“Start With Syria” by Aaron David Miller

Aaron David Miller offers up good sense for a second day in his “Start with Syria” article. He writes:

A [Syria] deal would begin to realign the region’s architecture in a way that serves broader U.S. interests. The White House would have to be patient. Syria won’t walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually, requiring a major international effort to marshal economic and political support for Damascus. Still, an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran with tough choices and reduced options….

Read the entire article below with comments by our own Qifa Nabki and an important caveat from Ahmad Salkini of the Syrian Embassy in Washington who councils the West not to expect Syria to cut its relations with Iran.

Start With Syria
A Middle East Deal Obama Could Build On
By Aaron David Miller
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; Page A13

President-elect Barack Obama will be bombarded with recommendations about how to approach Arab-Israeli peacemaking. One piece of advice he should not take is to make Israeli-Palestinian peace his top priority. There’s no deal there. But there is a real opportunity for an Israeli-Syrian agreement, and Obama should go for it.

There are, of course, strong arguments for making Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority. The Palestinians deserve a state of their own, and an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not just key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace but to Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish democratic state.

A new president eager to repair America’s image abroad may be tempted to try for an agreement, but he should avoid the sirens’ call. No conflict-ending agreement is possible now, nor is one likely to be anytime soon, and the stakes are too high for America to harbor illusions that would almost certainly lead to yet another failure. The gaps separating the two sides on the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security) remain too wide, the current leaders are too weak to bridge them, and the environment on the ground is too complicated to allow for sustainable negotiations.

In Palestine, dysfunction and confusion reign. The Palestinian national movement is riven with geographic and political divisions between Hamas (itself divided) and Fatah (even more divided). There is little chance of creating a united Palestinian house that can take control of the guns and offer up a viable and unified negotiating position that any Israeli government could accept. Weak leadership and unstable coalition politics prevail in Israel, too. And Israeli settlement activity, which continues unabated, rounds out a nightmarish picture that ought to scare away any smart mediator.

It would be folly to go for broke, given these conditions. The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all might be an appropriate rallying cry for a college football coach; it isn’t a suitable foreign policy principle for the world’s greatest power. The well-intentioned old college try, which was President Bill Clinton’s mantra at Camp David in July 2000, reinforced by his advisers, myself included, proved costly. And we had much better conditions in 2000 (if still not the right ones) than the new administration faces.

The more compelling argument is for a major push on another negotiation: between Israel and Syria. Here, there are two states at the table, rather than one state and a dysfunctional national movement. A quiet border, courtesy of Henry Kissinger’s 1974 disengagement diplomacy, prevails. And there are fewer settlers on the Golan Heights and no megaton issues such as the status of Jerusalem to blow up the talks. Indeed, the issues are straightforward — withdrawal, peace, security and water — and the gaps are clear and ready to be bridged.

For a president looking for a way to buck up America’s credibility, an Israeli-Syrian agreement offers a potential bonus. Such a deal would begin to realign the region’s architecture in a way that serves broader U.S. interests. The White House would have to be patient. Syria won’t walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually, requiring a major international effort to marshal economic and political support for Damascus. Still, an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran with tough choices and reduced options.

None of this will be easy. An Obama administration, and particularly the new president, would need to be in the middle of things. It would be excruciatingly hard, time-consuming and expensive to satisfy Israel and Syria’s economic and security needs, and a final agreement would most likely involve U.S. peacekeepers. More important, the United States would need to push the two sides further than they are now willing to go, on the extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights in Israel’s case, on normalization and security in Syria’s. But with Israeli and Syrian leaders who are serious, and with a new administration ready to be tough, smart and fair in its diplomacy, a deal can be done.

So, Mr. President-elect, go ahead and try to buck up the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, train Palestinian security forces, pour economic aid into Gaza and the West Bank, and quietly nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But don’t go for the endgame — you won’t get there. Instead, invest in an Israeli-Syrian peace, and, afterward, you might find, with a historic success under your belt and America again admired for its competence, you will be better positioned to achieve the success you want in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has worked as a Middle East adviser for Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. His most recent book is “The Much Too Promised Land.” The Agenda is an occasional series on policy issues facing the Obama administration.

[Comment by Qifa Nabki in Beirut, sent to SC by email] 

I was talking to a hard-core Aounist last night… he feels certain that the Hizb will have no problem with peace. He said: “Already, Hizbullah functions as a security blanket for Israel. We used to see Palestinian guerillas everywhere in the south. They have vanished. After peace, Hizbullah will easily continue being what it has already become: a national defense.”

After a deal, as Miller writes, the security architecture of the region will change so dramatically, it’s hard to see why the Americans are not supporting it. They have to take the long view… stop trying to stick it to Bashar about Iran and Hizbullah and just read the writing on the wall.

