“At Mideast Talks, U.S. and Israel Seek to Isolate Iran by Wooing Syria,” WSJ

At Mideast Talks, U.S. and Israel Seek to Isolate Iran by Wooing Syria
November 24, 2007; Page A1

The Bush administration for years rejected the notion that progress towards Arab-Israeli peace could ease its wider woes in the Middle East. Next week, President Bush kicks off talks with just such an aim.

The stated goal of Mr. Bush's first serious stab at Middle East peacemaking is to revive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to end the region's most enduring conflict. But administration officials hope progress in talks scheduled to begin Tuesday in Annapolis, Md., also curries favor with skeptical Sunni Arab leaders, whom the U.S. needs to check Iran's growing regional clout.

Underscoring that effort, the Bush administration is even courting a long-time pariah, Syria. Syria's bitter enemy, Israel, is going even further, indicating that its arms are open wide to Damascus. Talks with Syria could go some way in weakening Tehran's strongest alliance in the region.

[Go to story.]

Read more about what different countries have to win or lose in the Annapolis talks and which major players will be in attendance.

"This is one of those moments in history where the Syrians have been given an opportunity to jump," a senior Israeli official said this past week. "If they do jump, they will be embraced."

On Friday, Syrian officials suggested they would attend, possibly at the level of Damascus's foreign minister, Walid Moallem. They said the Arab League had sent word to Washington that they wanted the issue of Syria's dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights region directly addressed in Annapolis, and that they were receiving positive responses.

The stakes are high for Mr. Bush, who has invited representatives from more than four dozen governments and organizations to participate. With a war in Iraq that has badly damaged U.S. prestige and seems certain to outlast Mr. Bush's term in office, the administration increasingly sought another, less tarnished, Middle East legacy — even at the risk of reversing itself and alienating some conservatives.

"The point is that right now we've invested the Secretary of State's time in something I don't think is central to our interests," said David Wurmser, who until earlier this year served as Vice President Dick Cheney's chief Middle East advisor, at a Washington conference Tuesday. "We need to change the subject into something that we can handle and we can defeat Iran with."

The last serious effort at reaching a permanent accord came under President Clinton, who, with only about six months left in his presidency, tried to broker a deal at Camp David. The violence that began amid the failure of those talks has tempered ambitions since. But analysts note the current round of bargaining between the two sides includes an important feature Mr. Clinton's effort lacked: face-to-face meetings between the opposing leaders.

Saudi Arabia also will be closely watched in Annapolis. It signaled Friday it would send its foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, to the talks. Such a high-level of representation would mark a watershed in Saudi Arabia's posture toward Israel, though the Saudis remain deeply skeptical of the U.S. and Israeli commitment to peace.

At the effort's core, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas haven't yet agreed on a shared statement about which issues they are trying to settle, with only days remaining. But Washington, Israel and the Palestinians share a fresh incentive for progress: the rising power of the Islamist group Hamas and its main backer, Iran.

The Islamist movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, then violently overran the Gaza Strip in June. That threatens Mr. Abbas and his western-leaning Fatah movement, which are fighting to hold on to political power in the West Bank. The Gaza rout raised fresh alarms among Israelis about the rise of Iranian-backed groups on its borders. Israelis also worry about Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group consolidating political power to the north in Lebanon after an inconclusive summer war with the guerrilla group last year that Israelis viewed as disastrous for their deterrence.

Many difficult issues remain. For Israelis, the thorniest is dividing Jerusalem, which both sides consider to be their capital, and control over its holy sites. Palestinians are most focused on the status of refugees from 1948 and their descendants, whose "right of return" to Israel has been a staple of Palestinian nationalist rhetoric for six decades. The borders of a future Palestinian state, along with sharing water, also will be at the center of any resolution.

Analysts say the difficulties of producing a substantive joint declaration demonstrate the need for the U.S., especially Mr. Bush, to exert a significant amount of commitment. "He is going to have to get personally involved and personally invested in ways that he's been reluctant to do thus far," says Bruce Riedel, who wrote the 2001 speech in which Mr. Bush declared support for a Palestinian state. Mr. Riedel, a Middle East adviser to several presidents and former Central Intelligence Agency official in the region, says Arab leaders "will need to hear real progress" from Mr. Bush himself.

Skepticism in the Arab world was hammered home Friday at an Arab League meeting in Cairo. Mr. al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, indicated his kingdom was cautious until the Cairo confab. "If it weren't for the Arab consensus to go to the meeting, we wouldn't have gone," he told reporters.

