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.