Austrian FM and James Baker III on Syria-Israel Peace Talks

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger: Hopeful that Peace Talks will Resume and Syria and the EU Will Sign the Association Agreement by July
By Ibrahim HAMIDI of Al-Hayat in Damascus
Exclusive for Syria Comment

The Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Spindelegger hopes that the indirect talks between Syria and Israel “will be resumed soon” through the Turkish mediator. He said this after his tour in the region, which included the Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Mr Spindelegge believes that the association agreement between Syria and EU might be signed under the Spanish presidency of the EU which comes to an end in July 2010.

Q: The Syrian officials call on Austria and Europe to support the Turkish role, how can that be?
– First we have to talk with the Turkish to know if they are ready to play the role of broker once again, I believe the Turkish side is ready . Secondly, we should convince the Israelis to restart a political process. I understood from my Syrian colleagues that they want to go on in this way and they will do their best.

Q: Will you transmit that to the Israelis?
– First, I will report to the meeting of the Council of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union on my talks in the region. We will see what kind of steps can be taken in the future, in order to overcome the deadlock. .

Q: It has been said that you transmitted a message from the Israeli, is that true?
– The present situation is not satisfactory for any side. The Syrians, as I understood, are ready for a serious start of negotiations. I have the impression from the Isarelis that they too are ready. They want security in their neighbourhood, they don’t want the events of the past to be repeated from the Palestinian or the Lebanese territories .

Q: They are ready to resume the negotiations from where they have been stopped?
– I think it is not useful to talks over preconditions, or without preconditions. First, we should move in the direction, that in principle, we are ready. If you say that, this will be the start for something. But, if you say we are ready according to defined circumstances, this will be a problem. We should overcome this problem.

Q: But for the Syrians, the question of Golan is not an issue for negotiations. Are the Israelis ready to restore Golan?
– It is not up to me to answer for the Israelis. They have to answer themselves. Our role is to help to bring them together (the concerned parties) . Europeans and Americans alike, want to assist in relaunching the process. If the start is through Turkey as broker, then we should move as soon as possible to direct negotiations. Then it is possible to get answers. It is time to say: we are ready in principle.

Q: Do you think we are close to resume shortly the indirect negotiations?
– If the process starts quickly, we might reach solutions, because every part will have to put something on the table.

Q: Has the prelude for a process of launching indirect negotiations started?
– Not yet, but we think that we are close to a step ahead. It is possible (the indirect negotiations) would happen soon.

Q: The Syrians say they negotiated with five Israeli governments, every time when we are close to reach a solutions a new government comes and likes to start from the zero. Therefore, Syria wants to start the negotiations from the point they stopped?
– I understand that there have been many disappointments in the past. But at the same time, we should try again. There is simply no alternative to negotiations. Otherwise it is impossible to achieve anything in the future…

Q: If we go to the Association Agreement, did you discuss this issue with the Syrian side and do you believe it will be signed under the Spanish Presidency?
– We discussed this issue intensively with the Syrian officials. The aim to sign the agreement under the Spanish Presidency. But I understood that the Syrian side still wants to discuss some technical issues. A delegation from the Commission should come to finalize (the agreement) – after that it will be ready for decision and signature.
– My advice to the Syrian Minister for Foreign Affairs is to come to a decision as soon as possible, because we do not know what will happen, if the agreement is reopened. It is the right time to take the decision.
– An Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union would offer both sides many advantages and would strengthen also our political relations. It would establish a framework to discuss all the issues.

Q: Is the Commission ready to reopen the agreement?
– We will have to discuss this in Brussels. For technical issues, there might be room to reach some arrangement. But the core of the agreement should not be reopened to discussion….
Q- What is your position towards the development of the Syrian-American relations?
– We welcome the appointment of an American Ambassador to Syria. This is a positive sign for the future and for a normalization of ties with the USA. This is valuable for both sides and for the whole region. Syria is and remains a key partner in the Middle East.
[end interview]

Baker Says Middle East Agreement Still Possible
by James Kitfield
Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010

….NJ: Secretary Baker, do you fault the Obama administration for initially insisting on a “freeze” on Israeli settlements, a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected outright?

