Israel and Syria Threaten War as US Pushes for Talks: Feltman and Abrams Explain US Policy

Following peace-envoy Mitchell’s most recent trip to Israel and Syria, both Middle East countries began to threaten war and accuse the other side of fanning the flames of conflict. Neither Syria nor Israel have an interest in war; nor does Hamas or Hizbullah. They are jockeying for position should Washington insist on talks that that Middle Easterners are convinced will be hollow and all about process. Each side will be able to turn to Mitchell and claim that the other side started it, is unfriendly, and should have the lion’s share of pressure applied to it. All sides, I believe, want a process even if it is hollow, because they don’t want trouble.. All sides are more interested in growing their economies and pursuing domestic issues than war. What we are witnessing is the bluster and initial bargaining postures that precede the opening of talks through a third part that most believe will be inconsequential. This is a classic case of “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war,” as Prime Minister Winston Churchill explained.

Read the following exchange at the Hudson Institute between Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman on negotiations and Syria. The following are excerpts: (thanks to Elias)

Elliott Abrams:
On the Israeli-Palestinian question…. I think the fundamental error being made today is the same error that was made toward the end of the Bush administration, which is the focus – one might even say the sole focus of U.S. policy – is negotiations – getting a negotiation going. But the aftermath of Annapolis I think demonstrated that if the conditions aren’t right those negotiations won’t succeed. The administration is devoting itself now to getting the Palestinians and Israelis to the table. It may get them to the table. The United States has a great deal of clout. But then what? I think it almost inconceivable that they will actually, under current conditions, reach an agreement, sign an agreement, for reasons who can get into. But I think they’re pretty far apart. I do not buy the notion that they’re just an inch apart. And I don’t see the ability to compromise the differences right now….. I think there should have been for the last five years anyway much more concentration on building the institutions and the sinews of the Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Mr. Feltman:
These three things we believe have to go together. If you neglect the security track, it’s obvious why it doesn’t work. If you neglect the institutional track, it means that you’re creating the conditions for what could very well be a failed state, even if you succeed on negotiations. But if you leave negotiations out, if you don’t have a process, then there’s very little incentive or interest for the Palestinians to be working on those other two tracks, the ground-up approach. So we see these three working together. And waiting to try to get back into negotiations we don’t think serves anyone except the extremists.

On the Levant:
You know, Elliott’s right. The Lebanon portfolio is certainly close to my heart. I feel blessed that I was able to spend the time that I did in Lebanon. President Obama, when he came into office, did in fact offer to engage Syria as well. I have traveled to Damascus a couple times, something I never felt I would do, certainly in 2006. Sen. Mitchell has traveled a couple times. We’ve had one – we’ve had a Syrian visit here in Washington.
I’ll just say, these are tough discussions that we’re having – that we’re having with the Syrians. What’s different is we’re now talking not just about the Syrians; we’re talking to the Syrians. But believe me, we’re talking to the Syrians about all the issues that we’ve always talked about the Syrians on. So these new lines of communication do not mean, by any means, that we are somehow putting aside our concerns about Syrian policy or that we’re somehow looking to suddenly sell out our Lebanese partners.

The message about not selling out Lebanon or our Iraqi partners has been made clear to the Syrians, both publicly and privately. But I – you know, I know Lebanon well enough to admit honestly that our friends in Lebanon continue to have questions about this and continue to ask – continue to ask us about this.

MR. FELTMAN: When I look back on that 2005 period in Lebanon, I analyzed that one of the assets that the Lebanese had was international and regional unity. It obviously did not include Syria and Iran. But by and large, there was – the reaction to the assassination of Rafic Hariri brought together the Lebanese, but also brought together the international community; so that you had the Lebanese and the international community all working in the same direction for a short period.

Now, the Bush administration, working with the French, had already put in place the foundation stones for an international consensus regarding the need for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon before Rafic Hariri’s assassination. It started in the summer and the fall of 2004. But that traumatic event, the assassination of Rafic Hariri, brought other countries into play, brought an international consensus into play. Unfortunately, that international consensus did not last. As Elliott said, the Israelis opened the door to re-engagement with Syria when they had their negotiations – their indirect negotiations via the Turks.

