How to Explain the Refusal to Talk to Syria

A number of commentators have given their opinion this week on reasons why Israel and the US refuse to open a dialogue with Syria. Here are a few.

Wesley Clark 9/30/06: I’d like to tell you this administration was too cowardly to talk with people it doesn’t agree with. But of course, that’s not true. It’s not cowardice. What they still harbor is the intent to attack the governments of Syria and Iran and therefore they block any diplomatic dialogue.


President George W. Bush is opposed to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a resumption of negotiations with Syria, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The article states that during talks with EU leaders, Bush said, “There is no reason to talk to the Syrians right now. President Assad knows very well what he needs to do to fulfill a positive role.” IsraelNNAl-Manar 


Americans for Peace Now said reports that President Bush is pressuring Israel to spurn Syria talks were “outrageous” if true.

In a release Friday, the dovish group cited a Yediot Achronot report that said Israelis “understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria.” APN said that was the latest of many such reports of U.S. pressure. “When the Syrian president says he wants peace, the least Bush should do is allow Israel to call its bluff. JTA learned last December that some senior Bush administration officials favor unseating the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, an option Israel opposes, fearing it would lead to chaos.

Danny Yatom and Moshe Amirav: one is former Mossad chief and the other the head of Public Policy Studies at Beit Berl College and a Kadima MK had this to say in an Op-Ed piece.   

“What is the Syrian president supposed to think when he hears Olmert declare that the Golan “will remain in Israeli hands forever?” Perhaps he will be tempted to follow Sadat’s lead and initiate a limited military campaign that will cost us dearly. The leadership explains its inflexibility with the slogan: “Syria has not changed.” This judgment ignores important developments, the most significant of which was the Arab League’s decision

(endorsed by Syria) in Beirut, supporting full peace and normalization of relations with Israel in return for the territories it has captured.”

Also new is Syria’s willingness to begin talks without preconditions. Until now, it was alway Israel that made that demand of its neighbors. Now that it has agreed, the government of Israel introduces preconditions. It is enough to listen to the rationalizations of the Olmert government to realize its rigidity of thinking. One is “solidarity of friends” – the United States doesn’t talk to Syria, so nor will we. But the U.S. does not talk to Syria because we are not talking to Syria, and not the other way around. The second rationalization is that Syria is militarily weak and diplomatically isolated, so why should we give it legitimacy? In fact, it is precisely Syria’s weakness that is the reason for making peace with that country at this time.


Uri Avneri: So why don’t we make peace with Syria?


At this time, there are two reasons: the one domestic, the other foreign. The domestic reason is the existence of 20 thousand settlers on the Golan Heights who are far more popular than the West Bank settlers. They are not religious fanatics, and their settlements were set up under the auspices of the Labor Party. All Israeli governments have been afraid to touch them.


That is the real reason for the failure of all the attempts to negotiate with Syria. Yitzhak Rabin thought about it and drew back. He argued that we should first of all concentrate on settling the Palestinian issue. Ehud Barak almost came to an agreement with Syria, but escaped at the last moment. The only question that remained open was almost ludicrous: should the Syrians reach the shoreline of the Sea of Tiberias (the situation prevailing before the Six-day war) or stay at a distance of a few dozen meters (according to the border fixed between the British, then ruling Palestine, and the French, then ruling Syria). In popular parlance: will Assad dangle his long feet in the water of the lake? For Assad Sr. that was a question of honor.  Is it worthwhile to risk for this the lives of thousands of Israelis and Syrians, who may die in another war?


Until Israel has a government ready to answer this question and to confront the settlers, there will be no agreement with Syria.


Joshua Landis sent this opinion to Marc Perelman of the Forward. (The entire issue of the Forward this week is excellent). He wrote, asking, “there seems to be unwillingness in Washington to talk to Syria. And by France too, by the way. So I wanted to have your views on that.” I wrote him back:


On the resistance to talk with Syria, it seems clear that President Bush still clings to the notion that he is going to win the war to reform the Greater Middle East, which was begun with the invasion of Iraq. At the time, a number of his closest advisors believed this would include regime change in Damascus. The resistance to opening the door to discussions with Syria (and Iran) stems from the stubborn hope among Bush advisers that it is not too late for this plan and that a turn-around in their Middle East fortunes may yet materialize. They hope it is not too late for a regime-change opportunity in Syria. The Bush administration clearly believed the War in Lebanon this summer could have developed into just such an opportunity. This is why Rice made her famous faux pas that the bombing of Lebanon and the screams of its citizens were simply “the birth pains of a new Middle East.”


