Washington Cool on New Israel-Syria Talks

Amid regional fears of a summer war between Israel and Syria, the two countries may in fact be inching closer to a deal. Not even President George W. Bush’s recent disclosures to Congress, intended to prove Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation, appear able to dent the resolve for peace, or at the very least, a reduction in tensions.

Earlier this month, Tel Aviv and Damascus publicly confirmed that they had been in unofficial contact, with high-level Turkish envoys acting as intermediaries. In remarks published last Thursday in the Qatari daily al-Watan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had informed him of Israel’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan in return for peace with Syria, a claim that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not deny.

But the positive momentum of Turkey’s "peace revival" met with a cool response from Washington officials.

Speaking at the annual American Jewish Committee conference April 29, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that "if Syria and Israel wish to pursue peace, the United States is never against peace."

"It’s just that, at this point," she said, "it’s been difficult to see Syrian behavior that has the prospect of being more stabilizing in the region, rather than the destabilizing behavior that we’re seeing."

In an interview with IPS, former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy described the Bush administration’s position on Israeli-Syrian talks as "a semi-polite way of saying, ‘if you want to be schmucks, go ahead and do it.’"

The Bush administration’s stance is staked on an ideological position, said Levy. Diplomacy with Syria remains conditional upon a change in its "behavior." Basically, don’t talk to those with whom you have disagreements.

More fundamentally, the status of Israeli-Syrian peace talks seems to rest on Washington’s desire to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, a policy which, in effect, subordinates Syria’s immediate interests – the return of the Golan, influence in Lebanon’s domestic politics, support of Hamas and Hezbollah – to the broader calculus of Bush’s fight for regional hegemony against the growing influence of Iran.

Following the embarrassment of Israel’s September air strike on an alleged "nuclear" facility in Syria, and the assassination of the nebulous Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyya in one of the most heavily secured areas of Damascus, Syria cannot deny its security vulnerabilities. The destruction wrought by Israeli bombardment in the 2006 Lebanon War no doubt worries many in the Syrian regime about their ability to withstand and survive a military confrontation with Tel Aviv.

The Turkish track serves as an effective deterrent to that scenario.

"What this Turkish mediation attempts to do is create an expectation of progress, trying to reduce tensions, the ability to say, ‘we’re not on the precipice of violence,’ that there is a diplomatic option," said Levy. "In and of itself it is an act of de-escalation."

From Turkey’s perspective, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has created more chaos, enhancing the Kurdish separatist threat and empowering Iran to emerge as a possible counter to Turkey’s position in the region. By mediating a successful Israeli-Syrian peace, Ankara can reinsert itself into the political arena, bolstering its own power and credibility on the international stage.

As Ankara facilitates the initial stages of a possible peace, the three sides are effectively laying the groundwork for a deal that will eventually require the support of a new administration in Washington.

"What we now need is to find common ground through the Turkish mediator," said the Syrian president, adding that while the Bush administration had "neither the vision nor the will to [push forward] the peace process," direct negotiations involving Washington might become possible under Bush’s successor.

With less than a year left before the president departs office, he remains focused on the Annapolis process, a U.S.-led initiative for a decisive Israeli-Palestinian peace; but with Hamas’ continued isolation, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and an escalation of Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land, it appears in danger of collapse.

The administration’s policy of Syrian isolation hinges on the accusation of Damascus’ complicity in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a charge the regime has furiously denied. Beyond supporting the Mar. 14 coalition in a proxy chess game that has resulted in the current Lebanese impasse, many administration critics say Washington has no coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria; there is no endgame.

As for the Turkish track, major gaps still exist between the sides; Israeli polls consistently indicate that a majority of Israelis – approximately 70 percent – oppose withdrawing from the Golan, even in exchange for peace with Syria, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

While Olmert may prefer to keep the talks secret, Assad seems to want a more open and public embrace from the U.S. Would an ambitious U.S.-Syrian normalization provide the type of incentive to break Syria from Iran’s orbit? Even with Turkey serving as the immediate midwife, an actual diplomatic option may have to wait till next January, when Bush vacates the Oval Office.

"I think there is support in Israel; there’s a general positive sense, but no one, including the Turks, believe the U.S. role is replaceable," said Levy. "Therefore, the challenge becomes, how do you do this in the absence of a U.S. interest being involved?"

The answer, he added: "You can’t."