When President Sarkozy looked at policy for the Middle East, he made a dramatic shift from his predecessor. He decided that it was worth trying to engage Syria to try to see if you could embrace Syria in a way that would moderate Syrian behavior. Of course, more recently you’ve had the Saudi rapprochement which I think has a number of roots, but I would agree with you that part of the discussions have been on – have probably been on Iraq.

So you ended up at a point when we isolate – we were the ones isolated. It was no longer Syria being isolated. It was the United States that was being isolated. So I think this administration decided that engagement is not – engagement is something we need to try. And I’ll emphasize. Engagement does not mean – as I said before, to engage does not mean to embrace. Engagement does not mean endorsement of certain policies. Engagement does not mean that you go and say, oh, President Assad, we love everything you’re doing. It’s simply a different tool to try to achieve the means – so far the results have been modest at best. But this also hasn’t been something that we’ve been doing that long.

MR. ABRAMS: I think Bush administration policy became too soft or was too soft on Syria, and I think Obama administration policy is as well….. If I could just say something. I mean, I entirely agree with you that engaging someone is not the same as embracing them. However, I guess I would also ask why aren’t we acting – and maybe we are, and please correct me – why aren’t we acting with a conviction that diplomacy is not necessarily the opposite of war, when certainly it seems that – we seem to believe this president came to office campaigning on the idea that we’re going to use real diplomacy, not just military action.

Why can’t all of these tools be part of the same portfolio? So while we’re working on engaging the Syrians – the Syrians certainly do this. They have – they’re very talented at doing this. They’re willing to sit down with anyone while they’re blowing them up at different points.

So why aren’t we using – why can’t we use pressure on them as well as engage them diplomatically?

MR. FELTMAN: I would argue – I would argue that we are. I would argue that the – for example, there’s been renewal of executive orders [J.L. – These are presidential sanctions on Syria, which were recently renewed. It should also be mentioned that the US has helped stop shipments of arms to Syria from Iran and N. Korea, as well as pressure Russia not to sell arms to Syria, while it has supplied Israel with more and better arms. All of these methods are what Abrams would call “blowing them up” while you sit down with them.], that – we’re trying to use, as I said, as much – we’re trying to use as many tools in the diplomatic toolbox as we possibly can.

Lieberman: “Syria must understand that it has to let go of the demand for the Golan, in the same way that it gave up on the Greater Syria dream,” said Lieberman. “The foreign minister went on to stress that he supports peace with Syria as long as the Golan Heights remain in Israel’s hands.”

Lieberman Warns Assad as Syria and Israel Exchange War Threats
By Massoud A. Derhally and Jonathan Ferziger

Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) — Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he’ll lose the war and his grip on power if his country picks a fight with Israel.

“Assad needs to know that if he provokes Israel, he will fall from power,” Lieberman said today at a conference near Tel Aviv, in comments conveyed by his spokesman Tzachi Moshe. “I hope the message will be well understood in Damascus.”

The comments came a day after Assad and his foreign minister said Israel was pushing the region toward war. The two countries, which have fought three full-scale wars since Israel was founded in 1948, are trading threats just as the U.S. prepares to restore diplomatic ties with Syria and kickstart peace talks that broke down more than a year ago.

Israel’s December 2008 assault on the Gaza Strip led to the collapse of indirect peace talks with Syria that had been mediated by Turkey. The previous round of talks had foundered in 2000 over the terms for Israel to return the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967.

In a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in Damascus yesterday, Syrian President Bashar al- Assad said that Israel is “not serious” about peace and is instead “pushing the region toward war,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.

At a joint press conference with Moratinos late yesterday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem called on Israel to “desist from making threats against Gaza, southern Lebanon, Iran and now Syria.”

Just Peace

Muallem said Israel “should not test Syria’s determination for it should know that a war will move to Israeli cities,” and should instead “abide by the requirements for a just and comprehensive peace.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office sent a text message to journalists last night saying he’s “ready and willing to come to any place in the world, at any time, in order to open peace talks with Syria, with no prior conditions,” and blaming Syria for “creating difficulties and preventing the establishment of negotiations.”

“This escalation of words comes in the context of Israel’s saber-rattling vis-à-vis Iran and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of a forthcoming book, “The Iran Connection: The Alliance with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas,” in a phone interview from Beirut.

Israel has been pushing for tougher international action against Syria’s ally Iran over its nuclear program. Earlier this week, Netanyahu accused the Syrian-backed Hezbollah of illegally stockpiling weapons.

