Time to Talk to Syria?

The New York Times reports today that the Bush Administration is deeply divided over the recent Israeli air strikes again

As the Iraq debate intensifies and the situation on the ground worsens, we hear more and more calls for tough action against Syria from prominent neoconservatives. The current regime in Damascus, these commentators argue, is hopeless-and it will never become a partner for peace in the Middle East. They charge that Syrian President Bashir al-Asad's regime is a pernicious influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, a sponsor of Islamic terror and actively seeks weapons of mass destruction.

Yet making the assumption that Syria will never work with the United States or its allies in the region to help bring stability to the region would be both foolish and irresponsible. On the contrary, pragmatic leaders in Damascus are seeking to break loose from isolation and make a deal with the United States and Israel. Syria has worked with Washington in the past. Damascus supported the U.S. coalition in the first Gulf War; after September 11 it arrested suspected Al-Qaeda members and shared related intelligence with the U.S. (Nevertheless, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton added Syria to the infamous "axis of evil" in 2002.) There is no reason that it cannot do the same in the future.

Although it may come as a surprise, Damascus wants to settle its long-running dispute with Israel. Indeed, Syrian representatives have been trying for some time to make headway on the issue. But even after strong diplomatic efforts on Damascus' behalf-routed through the Turkish and Swiss governments-and conducted by prominent Israelis, Syrians and Americans, the situation remains stagnant. Firsthand accounts of recent Syrian-Israeli relations by those who took part in the talks reveal how eager Damascus has been to make peace with Jerusalem. The efforts have only been met by an intransigent Bush Administration.


Turkey's Mediation Efforts

In January 2004, five years after Turkey and Syria nearly came to blows (over charges that Damascus was harboring Kurdish guerillas), President al-Asad visited Ankara.  When al-Asad met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he floated the possibility of a Turkish role in peace talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey, a nato member and close ally of Washington with significant ties to Israel, saw a possible peace agreement between the two countries as serving its interests: At a time when Ankara was trying to join the European Union, brokering a settlement between the two strongest powers in the Levant would raise its international standing.

"The Turkish ambassador told me that Asad had raised the issue and asked Erdogan to use Turkey's ‘good relations' with Israel to try to revive the moribund negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem", Dr. Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Ankara involved in the negotiations, told me in an August interview in Tel Aviv. "I was asked to put out feelers to Sharon to find out if there was an Israeli partner for secret talks with Syria."

Erdogan's hope that the road toward an Israel-Syria peace would lead through Ankara wasn't fulfilled, however. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisors rejected his initiative, insisting that Syria was a "terror state" and that the Bush Administration, then backing Jerusalem in its efforts to contain the Palestinian uprising, was opposed to the idea and wanted instead to isolate Damascus. According to Liel, the Turks were under the impression that Israel was always interested in negotiating with the Arabs and that Washington was committed to helping Israel make peace with its neighbors. They were shocked by Sharon's dismissal of the proposal.


"Track Two" Diplomacy; Enter the Swiss

The Israeli government did, however, give a green light to Liel and other members of Israel's foreign-policy community to take part in so-called track two diplomacy with Syria-low-level talks between academics, retired government officials and businessmen from both sides. But the Syrian goal was to upgrade the "academic" talks into full-blown negotiations with the Israeli government, an idea that Sharon had already rejected. When nine months of discussions in the Turkish Foreign Ministry produced no concrete results, Ankara decided to close down the secret Israel-Syria channel.

But after the failure of these talks, Liel had a chance meeting with the Director of Middle East Affairs in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, who immediately stated that his government wanted to "pick them up" again. Liel also recruited his old friend Geoffrey Aronson, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, into the secret diplomacy. In turn, he proposed that Liel bring in his neighbor from suburban Maryland, Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman.

Suleiman, a Syrian immigrant to the United States and successful businessman, had served as a conduit for officials in Damascus before. His admirers regard "Honest Ayeb" as a man of principles, genuinely committed to helping his native country make peace with Israel. Others see Suleiman as a political conman trying to gain personal favors in Washington and Damascus. A member of the same Alawite sect of Islam as the al-Asad family, Suleiman told Newsweek that he first met the late Hafez al-Asad, Bashir's father, in 1957.