West should capitalise on Syria’s good offices with Iran
Published in the Financial Times: November 24 2008 02:00 | Last updated: November 24 2008 02:00

From Mr Ahmed Salkini.

Your editorial “Dallying with Syria” (November 20) misses the point on the emerging Syrian-west relationship, the Syrian-Iranian relationship, and on-the-ground dynamics in our region.

The re-engagement process between the west with Syria has nothing to do with “peeling off Syria from its alliance with Iran”, and everything to do with addressing problems in our region. Syria lies geographically at the heart of three conflict areas, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon. Mere political pragmatism dictates involving Damascus in any solution for these issues. Helping the Lebanese end their political stalemate, co-operating with the Iraqis and sending an ambassador to Baghdad, and partaking in indirect talks with Israel only prove that while other countries watch from the sidelines, Syria is fully immersed in peaceful resolutions on all three fronts.

Regarding Iran, approaching Syria with the premise of breaking its ties with Iran is a non-starter. Not even Israel asked us for this in our indirect talks.

Instead, the west should capitalise on Syria’s good offices with the Iranians to help bridge their differences and misunderstandings. Such an approach will return much higher dividends to all parties than a doctrine, proven bankrupt, of “peeling” or isolating.

Ahmed Salkini, Spokesman,
Embassy of Syria, Washington, DC, US

How not to negotiate with Syria
The Jerusalem Post, 25 November 2008

The “Syrian track” – Israel’s negotiation with Syria, actual and potential, about the resolution of their conflicts – is very much in the news now. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would like to have a fifth round of these indirect negotiations with Damascus under Turkish mediation. He would like to upgrade them into direct negotiations and possibly reach a breakthrough that could be seen as part of a legacy. His opponents and the opponents of Golan withdrawal have argued that even if he has the legal authority, he does not have the moral authority to commit Israel to far-reaching concessions in the twilight of his tenure.

More quietly, the foreign policy team of President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State Designate Hillary Clinton are drawing scenarios for the new administration’s Middle Eastern policy. Some of them are known to favor the Syrian track over the Palestinian option. Their argument is two-fold:

1. The Syrian track is more likely to produce an early success. The Syrian-Israeli conflict is simpler than the Israeli-Palestinian one and the authoritative address missing in Ramallah is available in Damascus.

2. Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East and its springboard to the region’s core area. By reviving a trilateral American-Israeli-Syrian negotiation, Washington would acquire greater leverage (positive or negative) in its dealing with Teheran, one of its prime concerns in the Middle East. (This, it should be emphasized, has defiantly not been the Bush Administration’s view or policy.)

IT WAS against this backdrop that Haaretz published earlier this week the gist of a document prepared in Israel’s defense establishment that advocates an Israeli-Syrian deal, even at a “painful price” (namely full withdrawal from the Golan heights that Syria insists on as a sine qua non). The authors of the document argue that a Syrian-Israeli agreement holds the key to dealing with the challenges presented to Israel by Iran and by Iran and Syria through Hizbullah in Lebanon. These gains justify, so they argue, the painful concession of withdrawing fully from the Golan.

For both the American and Israeli advocates of this “geo-political” approach to a Syrian deal, Syria’s disengagement from Iran would be one of its key components. As former ambassador Martin Indyk has aptly put it, the emphasis has shifted from “territories for peace” to “territories for strategic realignment.” 

This formula may or may not work if and when a full-fledged negotiation involving all three parties (the US, Israel and Syria) is launched in the early spring of 2009, after the Obama Administration is installed and a new Israeli government emerges from the February 10 election. But one thing is certain: With Syria, early public discussion of an idea to be raised in the negotiation is likely to undermine it.

THIS WAS one of our early lessons in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations of the 1990s. At one point we thought of long-term leasing as a potential magic formula for mitigating the territorial issue. We did not build high expectations for it, but we thought it was worth trying. At that point one of the numerous Israeli politicians who used to pronounce on the unfolding peace process proposed it in public. It took no time for the Syrians to shoot it down. This was not an isolated case and the lesson was clear – if you have a new good idea, keep it for the privacy of a confidential negotiation.

A second lesson, hardly an earthshaking discovery, was that you must not appear too eager for the deal. This immediately raises the price. From this perspective, whoever leaked the document to Haaretz has weakened Israel’s hand in the negotiation with Syria.

This does not mean that a negotiation of this importance can or should be conducted in total secrecy, and that a signed and sealed deal should be delivered to a stunned public. Public diplomacy is an essential part of any negotiation and conflict resolution. But so is secret diplomacy.