“When you talk like this in the Middle East, especially at this delicate time, you have to realize it can be dangerous,” said Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University who attended Lieberman’s speech.

Direct Quotes: Bashar Assad
Posted by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker Blog, February 3, 2010

I spoke to Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, this winter in Damascus. Assad assumed the presidency after his father’s death, in 2000, when he was thirty-four years old, and he expressed some empathy for President Barack Obama, who, like Assad, was confronted with a steep learning curve.

One note: a transcript of our talk, provided by Assad’s office, was generally accurate but it did not include an exchange we had about intelligence. A senior Syrian official had told me that, last year, Syria, which is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, had renewed its sharing of intelligence on terrorism with the C.I.A. and with Britain’s MI6, after a request from Obama that was relayed by George Mitchell, the President’s envoy for the Middle East. (The White House declined to comment.) Assad said that he had agreed to do so, and then added that he also has warned Mitchell “that if nothing happens from the other side”—in terms of political progress—“we will stop it.”

Quotes from our conversation follow.

President Barack Obama:

Bush gave Obama this big ball of fire, and it is burning, domestically and internationally. Obama, he does not know how to catch it.

The approach has changed; no more dictations but more listening and more recognition of America’s problems around the world, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. But at the same time there are no concrete results…. What we have is only the first step…. Maybe I am optimistic about Obama, but that does not mean that I am optimistic about other institutions that play negative or paralyzing role[s] to Obama.

If you talk about four years, you have one year to learn and the last year to work for the next elections. So, you only have two years. The problem, with these complicated problems around the world, where the United States should play a role to find a solution, is that two years is a very short time…. Is it enough for somebody like Obama?

Hillary Clinton:

Some say that even Hilary Clinton does not support Obama. Some say she still has ambition to be President some day—that is what they say.

The press conference of Hillary with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [in which she appeared to walk away from the Administration’s call for a freeze on settlements] was very bad, even for the image of the United States.

Israel and the United States:

To be biased and side with the Israelis, this is traditional for the United States; we do not expect them to be in the middle soon. So we can deal with this issue, and we can find a way if you want to talk about the peace process. But the vision does not seem to be clear on the U.S. side as to what they really want to happen in the Middle East.

Negotiations with Israel:

I have half a million Palestinians and they have been living here for three generations now. So, if you do not find a solution for them, then what peace you are talking about?

What, I said, is the difference between peace and a peace treaty? Peace treaty is what you sign, but peace is when you have normal relations. So, you start with a peace treaty in order to achieve peace…. If they say you can have the entire Golan back, we will have a peace treaty. But they cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect…. You start with the land; you do not start with peace.

The Israelis:

You need a special dictionary for their terms…. They do not have any of the old generation who used to know what politics means, like Rabin and the others. That is why I said they are like children fighting each other, messing with the country; they do not know what to do.

[The Israelis] wanted to destroy Hamas in the war [in December, 2008] and make Abu Mazen strong in the West Bank. Actually it is a police state, and they weakened Abu Mazen and made Hamas stronger. Now they wanted to destroy Hamas. But what is the substitute for Hamas? It is Al Qaeda, and they do not have a leader to talk to, to talk about anything. They are not ready to make dialogue. They [Al Qaeda] only want to die in the field.

Europe and the Iranian nuclear negotiation:

This is not European but Bush’s initiative adopted by the Europeans. The Europeans are like the postman; they pretend that they are not like this but they are like a postman; they are completely passive and I told them that. I told the French when I visited France.


Imposing sanctions [on Iran] is a problem because they will not stop the program and they will accelerate it if you are suspicious. They can make problems to the Americans more than the other way around.

If I am Ahmadinejad, I will not give all the uranium because I do not have a guarantee [in response to American and European insistence that most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium be sent abroad for further enrichment to make it usable for a research reactor, but not for a bomb]…. So, the only solution is that they can send you part and you send it back enriched, and then they send another part…. The only advice I can give to Obama: accept this Iranian proposal because this is very good and very realistic. [Note: the Iranian position appeared to be shifting this week.]


The civil war in Lebanon could start in days; it does not take weeks or months; it could start just like this. One cannot feel assured about anything in Lebanon unless they change the whole system.

