nations. At that gathering, the Syrian leader sat around the same table with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but the two apparently didn’t talk directly.

The French diplomatic engagement with Syria has already helped break the logjam in Lebanon, opening the way finally for election of a president and a new government. The new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, visited Syria this month to discuss opening formal diplomatic ties; Damascus had rejected such discussions in the past, regarding Lebanon as part of “Greater Syria.”

Sarkozy’s chief diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, has briefed U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley regularly about the French diplomatic moves, but U.S. public statements have been cautious.

Syria wants an American role in the negotiations partly as a guarantee that Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the border that existed before the June 1967 war. The Syrians have received private assurances through Turkish mediators that Israel will indeed withdraw as part of an overall peace deal, and that disputes about borders, water rights and other technical issues can be resolved through formulas explored in U.S.-backed negotiations during the 1990s.

Syrian officials caution that Washington shouldn’t expect any quick, decisive break in its alliance with Iran. Instead, they say, Syria aims to broaden its relationships to include Turkey, France, Russia and even the United States and Israel, in addition to Iran. Officials here speak of a role for Syria as a potential bridge to Iran rather than as a new means of isolating it.

The Syrians certainly would like to be less reliant on Iran. The relationship has been strained since the indirect dialogue with Israel was announced in May, in part because of an Iranian regional rivalry with Turkey.

“If you force Assad to choose — to leave the alliance with Tehran first [as a condition for U.S. support for the peace talks], he’ll never do it,” cautions a French official. “You have to offer a slow choice. He will gradually discover he doesn’t need the alliance with Iran.”

Assad’s trip to Moscow last week, in which he discussed arms sales and military cooperation with Russia, raised concerns that Syria was slipping back into its old Cold War alignment. But officials here say the trip was driven in part by Assad’s concern that Syria could get squeezed in any future conflict between Iran and Israel — and Syria’s desire for Russian protection. In this sense, a strategic relationship with Russia might be an alternative to Syria’s current dependence on Iran, some Syrians argue.

Another card for Assad is his ability to pressure Hamas to restrain attacks in Gaza and the West Bank, sources here say. That would address a chief U.S. concern, which is Syrian support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups the United States views as terrorist organizations.

Israelis have been wondering for many months whether the peace feelers from Damascus are real. They may have a chance to find out soon, if the Bush administration decides to join France in sponsoring a meeting that would test everyone’s sincerity. Often enough in the Middle East, potential diplomatic breakthroughs prove to be illusory. But that’s no reason not to give this one a try — and soon.

Sarkozy to visit Syria on September 3: PARIS (AFP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday he would go to Syria on September 3, the latest step in the two states' bid to normalise ties severed after the 2005 murder of Lebanon's former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Syrian FM: No headway in peace talks with Israel
The Associated Press
Monday, August 25, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria: Syria’s foreign minister said Monday that no headway has been achieved in several rounds of indirect negotiations with Israel.

Walid al-Moallem said the talks mediated by Turkey “regrettably” have not progressed enough for the two parties to hold direct negotiations but added both Israel and Syria were “serious” about solving outstanding issues.

Jihad Makdisi for a smart "official" debate on Syria-Lebanon relations: Youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boyI9YzrkKY

Syria-Israel talks focused on border: Moualem: Reuters
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel are focused on the thorny issue of how much Syrian territory is under Israeli occupation, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday.

In the first official comment on the content of the talks, which began in May under Turkish mediation, Moualem said the two sides were seeking agreement on land Syria controlled before Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war.

"We feel that the two sides are serious about solving the lingering issues that are being discussed. Foremost is determination of the June 4, 1967 line," Moualem told reporters after meeting his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.

Nearly a decade of U.S.-supervised negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the extent of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a water-rich plateau.

Syria argued then that it was in control before the 1967 war of parts of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the edge of the Golan, and that these parts should be returned to Syria.

Israel captured the whole eastern shore along with the surrounding plateau in the war. The shoreline has since receded.

Moualem would not be drawn on the exact territorial lines Syria considers its borders. Control of the shoreline has been a major point of contention between the two sides, especially as Israel uses the lake as its main reservoir.

