Israel, Peace negotiations, Syria

Engaging Syria, part 1

Everybody is talking about Obama’s need to engage Syria.

The pro-engagement crowd has grown beyond the initial cadre of Arab-friendly analysts and now includes taste-makers and heavy hitters who have the ear of the President: people like Martin Indyk, Richard Haass, and others. Only a year ago, when Syria Comment and Creative Forum hosted discussions about Syrian-Israeli peace, one could hardly help feeling that the initiative was promising but ultimately destined for the garbage heap of failed negotiations, due to the fact that the U.S. was displaying zero interest in getting involved. Today, by contrast, it seems as if there isn’t a single analyst besides the Charles Krauthammer types who does not believe that the United States should get behind Syria-Israel in a big way. Fantastic! There’s just one problem: the talks are off, thanks to Gaza.

It is extremely difficult to see the way forward, under the current conditions. There is so much obstructing the view, both on the ground and in the air. On the ground lie the ruins of Gaza, the ruins of Palestinian leadership, the ruins of Arab unity, the ruins of ‘indirect’ negotiations. In the air float the results of upcoming Israeli elections, Lebanese elections, and Iranian elections, all of which make it well nigh impossible to plot the course ahead.   

All of this uncertainty works in the favor of Syria, which is well-positioned to reap the benefits of a new engagement policy should Obama and Clinton choose to pull the trigger. While the war in Gaza may or may not have weakened Hamas politically, it has surely strengthened Syria, at least for the time being. When George Mitchell sits down to figure out how to make Fatah and Hamas reconcile, the Egyptians and Jordanians will have less leverage than ever before. Bashar has been biding his time very patiently, waiting for George W. Bush to depart, precisely to have a new American president come to the time-honored conclusion that “there is no peace without Syria”.  For its part, however, Syria cannot afford to play hard-to-get. The Obama administration will likely make an early and subtle overture towards Damascus, and when Washington comes calling, Bashar should answer loud and clear. If he plays the ‘raise-the-price’ game, it could all slip away and the anti-engagement crowd will spend the rest of Obama’s tenure saying “I told you so.”

Turkey, Qatar, Dubai, etc. are helping Syria for one reason: they also fear Iran, but they think that the Iranian threat is best contained by gradually pulling Syria back into the Arab/Western orbit, rather than by encouraging Israel and the U.S. to try to weaken Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas. If Syria — like its allies — is also sincerely looking for a way to move closer to the West, then it needs to seize the hand extended by Obama. Furthermore, it needs to do this in a very decisive and public fashion, or else all of those who have no interest in re-starting a serious peace process will find a way to shoot this initiative down. Bashar cannot afford to let the mountain come to Muhammad. He needs to meet it halfway.
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14 thoughts on “Engaging Syria, part 1

  1. Hi QN

    Syria wants to reach out to the West, if only for the sake of its economy.
    However, The US will demand Syria to actually deliver.
    Meaning: to stop interfering in Lebanon, assisting Hamas, interfering in Iraq.

    Can you see this actually happening?
    What could possibly entice Syria?

    maybe Lebanon?

    Posted by Idit | January 26, 2009, 11:24 am
  2. Hi Idit

    (I took the liberty of assuming that you mistyped your name, and corrected it. It originally said “I”… hence the delay in appearing).

    You are right. The US, but more importantly Israel, will demand that Syria “deliver”. I personally don’t think that the U.S. or Israel really give a rat’s tush about Lebanon, but yes: they want Syria to “cut ties with Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas.”

    In short, Syria can’t deliver… not on this hard-line position. But it can deliver on a more protracted weaning from the Iranian embrace, over time. This, I believe, is the best that both the U.S. and Syria can hope for.

    Syria is not going to flip overnight, like Egypt did with the Soviets. But my suspicion is that it will move toward the West if a more gradual process is set into motion by:

    (1) A Syrian-Israeli peace track

    (2) A change in the Iranian leadership

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 26, 2009, 11:45 am
  3. QN,

    If the following is true, there is hope:

    Regarding the topic of this thread. At first I thought that the Arabs knew what they were doing with their “subtle” forms of diplomacy and negotiations and that the Israelis should learn and have patience.

    But know I beleive that the Arab methods are pointless also. They are just a way of buying time in order to be able to buy more time later. In the end, this additional time only helps Israel. I agree with you that bold Syrian moves are needed to even have a chance to convince the Israeli public which is in a very combatitive mood.

    Protracted weaning will not work in the middle east. Too much shit will happen in between and will stop the progress. There is the Sadat way or the Oslo way. Only the Sadat way works with the extremists we have on all sides that can easily stop any process.

    So either Syria jumps whole heartedly and with great gestures into the process or there will be no process. My view is that unless the economic situation in Syria is more dire than we think, that they will not take the chance of leaving the “resistance” camp.