Cooperating with the United States in Iraq:

They [American officials] only talk about the borders; this is a very narrow-minded way. But we said yes. We said yes—and, you know, during Bush we used to say no, but when Mitchell came [as Obama’s envoy] I said O.K.… I told Mitchell by saying this is the first step and when find something positive from the American side we move to the next level…. We sent our delegation to the borders and [the Iraqis] did not come. Of course, the reason is that [Nouri] al-Maliki [the Prime Minister of Iraq] is against it. So far there is nothing, there is no cooperation about anything and even no real dialogue.

George Mitchell:

I told him, you were successful in Ireland, but this is different…. [Mitchell] is very keen to succeed. And he wants to do something good, but I compare with the situation in the United States: the Congress has not changed…. But the whole atmosphere is not positive towards the President in general. And that is why I think his envoys cannot succeed.

Criticisms of some Israeli policies at the J-Street founding conference:

Ahh … that is new!… But we should educate them that if they are worried about Israel, then the only thing that can protect Israel is peace, nothing else. No amount of airplanes or weapons could protect Israel, so they have to forget about that.

Pakistan’s government:

They supported [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and realized he cannot deliver. I do not know why they supported him and why—nobody knows why.

American power:

Now the problem is that the United States is weaker, and the whole influential world is weak as well…. You always need power to do politics. Now nobody is doing politics…. So what you need is strong United States with good politics, not weaker United States. If you have weaker United States, it is not good for the balance of the world.

Exclusive: Israeli commander: ‘We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza’
By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem, February 3, 2010

Civilians ‘put at greater risk to save military lives’ in winter attack – revelations that will pile pressure on Netanyahu to set up full inquiry
A high-ranking officer has acknowledged for the first time that the Israeli army went beyond its previous rules of engagement on the protection of civilian lives in order to minimise military casualties during last year’s Gaza war, The Independent can reveal.

The officer, who served as a commander during Operation Cast Lead, made it clear that he did not regard the longstanding principle of military conduct known as “means and intentions” – whereby a targeted suspect must have a weapon and show signs of intending to use it before being fired upon – as being applicable before calling in fire from drones and helicopters in Gaza last winter. A more junior officer who served at a brigade headquarters during the operation described the new policy – devised in part to avoid the heavy military casualties of the 2006 Lebanon war – as one of “literally zero risk to the soldiers”. ….

White House Opening to Hezbollah, Hamas?
posted by Robert Dreyfuss on 08/10/2009 in the Nation

Last week, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, John Brennan, the White House’s top adviser on terrorism, described the outlines of the Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy. During his appearance, which drew several hundred people to the basement conference room at CSIS, I had a chance to ask Brennan about US policy toward Hezbollah and Hamas. In his response, Brennan opened the door a crack to the idea of a new US policy toward the two groups, and his comments stirred some unhappiness at the State Department…..

‘Israel infiltrated Syria leadership’

….“We don’t rule out the possibility that the Israelis or some other security agency that works with them have recruited a senior Syrian intelligence officer who feeds them with details about the movements and whereabouts of representatives of Hamas and other groups, particularly Hizbullah,” he said… The mysterious death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month has prompted Hamas to launch an internal investigation to determine whether Israel has managed to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Islamist movement, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip revealed on Tuesday……Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be divided over the question of whether it should attack Israeli and Jewish targets around the world to avenge the killing of its top operative.

Steve Clemons in The Washington Note writes: that Iraq has Cut off Supply Convoys to Jordan in order to Punish Sunni Iraqis and Joranians for trying to check Iran’s Influence in Region.

The Palestine Note has reported and intelligence sources have confirmed to this writer that the Department of Defense is cutting off all supply convoys via the western corridor into Iraq to supply US forces in Iraq. Reportedly, the Iraqi government has stopped providing needed security from its forces along the convoy routes that the suppliers use. Sources with whom I have spoken state that this cutoff of the supply route is designed to punish Sunni Iraqis in Western Iraq and in Jordan, and to punish the Jordanian government for its efforts to check Iran’s influence in the region.

Rendition victim appeals to US Supreme Court

(AFP) WASHINGTON — A Canadian man who was transferred by US officials to Syria, where he was imprisoned and allegedly tortured, filed a suit before the US Supreme Court seeking to sue the United States. Maher Arar is appealing a lower court ruling that his case could not proceed because it involved secret national security information. Arar, an engineer of Syrian origin, was arrested by US officials while he was transiting through New York in 2002. He was detained in the basis of information shared with US authorities by Canadian police that suggested he had ties to terrorists.