If the Israeli-Syrian conflict is to be resolved, and if Damascus is to build a new relationship with Washington as part of the same process, it would take leadership and statesmanship to make it happen. Secret diplomacy (for the parties to establish the fundamentals of the deal) and public diplomacy (to prepare the ground for painful concessions and anticipated gains) would have to be sequenced carefully if the process is to succeed against many odds.

The writer, former chief negotiator with Syria and ambassador to Washington, is the author most recently of The View from Damascus (Valentine Mitchell, London and Oregon, 2008).

IAEA overrides U.S., clears Syria nuclear aid plan
By Mark Heinrich, November 26, 2008 

VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. atomic agency approved a contested Syrian bid for nuclear aid on Wednesday, overcoming U.S.-led resistance to the project while Damascus is under investigation for covert activity that could lead to atom bombs. 

The United States, Canada and Australia mounted last minute objections to a compromise deal on the project but finally joined a consensus in favor since they could not have won if they forced a rare vote by International Atomic Energy Agency governors, diplomats in the closed meeting said…..

Lebanon seeks defense cooperation with Iran
Tehran Times, Nov 26, 2008

TEHRAN – Lebanese President Michael Suleiman on Tuesday expressed his country’s interest in bolstering defense cooperation between Beirut and Tehran.

In a meeting with Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad Najjar at the Defense Ministry’s permanent defense fair in Tehran, Suleiman, a former Army chief, insisted on the need to strengthen the Lebanese Army’s defense power in countering terrorism and likely foreign invasions.

Iran’s defense minister said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to expand and deepen defense cooperation between the two countries to improve Lebanon’s security and to increase Lebanon’s national and defense capabilities.”

Najjar described the Lebanese people’s courageous endeavor during their 33-day war with Israel in 2006 as the symbol of “perseverance and resistance” against Israel in the Muslim world.

The Lebanese leader also told Najjar that “Iran and Lebanon have great affinity and share common stance on many regional and international issues….. 

The following article copied in Arabic explains that Bashar al-Assad is the winner of the Istanbul based, Turkish-Asian Center for Strategic Studies prize for outstanding “Statesmen of strategic vision.”

الإستلمركز التركي الآسيوي يمنح الرئيس الأسد جائزة “الرؤية الإستراتيجية”

منح المركز التركي الآسيوي للدراسات الإستراتيجية في اسطنبول “تاصام” الرئيس بشار الأسد جائزة “الرؤية الإستراتيجية لرجل الدولة” وذلك “تقديرا لدوره كرجل دولة تميز برؤية إستراتيجية جسدتها السياسة السورية على أكثر من صعيد”.

وقال رئيس المركز سليمان شنصوي في كلمة ألقاها بهذه المناسبة إن “الأسد رجل دولة استطاع أن يقدم رؤية إستراتيجية واضحة للتعامل مع القضايا الدولية وتقديم الحلول الناجعة للازمات التي مر بها العالم مكرسا مبادئ الشجاعة في اتخاذ القرار والوضوح في الرؤية”.
وأشار شنصوي إلى انه “رغم التعقيدات الدولية الإقليمية فان الأسد كرس سورية مركزا مهما لصناعة القرار ولاعبا إقليميا أساسيا”, مشيرا إلى أن “الرئيس السوري جعل من العلاقات السورية التركية ضمانة للأمن والاستقرار في المنطقة ونموذجا للتفاهم والتفاعل في خدمة شعبيهما”.
وكانت العلاقات السورية التركية شهدت في السنوات العشر الأخيرة تطورات كبيرة في كافة المجالات.
كما أشارت عدة تحليلات غربية إلى أن الرئيس الاسد نجح في إدارة الازمات والمخاطر التي تعرضت لها سورية في الاعوام الاخيرة والخروج منها رغم محاولات عزل سورية من الولايات المتحدة والدول الغربية.
ولفت رئيس المركز التركي إلى أن الرئيس الأسد استطاع نقل سورية إلى مرحلة أكثر تطورا ومواكبة للحياة العصرية والتكنولوجية محققا طموحات الشعب السوري الصديق في مجالات التنمية والحداثة”

IAEA: West can’t deprive Syria of N-tech
Presstv, 25 November 2008

The UN nuclear watchdog warns the West against impeding Syria’s efforts to construct a nuclear reactor over ‘political considerations’.

In a statement released by his office, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei said if Syria’s request for technical help for building a nuclear reactor were rejected over “political considerations”, the body would lose its credibility among the developing nations which seek peaceful nuclear energy.

“All the equipment that is provided is relevant to the project, and is of an innocuous nature. None of it requires any (nuclear) safeguards,” ElBaradei was quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz as saying.

He made the remarks as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Technical Assistance and Cooperation Committee (TACC) held its annual meeting in Vienna to discuss Syria’s demand for technical assistance, AFP reported Tuesday.