Baker: I don’t fault President Obama for making settlements an issue, but I do fault him for caving in. You can’t take a position that is consistent with U.S. policy going back many years, and the minute you get push-back you soften your position. When you are dealing with foreign leaders, they can smell that kind of weakness a thousand miles away. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have long endorsed the U.S. policy that settlements are an obstacle to peace. If “land for peace” is the path to a resolution, then settlements clearly create facts on the ground that foreclose the possibility of negotiations.
I would also stress that United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.

NJ: You were the only senior U.S. official to ever use the leverage of U.S. aid to try to halt the continuing construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Did you ever regret that decision?

Baker: No, because if we hadn’t done that, the [1991] Madrid Conference would never have happened. But you have to remember the context. At the time Israel was asking for $10 billion to help them settle Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union and elsewhere, on top of the $3 billion we were already giving them annually. We had also recently repealed a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. We had just decimated the Iraqi military machine, removing a major threat to Israel.

Against that backdrop, we had an opportunity to convene a historic conference where the Arabs were willing to reverse 25 years of policy and meet face-to-face with Israeli leaders. So we told the Israelis that we wouldn’t give them the extra $10 billion unless they agreed to respect the U.S. position regarding settlements. Israeli leaders told us they would just get the money from the U.S. Congress. Our reply was, “We’ll see you on Capitol Hill.” And we eventually won the vote on that bill. So I don’t regret that decision at all.

NJ: Do you see parallels to current U.S. efforts to get both sides to the negotiating table?

Baker: Today we are discovering once again that as important as the United States is to finding a solution to the problem, we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. If both parties just assume that you have to keep giving this issue maximum effort no matter how recalcitrant they are, then you won’t make any progress. Before the Madrid Conference, for instance, there was a point where our peacemaking efforts just collapsed. And I told both the Arabs and the Israelis at the time, “When you get serious about peace, give us a call. Here is our number.” And guess what? They got the message. Both sides called, and after that they were more willing to compromise for peace.

NJ: Ambassador, why did your report call for a specific U.S. “bridging proposal” on territory and borders, instead of proposing that the two sides just get back to the negotiating table to settle those issues themselves?

Djerejian: Because absent a proactive American role in bringing the two parties closer together and showing them that the necessary territorial compromises are possible, this issue will not be resolved simply by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s why a U.S. bridging proposal is so important. President Obama will have to spend political capital, however, because there are elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and perhaps domestically, who will attack a bridging proposal.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s government is based on a narrow, right-wing coalition that somewhat inhibits his policy options. On the Palestinian side, the split between the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza looms large. So leaders on both sides of the conflict face constituencies and internal political dynamics at home that often make it more comfortable for them to say no to a peace deal rather than yes. American leadership will be critical to bringing the parties close enough together to get to yes.

NJ: Given the myriad problems he faces at home and abroad, why should Obama spend his already depleted political capital on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded so many presidents over so many years?

Djerejian: Fundamentally, because this issue affects the United States’ core national security interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. The Palestinian issue can get Muslims demonstrating in the streets from Jakarta to Nigeria to Lebanon. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, as did [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.

When the United States is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan, the dots are even easier to connect. It’s all part of a very important whole. We would be naive to think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eliminate the problems of terrorism and radicalization in the Islamic world, but it will go a long way toward draining the swamp of issues that extremists exploit for their own ends. So I think any American president would be well-advised to tackle this issue. How much political capital to spend at any given time, however, is a decision only the president himself can make.

NJ: Secretary Baker, how do you assess today’s prospects for a peace deal?

Baker: Well, the situation is difficult, but there are some new dynamics in play. First and foremost, there is a general appreciation on the part of the Israeli body politic that Israel will be unable to maintain both its Jewish and democratic character as long as it continues to occupy Arab lands and, in particular, the West Bank. More and more Israelis understand that sooner or later, the demographics of occupation [given higher Arab birthrates] are going to overwhelm them. If Israel doesn’t want to become an apartheid type of nation — and as a democracy I don’t believe it does — then in order to retain its Jewish, democratic character Israel will have to find a negotiated peace. As positive as the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza was, it showed that unilateral actions alone will not bring about a lasting peace.

NJ: Do you think that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are really willing and able to negotiate a peace deal?

Baker: I’ve dealt with Bibi Netanyahu personally, and I think underneath it all he would like to be the prime minister who brings peace to his people. He’s more pragmatic than a lot of people think. Remember, in the run-up to the Madrid Conference, I was dealing with a very hard-line Israeli leader in [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir, who used to say that Bibi was too soft! But despite our policy differences, Shamir and I developed trust and even personal fondness for one another. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Netanyahu negotiate a peace deal with Syria, though that will be easier to accomplish than a deal with the Palestinians.

NJ: Does Netanyahu have a reliable partner for talks?

Baker: On the Palestinian side of the equation, the situation is more complicated, with the Palestinian Authority governing in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The reason I mentioned a possible peace deal with Syria, however, is because the headquarters for Hamas is in Damascus, and Syria has great influence over the group. If you reach a peace deal between Israel and Syria, you will probably find a negotiating partner on the Palestinian issue.

Of course, Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist makes it difficult to sit down and talk to them, but we confronted a similar situation in the 1980s and 1990s with the [Palestine Liberation Organization], which was considered a terrorist organization. To get around the problem, we found Palestinians in the occupied territories who were not PLO officials, and we used them as interlocutors. That cutout allowed us to have indirect discussions with the people calling the shots in the PLO. A similar arrangement could conceivably work today in dealing with Hamas through third parties in Gaza.

NJ: Ambassador, of all the final-status issues, why did your report focus on territorial issues and borders?

Djerejian: We came to the conclusion that the territorial aspect of the conflict was the easiest to address, relatively speaking, and that progress on borders could spur movement on other final-status issues such as Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and security arrangements. Both the Palestinian and Israeli participants agreed on the 1967 borders as the starting point, with a 1-to-1 ratio for land swaps to incorporate several big settlement blocks into Israel. In the end, we got the two sides within a few percentage points of West Bank territory, with the Israelis wanting to annex settlements comprising between 4.4 and 7.3 percent of the West Bank, and the Palestinians willing to swap between 3.4 percent and 1.9 percent of land. We recommend that U.S. negotiators work within that band.

NJ: Why did you stress the need for a “master plan” for the division of Jerusalem?

Djerejian: We worked on the assumption that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states, with eastern, Arab neighborhoods residing in Palestine and western, Jewish neighborhoods in Israel. Without such a division of Jerusalem, there is no possibility of a peace settlement. Even dealing with just the municipal-boundary issues, some of the most contentious outstanding disputes between our Palestinian and Israeli participants involved settlements in and around Jerusalem.

NJ: Does the fact that Palestinian and Israeli participants declined to even put their names on the report indicate the sensitivities involved in such negotiations, even among former officials?

Djerejian: Yes, that shows you just how controversial these issues remain. The truth is, there are extremists on each side who are eager to blast Israeli or Palestinian officials who are perceived as “giving away the store.” The very first brainstorming session we had here at the Baker Institute quickly turned confrontational, for instance, with a lot of pent-up anger and frustration on both sides. At one point, it got so heated that the Israelis started cursing at the Palestinians in Arabic, and the Palestinians were cursing back in Hebrew! I stopped them and said, “Do you guys realize what you’re doing?” At that point everyone started laughing, and it sort of broke the ice. But it shows you just how close the Israelis and Palestinians are as people but also how far apart they are in their political psychology.

NJ: Bottom line: Is a two-state solution still achievable?

Djerejian: My bottom line from this exercise is that a two-state solution is still possible, but it will take strong, unwavering political will on the part of all concerned to achieve it. We’ve gotten close before, but one side or another proved a weak link. We’ve also seen major steps forward, however, whether it was the Israel-Egypt peace signed at Camp David, the Madrid Conference, or the Israel-Jordan peace deal. The key is to shape a diplomatic landscape that makes it hard for the two parties to say no. That will only happen if there is strong political will in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington. That has always been the key ingredient and often the big flaw in this equation. Political will on all sides is essential for peace.

NJ: Secretary Baker, given current circumstances and your long experience with this problem, is a two-state solution still attainable?

Baker: Yes, because everyone knows what a two-state solution looks like and the general formula for getting there. Ed is right — the tough thing is marshaling the necessary political will. In that regard, I always stress a few axioms for negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, because of our special relationship with Israel and the fact that we’re trusted by the Israelis in ways that other nations are not, you will get no progress toward peace without active U.S. participation. Second, there is no military solution to this conflict, meaning a lasting peace depends on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. Three, it’s the hard-liners on both sides that are the real problem.

My fourth axiom is the real Catch-22: Israel will never enjoy real security as long as it occupies Palestinian land, and Palestinians will never achieve an independent state as long as Israel feels insecure. The most important thing the United States can do is help them both out of that conundrum.

The Project on Middle East Democracy and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) hosted an event to examine the current state of human rights in the Arab world.

….Radwan Ziadeh spoke next, describing what he believes is the main problem in the Arab world: the “human rights circle.” The first element of this construct is the never-ending emergency state, which at least five Arab countries have used to justify draconian policies for years or even decades. This leads to a deficit of constitutional rights, the second element. Both the emergency state and flexible constitutionalism lead to the third element: impunity and a lack of accountability.

Ziadeh then explored three country case studies. First, he relayed that Egypt continues to top the list of countries in which torture is routinely and systematically practiced. Its emergency law has been widely used to harass and detain bloggers without charge. Second, he looked at Syria and described how its government has failed to take even one step to reconsider laws that are inimical to human rights, leaving it in a much worse situation than Egypt. Finally, Yemen is an example of a country where U.S. aid has increased significantly, but the human rights situation has yet to improve. Ziadeh diagnosed U.S. foreign policy as having a “lack of understanding of the nature of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.” He provided three recommendations: Democratization must become a goal for this administration; the U.S. needs to establish a long-term commitment to this goal; and efforts to advance democracy in the region should be unique to each country’s level of development and social and economic rights.

Radwan Ziadeh, Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.

Comments (10)

jad said:

1-(Ziadeh diagnosed U.S. foreign policy as having a “lack of understanding of the nature of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.)
Is Mr Ziadeh for real? After 50 years of the freaking Arab authoritarian regimes he thinks that the US ‘LACK’ of understanding the nature of it??
Does he thinks the US that stupid not to fully understand the situation yet?
Even me who is not a specialist in politics and not a ‘Director’ of any ‘Center’ know that the US will do whatever works for its own political best interest and not for the convenient of the Syrians.

2-(He provided three recommendations) Tfadal:

A, (Democratization must become a goal for this administration)
How can the US ‘Democratization’ Syria? by forcing it on us as they did to Iraq? by buying people? by conspiracies? by supporting some radicals against everybody else? by keep supporting any and everybody against the country? What about the opinion of the 22 million human-like creatures living in the land of SYRIA don’t you need to ask them and see what they want and if they accept your super brilliant idea or not?

B (the U.S. needs to establish a long-term commitment to this goal)
Why and for What? what are the benefits (Mr. Director) thinks the US will get from this useless long term commitment while we all know that it will fail sooner or later; judging from our long history of failure strategies.

C (and efforts to advance democracy in the region should be unique to each country’s level of development and social and economic rights.)
REALLY? and where are the freaking locals who are the ones need to do the effort?????

February 23rd, 2010, 6:16 am


Elie Elhadj said:

Arab democracy is sheer fantasy.

Notwithstanding that Arab rule is tribal, corrupt, and mired in favoritism and nepotism it is significant that Arab rulers typically stay in office until death, be it natural or resulting from a military coup. No Arab king or president, however, spares an opportunity, to display the loyalty of his subjects. While the presidents conduct stage-managed referendums in which they consistently manage to achieve near 100% approvals, the monarchs draw mile-long queues of happy-looking men on every national and religious occasion to demonstrate their people’s allegiance.

Regardless of the contrived appearance of these demonstrations, a degree of real support for Arab rulers does exist. It is impossible to falsify every ballot and force every subject to hail the king. When the presidents of Egypt and Yemen allowed contested presidential elections on September 7, 2005 and September 20, 2006; respectively, the former gained a fifth term with 88.6% of the votes cast, hardly different from his four previous uncontested referendums, and the latter won 77.2% majority, after 28 years of rule.

Representative democracy is not a natural choice for most Arabs. Obedience to hierarchical Islamic authority is. Obedience is at the heart of ulama’s teaching. In the Arab home, school, mosque, work place, and the nation at large a culture of blind obedience to autocracy prevails. Poverty, illiteracy, and ill health, together with a fatalistic belief in predestination make the masses politically quietist, save for small minorities of Jihadists on the one hand and Western influenced professional activists on the other. It should be noted that the Shiite partisans of Ali have been rebellious against the religious and temporal order of Sunni rulers since the early Islamic state. Obedience here, therefore, refers to the obedience of the adherents of a specific sect to the rulers of their own sect.