US officials deported him to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year, during which time he alleges he was tortured, before finally being released and returned to Canada. Canadian authorities later cleared him of any connections to terrorism, apologized officially and agreed to pay him a substantial amount of money in damages for having supplied the incorrect information that led to his arrest. He has sought the same from the US government, but has been rejected by lower courts. The suit filed before the Supreme Court questions “whether federal officials who conspired with Syrian officials to subject an individual in US custody in the United States to torture in Syria may be sued for damages.” It alleges that US “officials also intentionally obstructed the victim’s access to the judicial remedy provided by Congress to prevent torture, and damages are the only remedy available to vindicate the victim’s rights.” In a statement, Arar said he hoped the court would “hear my plight and eventually overturn lower courts’ rulings which essentially gave the government the green light to continue the abuse of its executive powers in matters related to national security.”

Comments (18)

Akbar Palace said:

You start with the land; you do not start with peace.

Assad`s view of peace has always been a great inspiration to anti-zionists, liberals, and anti~semites.

February 4th, 2010, 3:33 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

You are back to your deceiving term, you mentioned antisemitic, The Arab are semitics. this is wrong term you mentioned anti zionism ,this is enough but to say antisemitic ,you are deceiving, you are as always big deceiver.

February 4th, 2010, 4:58 pm


Ghat Albird said:

Guess Avigdor already has commitments from Abrams and friends for him to state as reported by Bloomberg (see above)

Feb. 4, 2010 (Bloomberg) — Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he’ll lose the war and his grip on power if his country picks a fight with Israel.

“Assad needs to know that if he provokes Israel, he will fall from power,” Lieberman said today at a conference near Tel Aviv, in comments conveyed by his spokesman Tzachi Moshe. “I hope the message will be well understood in Damascus.”.

February 4th, 2010, 7:49 pm


Shai said:

In protest of Lieberman’s newly-established Foreign Policy of “National Pride” (as he coined it), and the ways by which he and his deputy have carried out this policy (embarrassment of the Turkish ambassador, and now threatening Syria), Dr. Alon Liel has decided to give back his diplomatic passport to the Foreign Ministry.

As he was quoted earlier today, Dr. Liel said: “This past month the Foreign Minister and his deputy Danny Ayalon have carried out a number of actions that disgraced Israeli Diplomacy. I cannot continue to hold on to a diplomatic passport as long as Israel conducts such brutal policy. When I travel abroad, I prefer a normal passport.”

February 4th, 2010, 8:26 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Assad on Lebanon

“..The civil war in Lebanon could start in days; it does not take weeks or months; it could start just like this. One cannot feel assured about anything in Lebanon unless they change the whole system”.

You surely remember Chekhov’s remark, about hanging a gun on the wall, in the first act…

And when the 2nd Lebanese civil war breaks, I’m sure Assad will be
called to intervene.

February 4th, 2010, 11:09 pm


Leo Leoni said:

I was wondering who wrote the poll on the top left of the main page?

It states as follows:

“Should Syria open to Western banks even if growing the economy weakens resistance and the possibility of getting the Golan back?

Yes, Syria’s top priority is to raise the standard of living for Syrians.

No, Syria’s top priority is to get back the Golan and restore the integrity of the national land.”

What is the link between opening up the economy and banking system with weakening the resistance and getting the Golan back? Why relate 2 things that are in no way related? In fact if there is any relation, it is that raising the standard of living of Syrians would increase their probability of regaining their land and not the opposite. Only strong, educated, and developed people could in any way achieve their political goals and not the opposite.

February 5th, 2010, 12:22 am


norman said:

I do not know why we should expect anything else from the Israeli minster ,
What do expect him to say , (( If there is a war Israel will surrender or do we expect him to say that if there is war will fight Syria but we are going to keep President Assad because he is a friend of Israel ))
We all know that they have been trying to get rid of the government in Syria and president Assad since 2003 , Syria and president Assad are the last to stand in their way of total control over the Mideast , so we should not expect anything less from MR Lieberman ,
We just have to beat him back .as Syria always did,

February 5th, 2010, 4:12 am


Observer said:

I suggest to Mr. Lieberman to focus on releasing Shalit before trying to scare Syria off. But I have to say this guy has some nerves on him. He came to the Middle East in 1978 and now he wants to decide who rules the oldest capital in the region!!!

February 5th, 2010, 10:19 am


Shai said:


“Mr” Lieberman, if he deserves that title at all, will be beaten back not by Syria, but by the Israeli Justice System. He is quite likely to end up in jail at some point in the near future. The Police say that the case against him is solid. He would not be the first minister to serve a jail sentence.

Israeli “analysts” forecast that his party, Israel Beitenu, will evaporate the minute he’s gone, much as Shinui did when Tommy Lapid left. It too was at one point the 3rd largest party in Knesset, with 15 seats. But today it’s distant memory.

In’shalla, so will Lieberman and Ayalon be.

February 5th, 2010, 11:32 am


norman said:

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Peace with Syria still in Israel’s sightsIt might be wishful thinking, but some in Israel believe the time is ripe to push for a deal with Damascus

Buzz up!
Digg it
Ian Black, Middle East editor, Friday 5 February 2010 10.00 GMT larger | smaller Article history
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was slapped down for suggesting Syria would never get back the Golan Heights. Photograph: Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

It is hardly news that Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s rightwing foreign minister, is a bruiser who does not mince his words. But he still managed to provoke anger and dismay at home when he warned Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad this week that he would see his regime collapse if he dared to attack the Jewish state.

Lieberman was accused of “playing with fire” and “fanning the flames” after Assad – no slouch either when it comes to raising the regional temperature – claimed Israel was pushing the Middle East to a new war. “Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war,” the Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer told businessmen. “Neither he nor his family will remain in power.”

Verbal spats between Damascus and Jerusalem are part of the landscape of the Middle East. Syria and Israel are at odds over Lebanon and Iran but they have not fought a fully fledged conflict since 1973 when Assad’s father, Hafez, joined Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in launching that year’s October war. The Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, is still a heavily fortified frontline. But it has been a quiet one for 36 years.

Lieberman’s most damaging remark was not the suggestion of forced regime change but the idea that Syria had better forget about ever getting back the Golan – contradicting the official Israeli government position that it will trade territory for peace. Even Binyamin Netanyahu, the country’s most rightwing prime minster ever, was moved to clarify that he remains willing to talk to Damascus “without preconditions”. Motormouth Lieberman was slapped down and forced to agree.

It shouldn’t really be so difficult to reach agreement: these bitter enemies negotiated on and off for nine years, starting at the Madrid conference in 1991 and ending in Shepherdstown, Virginia, in 2000, just before Hafez al-Assad died. Syria’s canny foreign minister, Walid al-Muallim, has said that 85% of the problems, including crucial security arrangements, were solved in negotiations with four Israeli leaders from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Barak. Turkey mediated four more rounds of inconclusive talks in 2008.

This latest row has erupted at a time when there is speculation – no more than wishful thinking, say some – that in the absence of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians (US-run “proximity” talks, with state department diplomats shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, would be a poor substitute) – the time has come for a serious effort to revive the Syrian “track”.

This is a familiar pattern in the endless quest for an Arab-Israeli breakthrough: if peace with the Palestinians is stuck, or simply too difficult, then why not try to strike a deal with Damascus? Barak, now the Labour party leader and defence minister, thinks this is the right approach. So does Israel’s defence and intelligence establishment, which believes peace with Syria could drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran – seen as a far more dangerous enemy – and would justify surrendering the Golan and its 20,000 Israeli settlers.

Another part of Israel’s calculation/aspiration is that Assad would shed, or at least weaken, his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamists who control Gaza and challenge Mahmoud Abbas’s western-backed Palestinian Authority – Israel’s putative partner for peace. “The mere fact of Israel-Syria negotiations would hurt Hamas, thereby strengthening Abbas,” argues the Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.

The snag with that theory is that it is hard to imagine Assad signing a peace treaty with Israel as long as is there is no overall settlement of the Palestinian question.

Another part of the problem is different expectations. Israel has always hoped that peace with Syria would mean full “normalisation” of their bilateral relations, as it did – on paper at least – with Egypt back in 1979. But Assad is not Sadat, desperate to find favour with the Americans at almost any price.

