Posted by Joshua on Friday, November 30th, 2007
U.S. Seems to Soften Syria Stance
Diplomatic Shift Comes
As Peace Talks Expand;
'A Different Dynamic'
November 30, 2007
WASHINGTON — Two days after the Bush administration moved to jump-start the Middle East peace process with talks in Annapolis, Md., there are signs that the new diplomatic campaign includes a shift in U.S. strategy: willingness to compromise with Syria, one of its most bitter regional rivals.
In strife-torn Lebanon — a nation where U.S., Syrian, Iranian and Israeli interests have collided for more than two decades — Washington's political allies agreed this week to end their opposition to the presidential bid of a candidate viewed as a Syrian favorite.
Even if the compromise doesn't break a yearlong deadlock over political control of Lebanon, it does seem to mark an important shift in U.S.-Syrian relations following the decision by Damascus to attend the Annapolis peace conference. It also appears the U.S. is holding out the possibility of even warmer relations with Syria if progress continues. The Bush administration is weighing support for a Russian initiative to hold Syrian-Israeli peace talks in Moscow early next year, a senior U.S. official confirmed yesterday.
Before Syria agreed to support the Bush administration's regional peace conference this week, the White House generally adhered to a policy of trying to isolate Damascus through financial sanctions and travel bans. The U.S. accuses Syria of supporting militants operating inside Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
A senior U.S. official involved in the new Middle East initiative said the Bush administration didn't advise its allies in Lebanon "one way or the other" on their decision this week to compromise. But the official did say that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went into the Annapolis conference hoping to advance both Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and a compromise on the Lebanese presidency.
"It would be going too far to say there's a sea change here," the official said of Damascus and Washington, "but there's definitely a different dynamic."
Lebanon has emerged as a principal theater through which Washington and its allies are competing for regional influence against Iran, Syria and their militant allies, such as the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah.
The White House has heralded Lebanon as among its success stories in the Middle East, as a pro-Western alliance of political parties swept to power in 2005 and forced Damascus to end nearly 30 years of military occupation. The Lebanese political bloc, known as the March 14 movement, has promoted Washington's calls for democratization of the Middle East, as well as many of its strategic and economic initiatives.
Over the past year, however, Syria's allies, principally Hezbollah, have pushed back and paralyzed Beirut's government in a sometimes violent battle for control over Lebanon's political system. This standoff intensified in recent weeks over the selection of the country's next president, a post that Beirut law requires be held by a Maronite Christian. Hezbollah and its allies have refused to convene a parliamentary vote to endorse March 14's candidates, raising fears of a split government, if not civil war.
In recent days, though, March 14 politicians, with Washington's consent, agreed to a compromise candidate for the presidency. Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, worked closely with Damascus during its military occupation of Lebanon and is already receiving support from some of Syria's Lebanese political allies.
March 14 leaders say the general's selection, while not their first choice, could help stabilize Lebanon, because of his leadership of a Lebanese military increasingly viewed as a unifying force in their country.
"Michel Suleiman is well-known to the Hezbollah and the Syrians," said Walid Jumblatt, a key leader of March 14. "If the Syrians don't want Suleiman, it means they don't want stability in Lebanon."
The concession on the Lebanese president comes amid a broader push by the U.S. and its allies to re-engage Damascus in other ways. American and Israeli strategists view this initiative as aimed at breaking Syria's alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which have all increased their influence across the Middle East in recent years. It is also aimed at gaining greater support from Syria in cutting off militants infiltrating into Iraq.
U.S. and Israeli officials say they are also considering widening the initiative to directly address Damascus's claims to the disputed Golan Heights. This issue could be brought up at the Russian conference, according to U.S. officials.
Syrian officials are already responding positively to this outreach, saying it could potentially herald a stabilizing trend in the Middle East. [end]
All the major papers add their spin on Syria, which is the talk of the town
Deal signals a thaw in US-Syrian relations
MARK MACKINNON From Thursday's Globe and Mail
These are early days, with only the faintest stirring in the tea leaves that can be so impossible to read in the Middle East. But when the duelling parties in Lebanon are suddenly discovering a way to compromise and the Syrian regime says it invests "great hopes" in U.S. President George W. Bush, surely something is afoot.
Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, said that the sudden acceptance by all sides of Gen. Suleiman – just one day after Annapolis – suggests that the U.S. had agreed to Gen. Suleiman's presidency as part of a deal to get Syria to attend the peace conference and lend its support to the talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Times: And the United States? “Look, a handful in the Arab League were saying they could not attend the conference unless Syria was put on the agenda,” a senior Bush administration official said. “So we put Syria on the agenda. What did it cost us? Nothing.”
However, American and Israeli officials said the time was not yet ripe for real peace talks with Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel will have enough to do trying to get skeptics to agree to give up settlements in the West Bank and to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, compromises Israel will have to make if the peace track with the Palestinians has any chance of working.
Trying to get the 12,000 to 15,000 Israeli settlers out of the Golan Heights, in addition, would make an already hard job close to impossible, Israeli officials said, and make it far less likely for Israel to start separate talks with Syria soon. Mr. Olmert echoed that with reporters before he flew home Wednesday night. “Conditions are not yet at the point” for talks with Syria, he said. “There’s enough that we will have to do that will be heartbreaking.”
Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said the ball was in Syria’s court.
“I think for Syria, there is a fundamental choice,” Mr. Hadley said during remarks on Wednesday night at a forum at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Are they going to make a strategic decision, give up their support for terror, let Lebanon alone, support a new Iraqi government, rather than obstruct it and undermine it, and make a decision for peace?” he asked. “If they do, I think there are opportunities for them in the Golan Heights.
“The door is open to them.”
Syria upbeat on chance to reopen Golan issue
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters – USA
The Middle East peace conference has boosted Syria's campaign to regain the occupied Golan Heights, even though no direct talks with Israel were initiated at the meeting, a Syrian official said on Wednesday.
In the first official Syrian reaction to the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, Ahmed Salkini, official spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, said Damascus had made a diplomatic step forward by thrusting the Golan issue into the international spotlight.
Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said Syria had shown flexibility by attending the Annapolis conference.
"Syria has shown it is not as ideological as some in the U.S. administration (who initially opposed inviting it to Annapolis) had thought. Syria has sent a message to its Hamas allies that it is willing to bargain (with the United States)," Landis said.
Signs of US-Syria Thaw After Summit
By DONNA ABU-NASR and ANNE GEARAN
The Associated Press, November 29, 2007
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Syria left a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference without a specific promise from Israel to restart stalled talks, but with signs the Bush administration is softening its diplomatic hard line against an Arab state that has played a role in past peace efforts.
Syrian delegates received warm handshakes and words of thanks from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose administration has largely shunned Syria since early 2005.At the close of Tuesday's speeches and meetings focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice walked over to the Syrian delegates, according Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington.