Time to Talk to Syria?

September 21, 2007 Topic: Security Region: LevantMiddle East Tags: BaathismGolan HeightsLebanon War

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


The Second Track Yields Mixed Results

The track two diplomacy pursued by Liel and Suleiman never brought about a positive outcome, although the discussions in Switzerland initially raised expectations. Some of the ideas raised by the Syrians in the talks reflected a certain flexibility on a timetable for evacuating Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights and even included a proposal for building a "peace park" in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria. The final document drawn up by negotiators, a nonbinding statement agreed to by both sides in August 2005 and published in Ha'aretz, outlined rough plans for Israel to withdraw from the Golan to 1967 borders and for Syria to distance itself from Hizballah, Hamas and Iran.

The final meeting took place a year later, in the midst of the second Lebanon war. On a day in which eight Israelis in the Galilee were killed by Hizballah-fired rockets, Suleiman announced that the Syrians had done all they could with the covert channel and recommended that senior-level talks between Jerusalem and Damascus begin. Both the Israeli and U.S. governments rejected the Syrian request. Liel believes that had the Bush Administration given Israel a green light to enter talks, Ehud Olmert would have agreed to test Syrian intentions.

Liel told me that the Israel-Hizballah War of 2006 demonstrated the danger of U.S.-Syria policy. Co-opting instead of isolating Syria clearly made sense given the current state of the Middle East as a result of the war in Iraq, but the Administration did the exact opposite. Coaxing a Syria concerned about instability in Iraq (and the spread of Islamic radicalism) into the pro-American camp could have helped Washington shift the regional balance in its favor. Instead, the U.S. decided to punish the Syrians, making it inevitable that Damascus would try to resist American pressure by partnering with Iran and strengthening its support for Hizballah.


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Damascus has become worried that the Bush Administration may be pushing Israel toward war with Syria, hoping that the expected Israeli military victory in a conventional conflict would swing the balance of power in Iraq and the Middle East in the U.S.'s favor. To combat this and promote the revival of talks, Suleiman accepted an invitation to address the Israeli Parliament's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in April (the first time a Syrian national has ever spoken there). Suleiman told Israeli lawmakers that Damascus was prepared to begin peace talks, adding that he believed an initial agreement could be reached within "six months." "Since 1948 Israeli leaders have said they are ready to talk peace anytime and anywhere", he told reporters afterwards. "Syria right now is ready to speak peace." He also challenged Jerusalem "to answer President Bashir's call for peace and sit down together." Alongside Liel, he told Knesset members that the peace plan drafted during the track two negotiations would allow Syria to cut itself off from Hizballah and join the global struggle against terror. He maintains that al-Asad has already appointed a committee, headed by an army general, to coordinate the talks with Israel.

According to Israeli press reports, Olmert is under pressure from members of his coalition and top military and intelligence officers to gauge al-Asad's sincerity. The Prime Minister stated recently that he was interested in negotiating with Syria and willing to return part of the Golan Heights, but insisted that Syria needed to end its support for Hizballah and cut ties with Iran before any official talks. But as Liel points out, the Syrians realize their links to Hizballah and Iran are valuable bargaining chips, and they will not give them up easily. Furthermore, U.S. officials have said that the American position is to "not encourage" Israel to engage with Syria and seem to be focusing on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This suggests that the Americans are not planning to play an active diplomatic role on the Syria-Israel front.

Fortunately, the leadership in Damascus remains hopeful that it can work out an understanding with the United States and Israel to shore up its precarious security situation. American policy, however, appears unchanged: A prominent U.S. official recently justified Washington's opposition to Syrian participation in the upcoming regional summit by stating his conviction that Damascus will not compromise on major issues.1 This is simply untrue.

Reaching even a limited accommodation with Syria would pay enormous dividends for the United States-and for Israel. Now is the time for Washington to cast aside its rigid ideological positions of the past and start negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus-before it is too late. "Everyone understands that nothing is going to happen here unless there is a change in U.S. policy", Liel adds. "We're all waiting."


Leon Hadar is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2005). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.


1 Barak Ravid and Yoav Stern, "U.S. official says Syria should be barred from regional summit", Ha‘aretz, September 18, 2007.