“You start with a peace treaty in order to achieve peace,” the Syrian leader told the American journalist Seymour Hersh recently. “If they say you can have the entire Golan back, we will have a peace treaty. But they cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect … You start with the land; you do not start with peace.”

Still, Israeli opinion-formers are urging a new attempt to woo Assad – and hope Barack Obama will try harder. The imminent arrival of a new US ambassador in Damascus after a five-year absence could certainly help.

“It may be that at the end of the day, the Syrians, too, will turn their backs on us, but every day that goes by without an effort to reach peace with Syria is a day marked by criminal negligence,” commented the Ha’aretz writer Arie Shavit. “There is no certainty at all that peace is in the offing. But if it is, it is to be found not in Ramallah but in Damascus.”

February 6th, 2010, 2:15 am


trustquest said:

Talking about Shaaban!, do not forget the boss. He is now full fledged dictator who do not have to say we in Syria, or Syrian policy, today on Syria News he is saying “I”: Do not expect from me to give you the peace you want!. Which is true, he did not consult the Baath Party for too long and no need to!

Last time his over confidence cost him bunch was when he calls the Saudis half men cost his country a lot of pain and then 4 years later he put his hand with the half man. Today with those recorded quotes on this post, in one of them talking about Israelis politicians call them children and on the same time wants to send his envoy to sit with them is only one of the many mishaps in these quotes. For god sake there is no learning curve for the dictator there a survival curve to last as long as possible.

We should add this one to his vice president when he was in Stephentown negotiating peace treaty with the wise as his president called them:
Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woma…
That makes me feel sorry for all Syrian women who can not say a word.

February 6th, 2010, 3:05 am


Averroes said:


I think you’re reading too much into a figure of speech. Leaders use “I” and “we” interchangeably and it’s not an unfamiliar figure of speech.

As for the “half men”, I wish he had not said that, not because they don’t deserve it, but because it gave those people and their media empires ammunition to smoke screen the very substantial reasons he’d labeled them as such.

Those “moderate” Arab leaders have and still are doing everything in their power to extinguish any voice of resistance to Israeli and US illegal, and brutal occupations. In their minds, that’s the only way they can maintain their thrones and pass the power to their children.

قبض الريح و بئس التجارة

The problem with the approach that you and some other contributors seem to take is that the priorities seem totally warped within it. Israel was killing Lebanese civilians while those “moderate” Arabs so dear to your heart were openly banning even prayers for the victims, and their media was in every sense of the word fighting with Israel and the US against the Lebanese and the Iraqis. Of course, they do happen to by stuffed with money, and muzzling up to them can in theory allow one to “lick his finger” … or theirs.

And, as you well know, it was those leaders that buckled in and wore the rubber smiling mask toward Syria, not the other way around. They also did that as soon as Bush lost the election. Some leadership. Some independence. Some democratic regimes to feel sorry for their feelings.

February 6th, 2010, 5:46 am


trustquest said:

I have to apologize from you Averroes; I thought for a while that fellow Syrians have elevated the discussions to the level of bringing criticism for the leadership and its team to help them improve their performances, since they are facing “big media” which no one can stand against alone as you said. I thought it might be helpful to have colorful views like the Israelis on this blog, instead of homogeneous view. But you are coming along defending the clan mistakes and turning it to comparative between moderate (kings) and dictators (Kazafi, Assad like), which I thought that two “bad” can not be compared. I felt the need to explain where their mistakes coming from; didn’t say if they are right or wrong; which is their inherent centralization of the decisions in the hand of the small clan and the high level of dictatorship order which works it own laws. A head of Sate speak of US secretary of State, Hilary Clinton like this:
“Some say that even Hilary Clinton does not support Obama. Some say she still has ambition to be President some day—that is what they say.” , is illetrate of diplomacy protocols and States’ relations.

It seems to me he may be a good ophthalmologist? but sure he did not study diplomacy or had one course in it. A while ago, he was demanding to treat his country as independent State with its own laws and decisions, can someone reminds him that what you wish for you should apply it and not to meddle in super power interior business, because they would love to get him in the club but you should do the same.