Curiously, Muslim, but non-Arab countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, together representing almost two thirds of world Muslims, conduct democratic elections and allow female prime ministers and presidents. Obviously, these non-Arab Muslims have a more relaxed attitude towards Islamic dogma than Arabs do. Why is the political persona of the Arab masses quietist?

First, the masses fear the security forces.

Secondly, the masses worry that change could result in a worse ruler.

Thirdly, the influence of Islam is strong on the Arab peoples. The Quran describes them as the “best nation evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His Companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arabic. Arabs feel they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. Additionally, political frustrations during the past half-century over U.S. policies in the Middle East and Israeli humiliation have been drawing Arabs closer to Islam.

Obedience to authority is the hallmark of Islam’s political theory. In the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert, disobedience and strife could waste scarce water and staples. Islam is a way of life guided by the Quran and the Prophet’s actions and words in the Hadith. To be a good Muslim one must abide strictly by the rules of the Quran and the Hadith. The Prophet Muhammad, a product of desert living, enshrined obedience to authority into the Islamic Creed. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” The Prophet has also reportedly said: “Hear and obey the emir, even if your back is whipped and your property is taken; hear and obey.”

Belief in predestination makes tyrannical rulers seem as if they were ordained by God’s will.

Many eminent Islamic jurists opine that in the name of societal peace, years of unjust ruler are better that a day of societal strife.

Today, Arab rulers exploit Islam to prolong their dictatorships. Egypt’s president and the Saudi king declared on February 24, 2004: “The Western model of democracy does not necessarily fit a region largely driven by Islamic teaching.” Pandering ulama to Arab kings and presidents preach that obedience to Muslim authority is a form of piety. Unless the historicity of the Quran and the Hadith are allowed to be examined, freely, rationally, and philosophically and without the fear of persecution under blasphemy laws and ulama intimidation genuine Arab democratic reforms will not evolve for generations, if ever.

Fourthly, in the Arab home, poverty drives the father to transform his children into a ‘security blanket’ for old age. Fear of destitution makes the father into what Nobel Laureate Najib Mahfouz calls the “central agent of repression,” constantly threatening his children with the wrath of God if they disobey him. At school, corporal punishment terrorizes students into blind obedience in classrooms. The manager at work, a product of the Arab milieu, demands obsequiousness from subordinates. In the thin Arab labor markets, the employee finds that blind obedience averts financial catastrophe.

Islamist democracy is no Western democracy

Lately, leaders of the Arab World’s best known Islamist movement, the Muslim Brothers, have been supporting free parliamentary elections.

Is Islamist parliamentary democracy consistent with Western democracy? The answer is no. The parliament in an Islamist democracy is not the final authority in lawmaking. Sovereignty in Islamist democracy is to God whereas sovereignty under Western democracy is to the people. Islamist parliamentary democracy superimposes an Islamist constitutional court; composed of unelected clerics, on top of an elected parliament to ensure that man’s laws comply with God’s laws, a structure similar to Iran’s Council of Guardians.

Is the Islamist constitutional court similar to Western constitutional courts? Again, the answer is no. While the former adjudicates according to the ulama’s interpretation of Islamic law, the latter adjudicates according to parliamentary laws.

The failure of Washington’s Arab democratization project

Washington has been supporting Arab dictators in order to keep the Islamists at bay. The advances that the Islamists made in every one of the Arab countries that held elections in 2005 and early 2006 at the instigation of the Bush administration indicate that the foray into Arab elections is over.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, the Islamist Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats. Iraq’s January 30, 2005 elections were expedited, if not forced, by the leader of the country’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. His candidates won 140 of the 275 parliamentary seats: In the December 15, 2005 elections, they won 128 seats. In Saudi Arabia, the 2005 municipal council elections were theatrics. Women were excluded altogether. One-half of the councilors were government appointed and the councils have no power, merely a local advisory role. In Egypt, democratic reforms meant many restrictions on the opposition and a fifth term for the incumbent. Finally, the cause of democracy was certainly not enhanced when Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, capitulated to U.S. pressure without an ounce of change in his tyrannical rule.

The U.S. “War on Terrorism” has also delayed Arab democratic reforms. Since Arab rulers’ cooperation is needed to eliminate the local Jihadists, Washington cannot seriously pressure its dictator friends to become democrats, because of the fear that democracy could usher more Islamists into city halls. Furthermore, the enormity of the damage inflicted upon Iraq since 2003 by the American occupation in the name of democracy has repelled the Arab masses from democratic reforms.

