Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Talking to Syria

Sunset in the north (January 2006)

One of the obstacles to negotiations with Syria frequently cited by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is American opposition to talks with Assad. Olmert did not conjure these objections out of thin air. But it is fairly obvious that invoking American opposition as the determining factor in Israel's decision not to engage the Syrians was a convenient charade (perhaps for both parties). Now, the Americans are sending signals that the Israelis are going to have to supply their own alibi.

At a closed meeting with academics at Hebrew University on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones said that the U.S. is not blocking Israel from conducting talks with Syria. Asked to comment on Ambassador Jones's statement, the deputy press attache of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Geoffrey Anisman, told Ha'aretz that
we are unaware that any U.S. official has ever expressed an opinion on what Israel should or should not do with regard to Syria.
It is hard not to chuckle at this pithy response; the Anismanian delivery came through even in print.

I had the pleasure of meeting Anisman last summer in Tel Aviv, and he stuck out as one of the young, bright stars in the American diplomatic corps. He also has a great sense of humor, no doubt acquired after years of watching Mel Brooks and Woody Allen films and absorbing Yiddish witticisms told by Anisman Senior.

In all seriousness, the writing is definitely on the wall. Those voices from the State Department long clamoring for a kind of diplomacy that consists of more than threats and refusals to talk to certain states must be feeling emboldened. The turning point was certainly the agreement with North Korea, which, strange as it may seem, could even earn Bush a Nobel Peace Prize. Bitterly opposed by John Bolton, the North Korea deal basically marked a return to the Korea policy of Bill Clinton. America's quiet backing of the Saudi peace initiative, and the March 10 meeting with Iranian and Syrian diplomats in Baghdad are further evidence of a shift in policy.

There are of course valid grounds on which one might continue to object to dialogue with Syria, as our Lebanese friends do not tire of pointing out. I have to confess that I am still sympathetic to some of their warnings. For one, I do not know how long the Assads will stay in power, and what might happen to a peace agreement once they fall. Secondly, I worry about the effects that bolstering the Syrians now will have on Lebanon's future.

On the other hand, the draft framework for a Syrian-Israeli agreement that was leaked in January is an offer that Israel simply cannot refuse.


Noah Kaye said...

In Anisman we trust!

Jeha said...

It is all about timing, and now is not the time (IMH-BA-O). My reasoning is based on the premise that the current regime in Syria can afford neither peace nor war. It is too weak to attack Israel other than pinpricks(1), and too illegitimate to be able to afford the reforms made necessary by peace.

But you're welcome to try. Luckily for us Lebanese, Syria and Israel are not the only ones at the table this time around, so we're not part of the offering (2) and the conversation will really focus on the Golan. Israel may find that Bashar is weak enough to "sign it away" like he did Hatay, but such a deal will not last beyond his successor.

(1) The Israeli consensus is that the leadership had screwed up the July War. In this respect, the Israeli defeat cannot be used as argument in support of Syria's pretend "dissuasive" powers.
(2) Luckily for Lebanon, Bashar managed to antagonize every single Arab leader, after loosing all credibility in the West.

John said...

Did you hear about Javier Solana's visit to Damascus today and his public support for Syria regaining the Golan Heights? I realize that this in no way constitutes an EU policy change - neither the EU nor the US recognizes Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. But for Solana to come out and make that kind of declaration now is very significant. Maybe Lebanon really is in luck - my hunch is that Solana talked tough on Lebanon with Asad, but tried to sweeten the deal by making that declaration about the Golan.

I think that Syria can do more than launch a few "pinprick" attacks. Recent Israeli news reports talked about extensive preparations being made by Syria near the Golan - fortifications, pillboxes, massive artillery batteries. If Syria and Hizbullah attack, they could get a real political dividend in the Arab world. Syria might consider it a worthy gamble since Bashar is counting on Israel's fear of seeing his regime collapse.

Jeha said...

Solana's position is the default international position; legally, the Israeli annexation of the Golan is null and void, with no international recognition for it. So he's only stating the obvious; that, while the West Bank and Gaza could constitute "disputed" territories, the Golan heights are clearly "occupied" Syrian lands. But do not expect Bashar to jump on the offer to get them back; they were netting between 2 and 3 Billion from Lebanon, far more than the Golan could ever generate... Plus it is "only" a home for the Druze.

On another note, I would not be too pessimistic about Syria, nor would I be too concerend about Israeli reports. The Syrians cannot afford war, and this time Hezb has stoked far deadlier ennemies within Lebanon... And those disappearing Iranian officers must be going somewhere... Any escalation could get them browny points in some parts of the Arab world, but definitely not in Lebanon, where it could even be Hezb's undoing...

John said...

Jeha, thank you for your insights. When I took courses about Syria, and in my reading about it, I was always told that the Asads' domestic credibility hinges on their recovering the Golan someday, since they were the ones who lost it to Israel. It's interesting that you point out the Druze factor - does the fact that the Druze are not major power brokers in Syria make a difference? You raise some very interesting points. Thanks...

Anonymous said...

Hazbani gain. Have you ever been to liechtenstein? If it was a normal world then the Golan + Shaba + El Hama would become a principlity, with Joumblat the rulling Prince. He could still live in Lebanon, or Paris if he so desire. It would border on Leb. Isr. Syria. Jordan. And all of these will agree to keep it neutral "for ever". The citizens of this paradise will be able to work, study, live, play in all these countris without a viza. You could ski in the winter, take the hot bath of El Hama, fish in the sea of Galili, eat the best apples in the world. some of our friends will build there casinoes better than Las Vegas. others will build a beautifull Hospital for the rich.God it will be some thing. And this is all because I did not listen to Jeha and did not take my pill.

John said...

מר חצבאני שלום:
אני ושאר עורכי הבלוג נשמח ליצור קשר איתך. מתי שיהיה לך הזדמנות, שלח אימייל לכתובת הנ''ל:
jbkishkushim aT gmail dOt com .
אנחנו מאוד מעוניים ברקע המשפחתי .

zed said...

...the agreement with North Korea, which, strange as it may seem, could even earn Bush a Nobel Peace Prize. Bitterly opposed by John Bolton, the North Korea deal basically marked a return to the Korea policy of Bill Clinton.

Huh? Earn whom a Nobel?

As you note, it was Clinton's agreement. Or Bill Richardson's. Not Bush's. I suspect the Nobel committee will realize that.

(In fact, while it is similar, this deal has somewhat worse terms for the USA than the one negotiated under Clinton.)