February 6th, 2010, 3:29 pm


Averroes said:


Criticism is a healthy thing, when it aims to correct and construct. When it aims to destroy, I have my doubts about its intentions. A number of regime opposers openly call for the destruction of the regime, even in the Iraqi fashion. (I don’t know your personal stance on this, but I know of many others that have no problem seeing even a military invasion of Syria to topple the regime). I don’t see too many Israelis wishing for the same to correct the severe issues their system has.

Assad gave Mr. Obama over a year to make a difference. Still today, we can’t buy Airbus planes because 10% of their parts are US made. This is endangering the lives of innocent travelers. Even Open Source software sites ( are now blocking access from Syria. The US has asked Syria to resume intelligence cooperation on issues of terrorism, which Syria has done, but they still insist on keeping Syria under blockade for “supporting terrorism”. How’s that for diplomacy?

Obama may be a good man, but he is tied down with a system that is preventing him from delivering.

February 6th, 2010, 3:51 pm


Ghat Albird said:

The American neocons, and zionists are still bent on remaking the Middle Eastern nations conform to the project initiated by Benjamin Netanyahu called “A Clean Brake, A New Strategy …..(look it up on Wikipedia) and developed by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others in the 1990s.

Question. Is everyone’s comments from now on to be first moderated before accepted or is this just for special commentators?

A recent article by a Dr. Richard Pipes of Harvard University in a National Review Online piece featured by the Jerusalem Post — “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran” — urges President Obama to make a “dramatic gesture to change the public perception of him as a lightweight, bumbling ideologue” by ordering the U.S. military to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Citing six polls, Pipes says Americans support an attack today and will “presumably rally around the flag” when the bombs fall.

The most that can be said about the above is that its a disgusting suggestion by a so called academician from Harvard that the only way for Obama to be respected as President and continue in office is to kill Iranians in order to get Americans ( including AIPAC’s) endorsements.

February 6th, 2010, 4:57 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Shocka!, Hamas backtracks on apology about harming civilians…

More from Dr. Pipes:

February 6th, 2010, 8:20 pm


trustquest said:

Please Averroes, allow for criticism for a system who does not believe there are a world out there except Assad clan, and can not get out of their owns skin. Opinion and counter opinion is even necessary for their own survival and they are punishing their own people for just doing such that and putting them in prison. Latest issue is holding of democracy activists a month after they finished their sentencing, what type of country would do that, it seems Saddam is still alive.
People who are brining excuse after excuse for everything they have done are doing them harm and fooling them. A lady like Buthaina telling us that we are pan handling living in the west while in one year in 2008, 20% of Syrians left the country to make a living, brings insult not only on us expats but on her and our people inside Syria as those pan handling people are making the survival possible for the people inside the country.
This year is not better than 2008 and Shaaban is talking about Haiti and forgetting that her government did not do much for her own people,

February 6th, 2010, 8:59 pm


Averroes said:


I never liked Buthaina. Her talks and writings seem too void of substance for my taste. She seems to artificially distance herself from the here and now for some reason, and I can’t accept that she still writes at al-Sharq al-Awsat, one of the most notorious neocon media outlets out there. You can criticize her all you like, sir.

As for the regime, maybe we can segregate between strategic and tactical criticism. On tactical issues, I have many criticisms of the regime. On a strategic scale, I think they’re doing a good job and I trust president Assad.

In my book, criticize all you want, but don’t incite sectarian tensions, and don’t call for a foreign “liberator” to invade the country. Short of that, I fully agree with you that responsible criticism is necessary and essential.

On dealing with the opposing voices I invite you to consider that the tools available to the regime are primitive. Primitive, as opposed to sophisticated. The systems by which command and control is conveyed and carried out could certainly use a lot of improvements. It might be thought of like surgery 60 years ago: primitive, crude, dangerous, even if well intentioned.

For example, during the HA response to the attempt by 14M to dismantle its communications network, Saudi and Al-Mustaqbal media went absolutely rabid with inflammatory sectarian hate incitement. Elements in the Syrian public are susceptible to such polarization. In response, the regime cracked down on a wide net of Islamic clerics, many of which do not agree to the Saudi sectarian angle.

The security apparatus does not have the resources or the sophistication to fine comb thousands of clerics at a dangerous time like that, so it acts in a swift and crude way. That’s primitive, but not necessarily strategically bad.

There are many other examples, but I think if we segregate criticism into the two domains I mentioned to you, I think we can start to get closer to an agreement.

February 7th, 2010, 12:46 am


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