The linchpin of the regional strategy may be its weakest point. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders face challenges at home that could interfere with their ability to make any real progress. For one, it's unclear how much of Palestinian society Mr. Abbas really represents. His Fatah movement lost elections to Hamas last year, before losing Gaza this summer. Hamas representatives haven't been invited and remain cast in international isolation.

[Who's Coming to Dinner]

Mr. Olmert, meanwhile, faces low public-approval numbers and a coalition government that depends upon far-right parties that threaten to bring him down if he even discusses some key issues, such as control of Jerusalem.

The invitation to Syria is the latest move in a debate between the U.S. and Israel. The White House has long viewed Syria as a principal impediment to stability and peace, due to its support of extremist groups operating in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.

Distrust in some Washington quarters toward Syrian President Bashar Assad has grown in recent weeks, following a September Israeli missile strike inside Syria. U.S. officials say the Israeli air force destroyed a nascent Syrian nuclear reactor located along the Euphrates River, a charge Damascus denies. That follows what has been a harder recent line from the White House, which has sought to pressure Syria from supporting such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as facilitating the travel of foreign fighters into Iraq. The administration also has pushed a United Nations-led investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a crime initial U.N. reports have tied to the Syrian government.

But there are growing signs the White House may be moving to do something it's uniformly dismissed in the past: facilitate direct negotiations between Israel and Syria over the disputed Golan Heights. In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials have said the U.S. wouldn't object to Syria's raising Golan at Annapolis.

Meanwhile, Israel has pursued a peace dialogue with Damascus, eager to calm tensions on its northeastern border and quash strong Syrian support for Palestinian extremist groups. Mr. Olmert has used Turkish intermediaries to explore options with the Syrians, according to Israeli officials. Retired Israeli diplomats also have held unofficial talks with a confidante of Mr. Assad's over the past few years in an effort to find a formula to solve the Golan dispute.

Many Israeli officials say Washington and Jerusalem should seek to wean Syria away from its growing alliance with Iran. They see the U.S.'s punitive actions against Damascus as driving President Assad further into the Iranian camp.

"Maybe it's time to employ the carrot to remove [Syria] from the axis of evil," the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, said in Washington last month. This will "prevent the Iranian influence," he said.

A number of U.S. officials, particularly in the White House, have voiced reservations about engaging the Syrians. They particularly worry that any talks with Damascus could hurt Lebanon, which Syria occupied for more then 30 years before withdrawing in 2005 after the Hariri murder. The belief is that Syria will demand renewed political influence inside Lebanon in return for peace with Israel.

U.S. officials particularly believe Damascus is playing a central role in the current political standoff in Beirut, where governing and opposition groups have been unable to elect a new president for weeks. Lebanon's president Friday declared a state of emergency , arguing the additional security was needed to ward off a civil war. (Please see related article.)

"We wouldn't have the problems we see today in Lebanon if Syria were deciding to take a different role. Plain and simple," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told a Senate hearing earlier this month.

At the same time, U.S. officials, including Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, have been praising Damascus for what they say has been its "robust" effort recently to cut off the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq. Some Syria analysts say there are indications that President Assad has taken steps to limit the movements of militant leaders based in Damascus, such as Hamas's political head, Khaled Mashal.

A Syrian diplomat said his government has significantly increased the policing of its borders into Iraq, including developing more watchtowers and border patrols. The Syrian government also allowed foreign diplomats, including a U.S. representative, to monitor its border operations during a tour earlier this month.

Comments (11)

EHSANI2 said:

Syria has confirmed that its deputy foreign Minister will attend the conference as the above article claimed would happen.

Slowly but steadily the White House is changing its Syria policy. The tide is turning in the direction of the Damascus leadership.

Interestingly, the Iranian President just stated the following:

“Participation in this summit is an indication of a lack of intelligence of some so-called politicians…I am sorry that some people around us plan to participate in the conference which only helps to support the Zionist occupiers”.

The title of the above article seems rather relevant now.

November 25th, 2007, 1:35 pm


MSK said:

Josh, Alex, Ehsani2 et al-

What are you making of this article? (I’ve had problems posting links, so I’ll cut/paste it.)

Syria Prepared to Sacrifice “Criminals” to Salvage Regime
(Naharnet, 24 Nov 2007)

Syria is seeking a deal with the United States to stabilize Lebanon and normalize relations with Beirut in return for refraining from targeting President Bashar Assad’s regime by the international tribunal that would try suspects in the 2005 Hariri Killing and related crimes.

Under the headline “tempting offers in return for a come back by Syria’s political influence to Lebanon,” an-Nahar’s Emile Khoury wrote that Syria is trying to offer the United States and moderate Arab states a deal based on:

“setting up diplomatic relations with Lebanon and facilitating demarcation of the joint borders, including in the Shebaa Farms area, dismantling Palestinian military bases outside refugee camps and controlling weapons within the camps.”

