Amid regional fears of a summer war between Israel
and Syria, the two countries may in fact be inching closer to a deal. Not even
President George W. Bush's recent disclosures to Congress, intended to prove
Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation, appear able to dent the resolve for
peace, or at the very least, a reduction in tensions.
Earlier this month, Tel Aviv and Damascus publicly confirmed that they had
been in unofficial contact, with high-level Turkish envoys acting as intermediaries.
In remarks published last Thursday in the Qatari daily al-Watan, Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad said that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had
informed him of Israel's readiness to withdraw from the Golan in return for
peace with Syria, a claim that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not deny.
But the positive momentum of Turkey's "peace revival" met with a
cool response from Washington officials.
Speaking at the annual American Jewish Committee conference April 29, U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that "if Syria and Israel
wish to pursue peace, the United States is never against peace."
"It's just that, at this point," she said, "it's been difficult
to see Syrian behavior that has the prospect of being more stabilizing in the
region, rather than the destabilizing behavior that we're seeing."
In an interview with IPS, former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy described
the Bush administration's position on Israeli-Syrian talks as "a semi-polite
way of saying, 'if you want to be schmucks, go ahead and do it.'"
The Bush administration's stance is staked on an ideological position, said
Levy. Diplomacy with Syria remains conditional upon a change in its "behavior."
Basically, don't talk to those with whom you have disagreements.
More fundamentally, the status of Israeli-Syrian peace talks seems to rest
on Washington's desire to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, a policy which,
in effect, subordinates Syria's immediate interests the return of the Golan,
influence in Lebanon's domestic politics, support of Hamas and Hezbollah
to the broader calculus of Bush's fight for regional hegemony against the growing
influence of Iran.
Following the embarrassment of Israel's September air strike on an alleged
"nuclear" facility in Syria, and the assassination of the nebulous
Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyya in one of the most heavily secured areas
of Damascus, Syria cannot deny its security vulnerabilities. The destruction
wrought by Israeli bombardment in the 2006 Lebanon War no doubt worries many
in the Syrian regime about their ability to withstand and survive a military
confrontation with Tel Aviv.
The Turkish track serves as an effective deterrent to that scenario.
"What this Turkish mediation attempts to do is create an expectation
of progress, trying to reduce tensions, the ability to say, 'we're not on the
precipice of violence,' that there is a diplomatic option," said Levy.
"In and of itself it is an act of de-escalation."
From Turkey's perspective, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has created more chaos,
enhancing the Kurdish separatist threat and empowering Iran to emerge as a
possible counter to Turkey's position in the region. By mediating a successful
Israeli-Syrian peace, Ankara can reinsert itself into the political arena,
bolstering its own power and credibility on the international stage.
As Ankara facilitates the initial stages of a possible peace, the three sides
are effectively laying the groundwork for a deal that will eventually require
the support of a new administration in Washington.
"What we now need is to find common ground through the Turkish mediator,"
said the Syrian president, adding that while the Bush administration had "neither
the vision nor the will to [push forward] the peace process," direct negotiations
involving Washington might become possible under Bush's successor.
With less than a year left before the president departs office, he remains
focused on the Annapolis process, a U.S.-led initiative for a decisive Israeli-Palestinian
peace; but with Hamas' continued isolation, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,
and an escalation of Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land, it appears
in danger of collapse.
The administration's policy of Syrian isolation hinges on the accusation of
Damascus' complicity in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a charge the
regime has furiously denied. Beyond supporting the Mar. 14 coalition in a proxy
chess game that has resulted in the current Lebanese impasse, many administration
critics say Washington has no coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria;
there is no endgame.
As for the Turkish track, major gaps still exist between the sides; Israeli
polls consistently indicate that a majority of Israelis approximately 70
percent oppose withdrawing from the Golan, even in exchange for peace with
Syria, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
While Olmert may prefer to keep the talks secret, Assad seems to want a more
open and public embrace from the U.S. Would an ambitious U.S.-Syrian normalization
provide the type of incentive to break Syria from Iran's orbit? Even with Turkey
serving as the immediate midwife, an actual diplomatic option may have to wait
till next January, when Bush vacates the Oval Office.
"I think there is support in Israel; there's a general positive sense,
but no one, including the Turks, believe the U.S. role is replaceable,"
said Levy. "Therefore, the challenge becomes, how do you do this in the
absence of a U.S. interest being involved?"
The answer, he added: "You can't."
(Inter Press Service)