Arab kings and presidents are delighted!

What is the solution?

Since democratic governance is unlikely to grow in Arab soil, an alternative would be benevolent dictatorship. Except for its non-representative nature, benevolent dictatorship could deliver participatory rule, ensure justice for all, fight corruption, nepotism, sectarianism and tribalism.

How likely is it that benevolent dictatorships might replace Arab rulers’ tyranny? The answer is that since benevolent dictatorship does not evolve institutionally there is no predictable pattern to discern here. There might be a coup d’état by a benevolent dictator tomorrow; or, there might not be one, ever.


February 23rd, 2010, 10:47 am


jad said:

Dear Dr. Elie,
What you wrote is the most rational, smart, world class and absolutely right analyse I read. I agree on everything you wrote regarding our Arab political system and its resistance of western style democracy.
I loved these two sentences:
“Sovereignty in Islamist democracy is to God whereas sovereignty under Western democracy is to the people.”
“There might be a coup d’état by a benevolent dictator tomorrow; or, there might not be one, ever.”
So true.
Thank you.

February 23rd, 2010, 12:26 pm


norman said:

The Easiest Fix to Obama’s Mideast Woes
by Reza Aslan
February 23, 2010 | 7:27am
Yaron Kaminsky / AP Photo The president has finally nominated an ambassador to Syria. Reza Aslan on what took so long—and why mending ties with Syria is the most vital priority for America’s foreign policy and national security interests.

Five years after the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Syria, President Obama has nominated Stephen Ford to become the new U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The post has been empty since 2005, after a U.N. investigation implicated Syria in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. Hariri’s murder led to the humiliating withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and launched the so-called Cedar Revolution, which dramatically redrew the political landscape of the country.

George Schultz once said that much of diplomacy is merely “weeding the garden.” Syria’s garden has been untended for five years and is overgrown with weeds.

Ford is a well-respected career diplomat, a former ambassador to Algeria and current Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He is a fluent Arabic speaker who knows his way around the Middle East and whose nomination is fully supported by the Syrian government. There is every reason to believe that his appointment will be swiftly approved by Congress.

The question is not whether restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus is a good idea. Considering how important Syria is to America’s foreign policy and national security interests, it is no exaggeration to say that this could be the most important regional relationship for the United States. The real question is what took so long?

When President Obama took office a year ago, he made diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria the cornerstone of his Middle East strategy. While his repeated overtures to Iran have thus far been rebuffed (thanks in no small part to the civil strife that has rocked that country since the disputed elections last June), Syria has been frantically trying to reengage the United States for years. The country’s young dictator Bashar al-Assad has made a number of high profile overtures to both the Bush and the Obama administrations, all of which have gone more or less unheeded.

Among foreign policy circles, it is common to refer to Syria as “low-hanging fruit”—an easy win for an Obama administration desperate for some kind of diplomatic success in the region after a truly disastrous start dealing with the Middle East peace process. Recall that President Obama came into office promising full engagement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Unlike his predecessor, who took a hands-off policy when it came to Middle East peace (with catastrophic results), Obama vowed to be an evenhanded mediator between the two sides, publicly stating on numerous occasions that he would not abide by anything less than a total freeze of Israeli settlements. So far, the response from the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Obama’s demands has been the diplomatic equivalent of “Go screw yourself, Mr. President.” Rather than forcing Israel to deal with the consequences of its intransigence, the Obama administration has utterly kowtowed to the Netanyahu government (when was the last time the word “settlements” came out of the president’s mouth?), demonstrating to the world just who wears the pants in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

Yet reengaging the Syrians may not only give Obama a much-needed diplomatic victory, it could conceivably lead to a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and Syria, which in turn may reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, Syria could become the linchpin for nearly all of Obama’s foreign-policy goals in the Middle East.

The United States would love to wean Syria from its relationship with Iran (by all accounts a marriage of convenience) and convince Damascus to cease its military and financial support of Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.S. also needs Syrian support in maintaining stability in Iraq as U.S. troops begin the long and arduous process of exiting the country (as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker, Syrian intelligence has already been cooperating with the U.S. on this front).