The project which would last from 2009 to 2011, “did not parachute out of the sky,” said ElBaradei, adding that “We have been working with Syria since 1979 … on different aspects of the feasibility to introducing nuclear power… Thirty years.”

Denying nuclear aid due to unproven allegations “is not part of our lexicon, it’s not part of our statute,” the UN official reiterated.

Israel and its Western allies have accused Damascus of having planned to construct a secret nuclear reactor. Israel bombed a desert site last September, alleging that the place had been a secret under construction reactor.

They argue that it would be “highly inappropriate” for the watchdog to share sensitive technical information with Damascus while the country is still under investigation for allegations.

EU, Syria to initial Association Agreement next month
Chinaview.cn, 26 November 2008

The European Commission and Syria announced here Tuesday that they are set to initial the Association Agreement in Damascus on Dec. 14 after they agreed on all issues regarding the update of the draft document, which was reached in 2004.

“Following thorough and constructive discussions, on November 25, the Syrian delegation and the Commission services agreed on all issues regarding the update of the Agreement, taking into consideration developments since its initialing in October 2004,” said a joint statement issued by the European Commission and the Syrian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Al Dardari…

Sami Moubayed, in Gulf News, here (Via FLC)

“…He wants to stand as a pan-Lebanese leader, representing all sects, and this explains his alliance with Druze figures like Talal Arslan, Sunnis like Omar Karameh and Salim Hoss, and Shiites like Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

A newfound axis that Aoun is creating with both Syria and Iran is also frightening to the March 14 Coalition. Last month, he visited Tehran, marketing himself as the only leader who can protect Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In striking contrast, Geagea was visiting President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and meeting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in Riyadh, showing just how polarised Lebanese Christians had become….”
Syria: Increasing Mobility
26 November 2008, Oxford Business Group

Russian mobile phone operators are the latest to express an interest in entering the Syrian market, though they will have to wait until new legislation is passed by the parliament to further open up Syria’s telecommunications sector.

On November 20, Russia’s Communications Minister Igor Shchyogolev said Damascus was considering inviting bids from a Russian cellular operator for the third mobile phone network licence, which could be offered next year.

“They have an idea to add one more mobile operator there. The participation of Russian companies in the Syrian mobile market is possible,” he said following a meeting of the Russian-Syrian Intergovernmental Commission in Moscow.

Spokespersons for the three leading Russian mobile phone companies – MTS, Vimpelcom and MegaFon – contacted by the Reuters news agency all said their firms would be interested in any opening in the Syrian market.

“Syria is one of the regions we are interested in, and we will certainly examine any offer,” said Yelena Prokhorova, spokeswoman for Vimpelcom, Russia’s second largest cellular operator.

While apparently keen, Russian companies, along with up to 10 other companies reportedly interested in entering Syria, will have to bide their time for now.

On November 2, Syrian Telecommunications Minister Imad Sabouni said draft legislation intended to restructure the sector was being considered by a ministerial committee before being tabled before the parliament.

Until this legislation was approved, Syria would not call for tenders for a third mobile phone network, Sabouni was quoted as saying. He said that his ministry was working on drafting regulations to allow a new competitor in the market.

Not only will the new legislation lay the groundwork for a third mobile operator, but it will also end the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment’s (STE) monopoly on landline infrastructure, and turn the STE into a state-owned company, rather than an agency which is both the landline operator and sector regulator. A new sectoral regulatory body is planned.

One of the reforms being considered is changing the terms under which Syria’s two existing mobile phone operators work. Both locally-owned Syriatel and MTN-Syria, a subsidiary of South Africa’s MTN, have a 15-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) agreement that requires them to pay the STE an increasing percentage of their total income – 30% for the first three years, 40% for the following three and 50% for the remaining term of their contracts.

Ha’aretz: Israel asks Bush to explain its ‘special relationship’ with U.S. to Obama (Via Turcopundit)

Israeli officials concerned Obama may push arms control that could weaken Israel’s strategic deterrence.

Aluf Benn: Obama’s challenge will be to persuade Netanyahu to advance peace

Comments (2)

majedkhaldoun said:

comment on previous thread;
Syria is not going through economic crisis,now,but the future may get Syria in trouble, revenue from oil is drying up,due to less production,and derease in oil prices,decrease in gulf money , these factors were not present during the previous economic crisis,that Syria went through.
increase in the population will require more spending.
In USA the deteriorations of economy cause the election of Obama,and throwing out of republican party.

November 27th, 2008, 6:52 pm


norman said:


The reason the American economy in bad shape is because president Bush acted as a big spend government and abandoned the conservative principles,

November 29th, 2008, 12:09 am


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