Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, April 1st, 2009
Here are some extracts from Seymour Hersh’s excellent New Yorker article on the state of US-Syrian relations (copied below). Hersh quotes from the main actors and analysts to give us a sense of what is at stake and how likely real progress is to be made. Perhaps one has to discount a bit because most of those quoted have a stake in the success of a Syrian-Israeli peace. These who would throw up obstacles can remain silent.
The main debate at this stage is whether Israel and the US should demand Syria make a clean break with Iran or whether it is wiser, and perhaps more realistic, to try to bring both along in a larger deal where everyone gets something.
The Arab Summit was pretty much a disaster. Qadhafi stole the show again by calling Saudi King Abdullah a dupe of Britain and the US before he stormed out of the meeting, which lasted only one day of the intended two. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak skipped the summit, apparently upset that Qatar has been stealing the diplomatic limelight. Jordan’s King Abdullah II left early, reportedly because he was received at the airport by a member of the Qatari royal family instead of the emir. The Palestinians were overlooked, due to the failure to broker a unity government between Hamas and the PLO.
Everyone is horrified that the single agreement was to rally around Sudan’s president Bashir (see the New York Times), who has been called before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. The usual American interpretation of this is that the Arabs are incorrigible miscreants and their kings are only concerned about the West establishing a precedent that could threaten their own throwns. The Arab leaders respond by pointing to Iraq and its unhappy fate ever since “altruistic” Westerners strung up Saddam in the name of human rights, international justice, and improving the neighborhood.
Here are the Hersh bits.
The Obama Administration’s chance to engage in a Middle East peace.
by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker
…The consensus, as an ambassador now serving in Tel Aviv put it, was that the two sides had been “a lot closer than you might think.”
At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January, however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that the Israelis spoke only “the language of blood.” He called on the Arab world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and sever all “direct or indirect ties with Israel.” Syria, Assad said, had ended its talks over the Golan Heights.
Nonetheless, a few days after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that although Israel was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace,” he was still very interested in closing the deal. “We have to wait a little while to see how things will evolve and how the situation will change,” Assad said. “We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.”
American and foreign government officials, intelligence officers, diplomats, and politicians said in interviews that renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights are now highly likely, despite Gaza and the elections in Israel in February, which left the Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the head of a coalition that includes both the far right and Labor. Those talks would depend largely on America’s willingness to act as the mediator, a role that could offer Barack Obama his first—and perhaps best—chance for engagement in the Middle East peace process.
A senior Syrian official explained that Israel’s failure to unseat Hamas from power in Gaza, despite the scale of the war, gave Assad enough political room to continue the negotiations without losing credibility in the Arab world. Assad also has the support of Arab leaders who are invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, said last month when I saw him in Doha that Assad must take any reasonable steps he can to keep the talks going. “Syria is eager to engage with the West,” he said, “an eagerness that was never perceived by the Bush White House. Anything is possible, as long as peace is being pursued.”
A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. “The return of the Golan Heights is part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes countering Iran’s influence,” Martin Indyk, a former American Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. “Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don’t forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said.”
A former American diplomat who has been involved in the Middle East peace process said, “There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit waiting for someone to harvest.” A treaty between Syria and Israel “would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process that will unfold over time.” He added, “The Syrians have been ready since the 1993 Oslo Accords to do a separate deal.” The new Administration now has to conduct “due diligence”: “Get an ambassador there, or a Presidential envoy. Talk to Bashar, and speak in specifics so you’ll know whether or not you’ve actually got what you’ve asked for. If you’re vague, don’t be surprised if it comes back to bite you.”
Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and to moderate Syria’s support for Hamas and for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. There is a competing view: that Assad’s ultimate goal is not to marginalize Iran but to bring it, too, into regional talks that involve America—and perhaps Israel. In either scenario, Iran is a crucial factor motivating each side.
…. Assad said, “The land is not negotiable, and the Israelis know that we are not going to negotiate the line of 1967.” But he suggested that compromises were possible. “We only demarcate the line,” he said. “We negotiate the relations, the water, and everything else.” Many who are close to the process assume that an Israeli-Syrian settlement would include reparations for the Israelis in the Golan Heights, and, for a time, the right of access to the land. Assad said, “You discuss everything after the peace and getting your land. Not before.”
If Israel wants a settlement that goes beyond the Golan Heights, Assad said, it will have to “deal with the core issue”—the situation in the West Bank and Gaza—“and not waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas. Wherever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.” He added, “Hezbollah is in Lebanon and Hamas is in Palestine. . . . If they want to solve the problem of Hezbollah, they have to deal with Lebanon. For Hamas, they have to deal with Gaza. For Iran, it is not part of the peace process anyway.” Assad went on, “This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel.”
In his e-mail after the Gaza war, Assad emphasized that it was more than ever “essential that the United States play a prominent and active role in the peace process.” What he needed, Assad said, was direct contact with Obama. A conference would not be enough: “It is most natural to want a meeting with President Obama.” …
…Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, who was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and informally advises his government on Syrian issues, argued that the war in Gaza had not changed Israel’s essential interest in a Golan Heights settlement: “Gaza is Gaza, and I say that Bashar Assad definitely wants to go ahead with the talks. And he may find a partner in Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi would prefer to make a deal with Syria rather than with the Palestinians.”
But if the talks are to proceed, Rabinovich said, “they will have to be transformed to direct negotiations.” This would require the support and involvement of the Obama Administration. Rabinovich said that he thought Obama, like Netanyahu, “after weighing the pros and cons, will see a Golan Heights settlement as being more feasible” than a deal with the Palestinians. “The talks are serious, and there is a partner.”
…Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Assad in the first year of his Presidency without preconditions. He also endorsed the Syrian peace talks with Israel. “We must never force Israel to the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests,” he said at the annual conference, last June, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations.”
….As the Bush era wound down, U.S. allies were making their own openings to Syria. In mid-November, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, distressed the White House by flying to Damascus for a meeting with Assad. They agreed that Britain and Syria would establish a high-level exchange of intelligence. Vice-President Dick Cheney viewed the move by Britain—“perfidious Albion,” as he put it—as “a stab in the back,” according to a former senior intelligence official.
Obama Did Pressure Israel — somewhat — on Gaza
…The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, “Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama” when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a “pro-Palestinian,” who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would “never make it in the major leagues”). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of “smart bombs” and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—“who came up with the solution and told Obama, ‘You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out.’ ” (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)
… yria’s relationship with Iran will emerge as the crucial issue in the diplomatic reviews now under way in Washington. A settlement, the Israelis believe, would reduce Iran’s regional standing and influence. “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Bashar goes to Tehran and explains to the Supreme Leader that he wants to mediate a bilateral relationship with the United States,” the former American diplomat said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
An Israeli official acknowledged that his government had learned of “tensions between Syria and Iran in recent months.” Before Gaza, he said, there had been a noticeable change in the Syrian tone during informal contacts—“an element of openness, candor, and civility.” He cautioned, however, “You can move diplomatically with the Syrians, but you cannot ignore Syria’s major role in arming Hamas and Hezbollah, or the fact that it has intimate relations with Iran, whose nuclear program is still going forward.” He added, with a smile, “No one in Israel is running out to buy a new suit for the peace ceremony on the White House lawn.”
Martin Indyk said, “If the White House engages with Syria, it immediately puts pressure on Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” He said that he had repeatedly sought, without success, to convince the Bush Administration that it was possible to draw Syria away from Iran. In his recent memoir, “Innocent Abroad,” Indyk wrote, “There is a deep divergence between Iran and Syria, captured in the fact that at the same time as Iran’s president threatens to wipe Israel off the map, his Syrian ally is attempting to make peace with Israel. . . . Should negotiations yield a peace agreement, it would likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian axis.”…
A Pentagon consultant said, “If we ever really took yes for an answer from Syria, the Iranians would go nuts.”
The official Syrian position toward Iran, which Assad repeated to me, is that Iran did not object to the Golan Heights talks, on the principle that any return of sovereign land was to be applauded: “They announced this publicly . . . and I went to Iran and I heard the same.”
….Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who operated in the Middle East and later served as an adviser to the European Union and a staff member for a fact-finding committee on the Middle East headed by Mitchell, said that the new Administration should not assume that Bashar Assad could be separated easily from Iran, or persuaded to give up support for Hamas and Hezbollah. “Bashar now has enormous standing in the Arab world, and it comes from these pillars—he was among the first to oppose the American war in Iraq and his continued support for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas,” Crooke said. “He cannot trade the Golan Heights for peace with Israel, and cut off his allies. What Syria can do is offer its good standing and credentials to lead a comprehensive regional settlement.” But, he said, “the Obama Administration is going to make it really painful for Syria. There will be no bouquets for Syria.”
He went on, “The real goal of Assad is not necessarily an agreement on the Golan but to begin to engage America and slice away the American demonization of his state.” ….
….Khalid Meshal said that he believed that the Iranians would not interfere with negotiations between Israel and Syria, although they were not enthusiastic about them. Meshal also said he doubted that Israel intended to return the Golan Heights to Syrian control. But, he said, “If we suppose that Israel is serious, we support the right of Syria to negotiate with Israel to attain its legitimate rights.”
….“Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians,” Itamar Rabinovich said. “But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, ‘It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran.’ ” Rabinovich added, “Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks.”
The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses. ♦