    You are right about Lebanon. Now that Bush is out of office, nobody cares about what happens there. I personally now hope that the opposition wins in June. That will bring clarity to the decision makers. Also, I think it will be amusing to see Aoun and Nasrallah run the country and be actaully responsible for the welfare of ALL Lebanese.

    Posted by AIG | January 26, 2009, 1:40 pm
  4. QN,
    I understand where you’re coming from. And I believe he’s already aware of that. I am expecting Imad Mustapha to be very busy in the next couple of months.

    Posted by offended | January 26, 2009, 2:08 pm
  5. AIG,
    What do you mean by the ‘Sadat way’? would you please elaborate?

    Posted by offended | January 26, 2009, 2:11 pm
  6. AIG

    I too hope that the opposition wins. In a “cut off your nose to spite your face” kind of way.

    The thing is, walking around with no nose probably gets old after a while. Plus, it would suck to have no sense of smell, especially since this would also impact adversely on one’s sense of taste. You know that they are closely related, right? But I digress…

    By the way, what does “That will bring clarity to the decision makers” mean? It sounds so ominous.

    While I’m sticking to my belief that a Sadat style leap is just not in the cards, I do agree with you that bold gestures are needed. Very bold. But maybe not bold enough for Bibi to rein in the settlers.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 26, 2009, 2:16 pm
  7. QN,

    Lebanon is the most difficult country for Israeli and American decision makers to understand. The Israelis have basically given up on it… You get 20 factions sending you secret delegations saying the opposite of what they say in public and promising the moon.

    The Israeli interest has always been to make Lebanon responsible for any militia working against Israel from Lebanese territories. When we accepted the complexeties of Lebanon, it hurt our interests because we could not pin the responsibility on the state. Better to have a simplistic view that Lebanon is a country like any other. And when the opposition is in power there is complete clarity about responsibility for attacking Israel. So this is not a “nose cutting scenario”. This will actually be good for Israel. This is the clarity I am talking about. It will especially help convincing the Americans as the Israelis are already pretty clear on this issue.

    Most settlers will accept a compromise andleave. The hardcore will be a problem but that is the price of peace.

    Posted by AIG | January 26, 2009, 3:08 pm
  8. QN, what do you think of this report on 60 minutes?

    Posted by offended | January 26, 2009, 3:20 pm
  9. AIG,

    Not your nose. Our nose.

    (Insert joke about Middle Eastern noses)

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 26, 2009, 3:55 pm
  10. QN,
    I am sure my nose is bigger than yours. Runs in the family. 🙂

    I think a short stint of the opposition would be good even for the Lebanese because it will make clear how dependent Lebanon is on the West and Saudi Arabia. I think most Lebanese discount this issue and until it hits home, will not take it into account in their vote. The problem is if the opposition get to power and then decides no more elections are needed…

    Posted by AIG | January 26, 2009, 5:23 pm
  11. Mitchell is not stopping in Syria in his trip. I’m not sure what that means, but it is somewhat surprising. After all, Pelosi did meet Asad, so the meeting part is not an issue.

    Posted by AIG | January 26, 2009, 7:56 pm
  12. QN,

    Great analysis and a great piece. A thought in my head always asks as to what makes this alliance between Syria & Iran tick, and what is the real benefit for Syria. Is it a monetary benefit? Is it a way for Syria to counteract the west’s sanctions? Or is it to give more weight to Syria in terms of negotiating leverage by using Iranian resources to fund resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine without actually oppening its own Golan front, in order to retrieve the Golan?

    Just a bit puzzled about Syria’s relationship with iran. Maybe you can shed some light.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | January 26, 2009, 11:16 pm
  13. AIG

    You ain’t seen nothing yet. I’ll see your nose and raise you an elephant’s trunk. In this department, we Lebanese are vastly ahead of our Semitic cousins. You may have microchips and Tevas, but we have traffic-stopping noses.

    Ras Beirut,

    The Syrian-Iranian relationship is an old one, dating all the way back to Hafez’s antagonistic relationship with Saddam. When the entire Arab world cheered on Iraq to fight the Iranians, Syria took Iran’s side. Today, Iran is a vital Syrian ally. But, if we are to believe Syrian commentators like Sami Moubayed, the relationship is purely one of convenience. Syria is looking for a way to put a little distance between itself and its ally.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 27, 2009, 4:52 am
  14. Offended,

    Sorry: your comment about 60 minutes went into my spam folder; I just released it.

    I wish I had the luxury of watching YouTube clips; but my connection in Beirut is lousy. I’ll try to remember to look at it when I’m next on AUB’s campus, where the connection is good.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 27, 2009, 10:55 am

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