Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, November 13th, 2007
"Lots of blood was left on the floor" following debates in Washington over whether Syria should be invited to the Maryland Peace Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. That was how a Washington insider described the heated Washington battle over Syrian participation in the peace process to me while I was in NYC.
This battle between neocons (Cheney's people) and realists (the State Dept.), which has been raging ever since Washington placed Syria in diplomatic quarantine, was won by the realists. Syria is being invited to Maryland.
The big question is under what terms. Will Syria find the invitation interesting enough to say, "Yes?"
So far Syria is keeping its cards very close to its chest as it explores exactly what the invitation means. At first Syrian officials said that they would not accept an invitation to participate in the negotiations if Syria was merely going to be used for a photo opportunity to legitimize the humiliation of the Palestinians and sidelining of Hamas. Syria fears that it will be giving away its Hamas card for nothing in return.
Also, Syria is very mistrustful of the Bush administration. It has learned this mistrust the hard way. In May 2007, Walid Muallem was invited to Sharm al-Shaykh to talk with Secretary Rice. She assured Syria that relations could get back on track if Syria helped with Palestine and other things. Syria played a positive role in Palestine, helping to broker the Hamas-PLO government with Saudi. A week after the Sharm al-Shaykh meeting, President Bush renewed sanctions on Syria and added more. Rice was made to look like a donkey by the neocons who undermined State's entire policy. Bashar learned not to trust the realists.
The French and British have been sending high level envoys to get Bashar to make concessions in Lebanon and promising all sorts of goodies if he does. The problem is that Washington must deliver these goodies and few people believe that Washington policy is functional or that there is one boss in Washington. Factionalism has run wild. I have described the factionalism in cartoon style as being Cheney versus Rice, but it is more complicated and Byzantine. This is because everyone is getting into the foreign policy business right now as the Senate and House Foreign Policy hearings demonstrate.
"We want to keep the door open to Syria," is how the effort to get Syria invited was described to me. But why keep the door to Syria open? In order to fool Syria into playing nice while Washington and Israel reward the PLO in the West Bank for good behavior and punish Hamas? Is this a bate-and-switch exercise that Washington strategists are so good at? Or, is it the beginning of real negotiations between Israel and Syria? Is the US prepared to begin dropping sanctions on Syria and normalizing relations? Is it prepared to help Syria get back the Golan Heights? After all, the only basis for a permanent end to fighting along Israel's northern border is a return of the Golan. Anything short of the Golan will be a bandaid. It will only be a temporary fix to the Hizbullah problem and Syrian support for Palestinian proxies in its efforts to hurt Israel.
Most Syrians have long since come to terms with Israel's existence. They want peace and normalcy in the region. They are tired of war, emergency rule, and bad relations with the West. But they do want the Golan back. Any effort by the US or Israel to squeeze concessions from Syria without returning the Golan in full will only fail in the long term.
Syria must decide whether it wants to play Washington factional politics with no guarantees that President Bush is prepared to make the concessions that his policy makers promise. Syria is delving into murky waters at a time when Washington may not be a reliable partner in peace and the government may be too weak to deliver. This is ironic. "Lack of reliability" is usually the reason given by Washington not to engage with Middle Eastern partners.
[Here are a few news clips that have bearing on the analysis offered above.]
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has renewed his secret peace overtures to Syrian President Bashar Assad, telling him Israel is willing to return the captured Golan Heights if Damascus severs its ties with Iran and militant groups, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Olmert hinted in a briefing to an influential parliamentary committee Monday that he was holding secret contacts with Syria. In response to a lawmaker's question on the subject, Olmert responded, "I don't have to tell you about everything that I do."
Yediot also said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has asked reserves Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, a former chief of military intelligence, to review Israel's most sensitive intelligence reports and formulate recommendations for Barak about the prospect of renewing peace talks with Syria.
On Monday, Olmert told parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he was "ready for peace with Syria and prepared to conduct negotiations with no preconditions — on condition they (the Syrians) abandon the 'axis of evil' and don't support terror," according to participants in the meeting.
Olmert was replying to a question by lawmaker Ran Cohen on whether Olmert was talking to Syria. On Tuesday, Cohen said Olmert gave the clear impression contacts with Syria were already under way.
"This is his first hint that he is holding some sort of negotiations with Syria," Cohen said. "It was fairly clear to everyone sitting there that he is doing something and not saying anything about it."
Olmert added that the United States did not oppose the possibility of Israel's fully resuming talks with Damascus, Cohen said.
Barak reportedly does not believe Israel has a chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians because he considers Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas too weak. (AP)
HERZLIYA, Israel, Nov. 13 (Xinhua) — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday that Syria's participation in the upcoming U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference later this month could be a positive progress and lead to the renewal of peace talks.
Barak made the comments during an International Institute for Counter-Terrorism forum at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on Tuesday.
He, however, urged that Syria's attendance at the peace summit "needs to be based on the premise that the Syrians recognize the main topic for discussion is the Palestinian issue."
Syria has said it wouldn't attend the gathering in Annapolis, Maryland, unless the meeting would also discuss the issue of the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967.
Syrian Assistant Secretary General of the Syrian Baath Party Abdullah al-Ahmar said on Monday that Damascus was still waiting to see if the conference's agendas include the issues of Palestinian territories as well as the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms.
Senator Hagel on the Peace Process: (Nov. 8 at Center for Strategic and International Studies)
To succeed, President Bush must become actively invested in the negotiations. In the Middle East, Hamas cannot be simply ignored like before. We must not pursue again a policy premised on an illusory hope that Hamas will collapse through isolation. Nor can Syria be excluded. Serious focus must be given to the "Israel-Syria" track, as part of any peace process.