Syria, according to Khoury, also is offering to facilitate “implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, especially UNSCR 1701 with the aim of tackling the issue of Hizbullah weapons and enabling the spread of state authority throughout Lebanon.”

In Return, Khoury wrote, Syria wants to guarantee that the international tribunal that would try suspects in the 2005 assassination of ex-Premier Rafik Hariri and related crimes “would not be used for political vengeance that puts the Syrian regime in danger.”

“The (Syrian) regime, like any regime, may include criminals, and these criminals may have assassinated Hariri and others in Lebanon, but the regime is not a criminal regime,” Khoury added.

Unnamed political observers noted, with special emphasis, that a joint statement released after talks between King Abdullah of Jordan and Assad included total Syrian support for the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, Khoury wrote.

“This means ending Syria’s support for Hamas, which opposes the Palestinian authority and adheres to armed struggle against Israel,” He noted.

The joint statement also “stressed on the importance of the positive role that Syria could play to guarantee Lebanon’s security and stability,” he added.

Has Damascus started implementing the deal by halting its support for Hamas? Khoury asked.

November 25th, 2007, 2:22 pm


Observer said:

My review of th press today:
1. Lebanon did not make it into the NYT at all
2. The major networks are debating Iowa
3. Annapolis analysis is for a set of declaration but no concrete results
4. Avigdor Lieberman has already pricked the balloon of the conference
5. Those attending are doing so because they have all put their eggs in Bush’s basket
6. Syria is going with the mentality of ” follow the liar to the end of the road” to show that this whole exercise is futile while at the same time breaking the isolation

November 25th, 2007, 2:46 pm


SimoHurtta said:

Not related to the topic of the post, but an interesting header from Haaretz’s latest flash news related to the previous Syrian substitutes discussions.

14:22 Poll: Four out of five Israelis oppose lifting price controls on bread (Army Radio).

Seems that in the “democratic, free market economy” Israel the price of bread is regulated, like in some other not so free Middle Eastern countries.

November 25th, 2007, 2:59 pm


IsraeliGuy said:


Yesterday evening, Israel’s channel 2 Middle East commentator, Ehud Ya’ari, reported that the Syrians may instruct Khaled Mashal to leave Syria and move to Iran.

He defined the story as a “Syrian leak”.

November 25th, 2007, 3:04 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

As usual you provide incomplete and inaccurate information:

November 25th, 2007, 4:03 pm


why-discuss said:

Observer, I agree. Everything is in limbo. Seeing a clear message of Syria’s reddition in its attendance is premature.

Yesterday evening, Israel’s channel 2 Middle East commentator, Ehud Ya’ari, reported that the Syrians may instruct Khaled Mashal to leave Syria and move to Iran.

He defined the story as a “Syrian leak”.

Wishful thinking.. Do you think Bashar will do that before Annapolis? he is much smarter than that.. he has got these cards in his hands and he will play them at the right time. Even for political science beginners Annapolis is not the right time.

November 25th, 2007, 7:08 pm


norman said:

Syria will not ask Mashal to leave without the return of the Golan and the just solution to the Palestinian problem , then and only then if Hamas does not agree to peace Mashal will be forced out.

November 25th, 2007, 8:01 pm


why-discuss said:

Behind Mideast summit – the Iran factor

“In that context, it actually serves Iran’s purposes if a “humiliated” Arab world joins Israel at the conference table and doesn’t receive anything concrete in return.

If the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians are seen to “march off to Annapolis to surrender” before the US and Israel, Wurmser says, “that could be a greater gift to the Iranians than anything else Iran could achieve.”

November 26th, 2007, 12:42 am


Longershanks said:

Looks like Why-discuss has hit the nail on the head (for me at least). If nothing comes from it other than photo ops, will Iran look good for not attending? Is this reason enough to force those attending to come to some sort of arrangement, even if it’s a series of bilaterals (eg Israel and Syria normalise relations, Syria gets the Golan and reduces support for Hamas, further vague promises on the Israel/Pal. situation, American and Syrian relations thaw, etc)? It would appear that the Arab countries are attending so as to avoid blame for failure but if the talks fail to produce much then doesn’t that really put them in a bad light (with their own populations)?
Looks like these talks are shaping up to have immense consequences despite the ‘dead duck’ they ostensibly appear to be. Or am i reading too much into it?

November 26th, 2007, 6:49 am


Enid Houston said:

At last some recognition; my congressman’s son is attending OU…see if he is interested in more than the social life….

November 26th, 2007, 8:28 am


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