The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, seeking to prove the land belonged to Syria, told former U.S. President Bill Clinton he used to swim in the Sea of Galilee before 1967. He refused to sign a deal he considered fell short of liberating the whole of the Golan.  Continued…

Russia recognizes Georgia's two secessionist regions: In the Guardian, here:

"…Declaring that if his decision meant a new cold war, then so be it, President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree conferring Russian recognition on Georgia's two secessionist regions. The move flouted UN security council resolutions and dismissed western insistence during the crisis of the past three weeks on respecting Georgia's territorial integrity and international borders…"

Jordan sends humanitarian aid to South Ossetia: The aid was promised by King Abdullah II during his Sunday meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Bush condemns Russia's "irresponsible decision." According to the BBC:

US President George Bush warned his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, that his “irresponsible decision” was exacerbating tensions in the region.

Syria, Iran warm to Russia as US tensions grow: The Associated Press
By Sam Ghattas

Syria's President Bashar Assad has publicly stepped up his outreach to old ally Russia in recent days, seeking aid to build up Syrian military forces and offering Moscow help in return — in an apparent effort to exploit a new Russian-American rift.

U.S. officials have noticed: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Mideast leaders this week that they should worry about Syria's efforts to gain more sophisticated weapons.

Syria's long-term aim, however, remains unclear, in part because Assad also continues to pursue peace efforts with Israel — a key U.S. and European goal — even as he makes overtures to Russia that are sure to antagonize the West. Syria has a long history of apparently contradictory diplomatic moves as it maneuvers to find options and balance its interests.

Yet the latest Syrian moves feed directly into larger Western fears that the Russian-American standoff — prompted by Russia's invasion of Georgia — could lead Russia to provide more military and diplomatic aid to a host of countries and militant groups the United States sees as troublesome.

"The Russian move into Georgia has begun a tectonic shift in the (Mideast) region," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert in the United States. "It has emboldened Syria, Hezbollah and Iran to push harder against Israel and the U.S."…..

Syria and Iran: an Alliance of Convenience: Huffington Post, by Alon Ben-Meir

UNIFIL: Extensive smuggling continues on Lebanon-Syria border

Comments (2)


1. idaf said:

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman tells US officials: “World should open up to Syria”
BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanese President Michel Sleiman on Wednesday urged the international community to open up to Syria because of its key role in the region.

“The international community must open up to Syria, following the example set by France, because Syria plays a fundamental role at the regional level,” Sleiman said in a statement.

He made his remarks at a meeting with an American delegation led by Deputy Assistant to the Undersecretary of State for Near East Affairs David Hale.

Jailed officer sues ex-UN investigator in Hariri murder probe
BEIRUT (AFP) — A former Lebanese security chief detained over the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri is suing a former UN investigator in the case, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

General Jamil Sayyed, the former head of the general security department, filed the lawsuit in France against Detlev Mehlis, attorney Akram Azouri told reporters.

Sayyed is among four officers, who are believed to be close to Syria, who are in custody in Lebanon over the February 2005 assassination of Hariri in a massive Beirut car bombing.

“Jamil Sayyed’s lawyers in France have filed the lawsuit against Mehlis for distorting the investigation and calling false witnesses,” Azouri told a news conference.

Sayyed and the other officers — former presidential guard chief Mustafa Hamdan, the former head of the internal security forces Ali Hajj and the former chief of army intelligence Raymond Azar — have been held without charge since August 2005 but all have protested their innocence.

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August 27th, 2008, 5:31 pm

 

2. Frank al Irlandi said:

August 27, 2008 | 1826 GMT
Russia plans to increase its navy’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea and visit Syrian and “other friendly ports more frequently,” Reuters reported Aug. 27, citing Russian charge d’affaires Igor Belyaev. Belyaev said that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Syrian President Bashar al Assad wanted Russia and Syria “to advance ties in the economy, trade and energy fields, as well as military cooperation.”

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August 27th, 2008, 6:47 pm

 

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