For its part, Syria wants to be taken seriously by the United States as an important regional power. More urgently, it wants an end to U.S. sanctions, which have badly crippled the country’s economy. Bashar al-Assad has also stated his willingness to pursue peace talks with Israel, as long as any agreement includes the return of the Golan Heights, the highly contested strip of mostly farmland that Israel seized in the 1967 war. Although international law recognizes the land as belonging to Syria, Netanyahu has openly rejected any land for peace deal and indicated absolutely no willingness to give up the Golan Heights.

These issues may seem intractable but according to Edward P. Djerejian, the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, they are no more insoluble than the issues that divided Syria, Israel, and the United States two decades ago. Djerejian should know. He served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1988-1991, at a time in which the two countries had an extremely adversarial relationship. And yet Djerejian and his boss, Secretary of State James Baker, managed to engage the Syrian leadership in tough diplomatic negotiations that not only helped end the civil war in Lebanon but also led to the release of American hostages held in Beirut. Even more remarkable is the fact that Baker and Djerejian were able to get Syria to join the Desert Storm coalition against its fellow Baathist regime in Iraq. Djerejian, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, even convinced Damascus to engage in direct negotiations with Israel, which led to the Madrid peace conference.

“We got [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir to come to Madrid. We got Menachem Begin to shake hands with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn,” says Djerejian, who writes about his experiences in the recently released book Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador’s Journey Through the Middle East. “The art of diplomacy is to create a situation in which it is difficult for the participating parties to say no. That’s what we did in 1991. I believe that the Obama administration can do the same in 2010.”

Of course, neither of those historic events led to a lasting peace agreement between the parties involved, though they did form a strong foundation for future negotiations. In any case, Djerjian believes that the Obama administration is in a unique position to take advantage of the profound changes in the region in the wake of 9/11. He thinks that Ford’s ambassadorship could prepare the way for a high level visit to Damascus by the secretary of State. It could even lay the groundwork for presidential summit to be held outside of Syria, perhaps in Ankara, though that depends in large part on political will in Washington, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.

“The president is a very intelligent man,” Djerjian says. “He has a very strong secretary of State in Hillary Clinton. [Obama’s Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell is a topnotch negotiator who knows the issues. But they have to be in lock step. There can’t be a shadow of difference between the three for these negotiations to work.”

George Schultz once said that much of diplomacy is merely “weeding the garden.” The problem is that Syria’s garden has been untended for five years and is overgrown with weeds. Whether Ford can be an able gardener remains to be seen. But at least the Obama administration recognizes that the potential harvest to be reaped from diplomatic engagement with Syria is too valuable to be ignored any longer.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

For more of The Daily Beast, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast at


February 23rd, 2010, 12:55 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Elie Elhadj said:

Why is the political persona of the Arab masses quietist?

First, the masses fear the security forces.

Secondly, the masses worry that change could result in a worse ruler.

Obedience to authority is the hallmark of Islam’s political theory.


Your article/thesis did a good job explaining why the “Arab masses” (and specifically the participants on this website) are only vocal against Israel.


February 23rd, 2010, 12:59 pm


jad said:

Akbar, you are one of the worst commentators I ever read for on SC, in terms of understanding, I bet that you have nobody outside the virtual world want to listen to your BS so u live on here.

First, you need to know that shoving Israel in everything you read in here just for distraction purposes shows your inability to understand and listen, do you mind to shut it up and read for a while until Israel issue pump up and then you can jump in to defend its disgusting behaviors before you start calling us names as your usual persona does.

Second, Being vocal against the unjust, maltreatment, racism and occupation behaviors of your Israel towards Palestinians and Arab, or against any other occupation or regime in the world has nothing to do with Arab being suppressed or having dictators, it’s called HUMANITY that you obviously have none of. You actually sound like a Nazi camp guard who sees the unjust yet he asks his Jew prisoners to shut up and don’t criticize the beating of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the fence since they are already in prison.

Third, I totally disagree with Alex and I have no doubt that you are a pure racist person with all the terrible meaning this word has and I feel sick when I read your comments and I feel more sick when I have to write back to you.

February 23rd, 2010, 1:44 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Quiet yet Vocal

Second, Being vocal against the unjust, maltreatment, racism and occupation behaviors of your Israel towards Palestinians and Arab, or against any other occupation or regime in the world has nothing to do with Arab being suppressed or having a dictators, it’s called HUMANITY that you obviously have none of.


I would agree with your opinion if:

1.) Israeli-Arabs weren’t treated better than any other Arabs in the Middle East, including Syria.

