Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reactivating the Syrian track

by Tony Badran

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (R), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) and US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell (L), wait for the start of a meeting of the Middle East Quartet. The US said it is committed to achieving “comprehensive peace” in the Mideast. (AFP photo/Stan Honda)

Last week, US officials came out with statements assuring that the Obama administration is committed to achieving “comprehensive peace,” which means at some point reactivating the Syrian track (and presumably the Lebanese one as well). However, there are questions regarding the prospects for such talks, and the assumptions behind them are equally shaky, fraught with problems and potential traps.

The statements came during a visit to Damascus by Special Envoy George Mitchell, barely two weeks after the resumption of direct talks on the Palestinian track. After meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mitchell laid down the administration’s line that the “effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in no way contradicts or conflicts with our goal of comprehensive peace, including peace between Israel and Syria.” However, he added, the foundation that supports this “comprehensive peace” was “good faith” negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which had to be established first. Absent that, “anything that we would try to build with others in the region would not stand.”

The idea, therefore, seems to be to protect the fragile Palestinian track from outside sabotage by elements known for their spoiler role, namely Syria. This was made explicit by an anonymous US official who told the Christian Science Monitor: “If Hamas succeeds [in scuttling the talks], the prospects for eventual Syria-Israel talks are zero.”

This was not the first time that such a demand was made of the Syrians. When the Arab League follow-up committee met to support a Palestinian return to direct talks, the Syrians were asked to go along, but they have consistently refused to do so.

Mitchell then made a specific statement regarding the meaning of this “comprehensive peace” as being “the full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors.” It was curious that Mitchell chose to define “comprehensive peace” as “full normalization,” for it could be argued that nobody has played a more active role in fighting that concept than Bashar al-Assad. It was Assad who pushed for the watering down of that term in the Arab Peace initiative, and since then he has constantly and consistently dismissed it, calling it a “Western concoction” which “doesn’t exist” as far as Syria is concerned.

In fact, he has even downgraded the nature of a peace agreement to a mere “ceasefire” or “a piece of paper you sign,” but which precludes any notion of “trade, or normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.” In other words, as Assad had put it so succinctly, “They cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect.”

There are other, tactical reasons for skepticism, having to do with Assad’s numerous preconditions. For one, Assad insists that negotiations should resume where the Turkish-mediated talks with the Ehud Olmert government left off, and that there would be “no return to square one.”

Ever since those indirect talks, Assad has tried to create the perception of a new, Syrian-defined “deposit” – à la the infamous “Rabin deposit.” And so, Syrian sources told the Lebanese As-Safir that “Syria would not cooperate with any efforts that preclude a public Israeli acknowledgment to return the entire occupied Golan to Syria,” along with conditions guaranteeing such a return.

Similarly, immediately after Mitchell’s visit, Syrian sources told As-Sharq al-Awsat that “territory is not up for negotiation, and that it will be defined according to the border on June 4, 1967 as well as the six points Damascus presented in the indirect Israel-Syria talks through Turkish mediation.”

Another report claimed a variant of this precondition, namely that the Americans should declare their commitment to the “Rabin deposit.” In other words, if Assad can’t get the Israelis to accept his condition, then he will try to obtain an American commitment with which to pressure Israel.

Additional preconditions are designed to boost Hamas’ and Syria’s position. One Syrian mouthpiece explained to the LA Times: “Before talks can take place, the siege on Gaza must be lifted, and there needs to be reconciliation between the Palestinian groups” – doubtless on Hamas’ terms.

Then there is Turkey. Turkish-Israeli relations remain tense, as evident from the recent refusal of the Turkish president to meet with his Israeli counterpart unless the latter offered a public apology for the flotilla incident.

So, in order to re-launch the Syrian track, the US would have to convince Israel to accept a host of preconditions, which seems rather unlikely given the concessions it is being asked to make on the Palestinian track, and on an issue over which Israeli public opinion is decidedly unenthusiastic.

Far more important is what the administration will do about the outstanding problem of Syrian arms transfers to Hezbollah, especially in light of the latest Russian announcement of the delivery of P-800 anti-ship missiles to Syria. A cause for concern in its own right, it’s all the more so given Syrian and Hezbollah threats about targeting Israeli ships in a future conflict. Back in May, the Syrian al-Watan revealed Damascus’ intent by providing exclusive details, such as the range of the “new” missiles to be used by Hezbollah, which fit the P-800’s profile.

The US position on Syrian arms transfers has been inconsistent, with some officials coming close to saying that the resolution of the problem should be expected to come only with a peace agreement, which plays well into the Syrians’ hands, affording them continued exceptionalism.

Israel, meanwhile, has given signals that Syria might not be immune to military retaliation in a future conflict. So the question becomes, will the US, eager to maintain the process, ignore the arms issue, and de facto deter Israel against such action?

As it pursues its tactic of coaxing Assad in order to shield the Palestinian track, the administration has to be very careful with its unilateral “goodwill” gestures as well. News reports claimed this week that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem will be meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York in a few days, which would be the highest-level meeting so far. The Syrians have long demanded such an upgrade, and have specifically asked for a visit by Clinton to Damascus (which is clearly not on the agenda).

At the same time, it was reported that the Italian authorities intercepted a shipment of military-grade explosives from Iran to Syria. Will the US proceed with the alleged meeting and allow the Syrians to frame its optics? Much will depend on how important the fate of the process is allowed to become to Washington. The emerging signs are not encouraging. One US official actually found it hopeful that, unlike Iran, "We don't hear negative statements from Syria." If that is the criterion, then good luck.

According to Mitchell, the administration expects that “comprehensive peace will travel the full distance from hope to reality.” If the statement of the above-mentioned official is any indication, it seems the ratio of woolly-eyed optimism to realism is severely on the side of the former.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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