Israeli papers mentioned during the war that Bush advisors were pressing to take the war to Damascus. It is this hope that prevents dialogue. Important people in the administration, whether in the Vice President’s office or in the National Security Council, such as Elliot Abrams, do not want dialogue. (This article, “Meet the Whack Iran Lobby,” in Mother Jones, explains who some are.)


They believe that should dialogue start, their plan for transforming the Middle East will be lost. The logic of settling Israel’s northern borders is very powerful. Once it begins, it will be hard to stop. I think Bashar is quite serious about his desire to put the vicious cycle of violence behind Syria.


The French reluctance is simpler to understand than Washington’s because it is more personal and less ideological. Chirac was a good friend of Rafiq al-Hariri’s. He is angry at Bashar, who he blames for his death. Although he is not eager for regime-change in Syria or more instability in the region, he does not want to reward Bashar and still nurses a grudge.


As anyone can see, my explanation is a synthesis of the views given above.


Then there is this cluster bomb story in the NY Times by Slackman, who is excellent, as ever. One gets inured to a certain level of hypocrisy in politics, especially when dealing with the Middle East, but the cluster bomb story is just so appalling that it needs to be held up – especially at a time when the US is trying to show disgust and horror at terrorism by religious fanatics. What is the possible excuse for these cluster bombs? Everyone who ordered the express delivery of these munitions to Israel knew full well what they were to be used for. There were many high officials who expressly and knowingly signed on to this use of terror. All officials who have been willing to answer questions on this have said that using cluster bombs is perfectly legal. There is little shame when it comes to using terror, no matter which side is doing it.


US supplied terror in Lebanon.  United Nations officials estimate that southern Lebanon is littered with one million unexploded bomblets, far outnumbering the 650,000 people living in the region. They are stuck in the branches of olive trees and the broad leaves of banana trees. They are on rooftops, mixed in with rubble and littered across fields, farms, driveways, roads and outside schools.


Nearly three people have been wounded or killed each day by cluster bombs Israel dropped in the waning days of the war, and officials now say it will take more than a year to clear the region of them.  A large percentage of the unexploded bomblets were made in America, while some were produced in Israel. Almost all were dropped in the last days of the August cease-fire.


Watch Video


Local villagers claim Israel and the US used these bombs in order to cleanse the South of Lebanon of its inhabitants and create a no-man’s land between the two countries.

Comments (5)

rabee said:

An excellent post.

Your blog is an absolute treasure of a blog on Syria.

I have interacted in the past with Syrian officials and have tried to read almost every scholarly book on Syria.

This blog is by far the best resource on Syria on the net.

By the way, do you know if is still (was ever) blocked by Syrian ISPs, in particular
the Syrian Computer Society?

October 8th, 2006, 12:47 pm


Joshua said:

Dear Rabee,
Many thanks for your kind words. I do not believe that was ever blocked by Syria. I spent 2005 living in Damascus and never had a problem accessing blogs. Damascus blocks a few sites – Muslim brotherhood, Elaph, al-Seyassah, and the like. It does try to block some Israeli papers and Israeli email addresses ending in “.il”, but the government’s abilities are very amateurish and they don’t seem to spend many resources trying to control the internet. Damascus relies on the old methods – if people make trouble, they are sent to the clink.

October 8th, 2006, 1:20 pm


Sophia said:

I believe that the US not wanting to talk to Syria and Iran is part of a strategy meant to make these countries look like real EVIL and targeting the public opinion worldwide.

October 11th, 2006, 1:58 pm


To Talk or Not to Talk? « Shalom Rav said:

[…] Indeed, the Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to isolate Syria internationally. Just last month, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called on other nations to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, though she didn’t specify what exactly she had in mind. Our government has also made no secret of its goal to remake the Middle East in its image. Some suggest, alarmingly, that there is still a hope in the Bush administration for a regime change opportunity in Syria. (See SyriaComment on this point). […]

October 24th, 2006, 6:41 pm


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