2.) Palestinians never terrorized Israel.

All I can say is that you’re living proof that Elie’s article is “spot on”.

February 23rd, 2010, 1:53 pm


jad said:

(All I can say is that you’re living proof that Elie’s article is “spot on”)
An all I can say is that you proof my point that you don’t understand s*** of what people writes to you, ‘Officer’ Akbar.

February 23rd, 2010, 2:07 pm


Ghat Albird said:

JAD said:

Akbar, you are one of the worst commentators I ever read for on SC, in terms of understanding, I bet that you have nobody outside the virtual world want to listen to your BS so u live on here.


People like Akbar act and write the way they do due to a variety of reasons.

#1.They are protected and fiananced by the USA and receive close to $ 16 million dollars every day of the year beside the military hardware they are provided with.

#2.The western world acknowledges that Israel is a “democratic ally”.
( this is basically due to brainwashing since in reality Israel is a “raccist dictatorship and practices aparthiad according to the Goldstone/UN report”.

#3. Its daily reported in the American press as an ally of the US in fighting terrorism and there fore is allowed to defend itself by any means avaialble.

#4. No mention is ever made that Jewish terrorist gangs such as Haganah, Palmach, Shtern and Argun used extreme violence to ethnically cleanse millions of Palestinians and destroyed over five hundred Palestinians villages to prevent their return as per UN 194.which 60 years later Israel still refuses to implement.

#5. Any time anyone brings up facts relating to Israeli actions/policies they are called “antisemitic” even Israeli revisionist historians have uncovered and documented Israeli ethnic cleansing in the establishment of basically a racist state in 1947.

#6. As a cynic once said, ” if the US followed a haflway equal treatment of the states surrounding Israel”, ( meaning treating them with equal moral and financial support ) they would not asking the question of .”why do they hate us or is it they hate because we (US) are a democracy.

#7. A jewish citizen of the US is allowed to carry two passports one American and the other Israeli. Which makes it possible for someone like Sarah Palin to adorn herself with the “twin” flags of the USA and Israel on her lapel.

February 23rd, 2010, 3:22 pm


norman said:

They still do not get it , you do not disarm before you get your rights ,

Print Back to story

US asks Syria to move away from Iran: Clinton
by Lachlan Carmichael Lachlan Carmichael
2 hrs 26 mins ago

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Washington is urging Syria to move away from ally Iran as well as stop arming Hezbollah, cooperate in Iraq and resume peace talks with Israel, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.

In disclosing US demands for engagement with Syria, Clinton was blunter than ever about Washington’s bid to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran, the target of a US drive for sanctions designed to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Clinton’s remarks during a Senate budget debate come as Syria announced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will visit Damascus on Thursday for talks with Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

The chief US diplomat told a Senate committee that William Burns, the undersecretary for political affairs and third-ranking US diplomat, “had very intense, substantive talks in Damascus” when he visited there last week.

“And we’ve laid out for the Syrians the need for greater cooperation with respect to Iraq, the end to interference in Lebanon and the… provision of weapons to Hezbollah, a resumption of the Israeli-Syrian track…,” she said.

Clinton said Washington also is asking Syria to “generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran, which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”

The United States accuses Syria and Iran of supporting militant groups in the region, including the Lebanese political and guerrilla movement Hezbollah as well as the Palestinian radical group Hamas.

It also accuses Syria of turning a blind eye to militants crossing its border into Iraq.

Clinton also said she would study a senator’s proposal to consider ways to invite Syrian leader Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in a bid to break the stalemate in talks between the two nations.

“I certainly will look at anything that might break the stalemate. I’m not sure that would be acceptable or do-able to all the parties involved,” Clinton told the senator Arlen Specter.

She repeated that the goal is to restart the formerly Turkish-brokered talks that Syria suspended after Israel launched a brief war in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Obama last week announced that Robert Ford will be the first US ambassador to Damascus since Washington recalled its envoy after Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria.

The move is part of the Obama administration’s year-long campaign to engage a former US foe and energize its thwarted push for a broad Arab-Israeli peace, particularly between Israel and the Palestinians.

Analysts says engagement is more likely to produce modest benefits — like better intelligence cooperation and an improved climate for peace — than peel Syria away from a strategic ally like Iran or achieve a peace breakthrough.

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February 24th, 2010, 8:39 pm


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