The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia

I realize I probably haven’t put anything on the blog yet that tells my ever-waiting readership (!) that last week I was in Syria. Well, I was. I went as part of a quiet, non-governmental effort to find ways to improve our country’s currently troubled relations with Syria. More info later, as appropriate.
Anyway, I’ve just finished writing a piece for another publication about Syria’s current diplomatic situation. Y’all will get the link when it is published.
Last night, as I was figuring how to frame the piece, I thought really the most significant thing that has happened for Syria’s situation in recent years was last year’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Along with the excellent rapprochement that Damascus has made with Turkey over the earlier 5-6 years, those two new relationships with significant Middle Eastern powers strengthen Syria’s position considerably, compared with where it was in the dark days of 2003-04 when so many American neocons were confidently predicting that “after Baghdad, Syria will be the next to fall to U.S. power.”
These new relationships also give Syrians a valuable counterweight to the power and influence of Iran. It’s not that anyone in the present Syrian government wants to abandon the ties with Tehran that have been so important to their regime’s survival over the past 30 years. But at least now they can balance those ties with these other new relationships with Turkey and Saudi Arabia…
So this morning, I Googled “Syria Saudi Arabia Turkey” and guess what came up? This fascinating news item from today’s Hurriyet, reporting that,

Continue reading “The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia”

Syria once again at the regional pivot

Last week, there was considerable fuss in much of the U.S. media because, just a couple of days after the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Bill Burns, visited Damascus and announced that after a five-year absence Washington would finally be returning an ambassador to Syria, President Bashar al-Asad turned to hosting some other political figures important to him, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the heads of Hamas and Hizbullah.
Various U.S. commentators (many of whom were anyway just primed to pounce on anything the Obama administration does) became apoplectic in their fury, arguing that Asad’s meetings with his other allies just “proved” that Burns, Secretary Clinton, and Pres. Obama had all been taken royally for a ride.
So I’m glad that we can now read the calm voices of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett on the subject. The Leveretts were actually in Damascus, and had a meeting there with Pres. Asad, shortly before Aasad’s meeting with Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Jabhat al-Mumana’a (though maybe I should find a better name for the Jabha… That one, which means “Blocking Front” is very Bush-era-ish… Anyway, I guess readers will know whom I refer to.)
The Leveretts:

    A week before Ahmadinejad’s arrival in Damascus, we had our own conversation with President Assad—a conversation that came one day after… William Burns met with the Syrian leader. In our session with him, Assad expressed satisfaction over his meeting with Undersecretary Burns. However, Assad also made clear that Syria’s relations with Iran, as well as its ties to Hizballah and HAMAS, are not on the table.

They note that, also shortly before Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus, Hillary Clinton had told the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee that,

    “We have laid out for the Syrians the need for greater cooperation with respect to Iraq, the end to interference in Lebanon and the transport or provision of weapons to Hezbollah, a resumption of the Israeli/Syrian track on the peace process which had been proceeding through the offices of the Turks last years, and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”

So, there goes Hillary, in the fine nanny-ish tradition established by Condi Rice before her, of trying to publicly dictate to other sovereign governments what their policies should be.
Asad’s laconic response was to say,

    “We must have understood Clinton wrong because of bad translation or our limited understanding… I find it strange that they [Americans] talks about Middle East stability and peace and the other beautiful principles and call for two countries to move away from each other.”

I do think that Clinton (like everyone else from both party leaderships here in the U.S.) has a pronounced and very worrying tendency to continue to see every actor in the Middle East as being “either with us or against us” on the question that continues to preoccupy most of official Washington, that of Israel vs. Iran.
But matters aren’t as simple as that in the region, any more. At least two very significant actors in the region can no longer be clearly categorized as being in either the “pro-Iranian” or “pro-Israel/western” camp. They are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which have many close ties to the west as such, but a lot of reservations about Israel; and both of which believe that negotiating in good faith with Iran is greatly preferable to continuing to saber-rattle and escalate the tensions against it.
Significantly, both these governments now have good relations with Syria. In the case of Turkey, these relations are of some years’ standing at this point. In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are more recent, dating from the landmark visit that King Abdullah made to Damascus last year. Prior to that, for several years– and most especially since the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which has been widely but not categorically blamed on Syria– Riyadh’s relations with Damascus were extremely hostile. (Though prior to that, too, the present Saudi King, Abdullah, also had a long history of friendliness to Syria’s rulers; so go figure that.)
All of this provides some background for the judgment the Leveretts make in their blog post about their meeting with Asad, that,

    the perceived value in Damascus of strategic realignment with the United States through a carefully conditioned peace deal with Israel is slowly declining as America’s hegemonic standing and influence erode.

They go on to write,

    Certainly, the Syrian leadership was relieved by President George W. Bush’s departure from office and his replacement by President Obama. But, with a right-leaning coalition headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in power in Israel, expectations in Damascus for what Syria would see as major improvements in America’s Middle East policy are not high. And, as President Assad noted to us, poor policy choices in the Middle East by the United States over the last decade have created “vacuums” which “others [Iran and Turkey] filled”. (In this context, Assad argued that Iran’s evolving regional role does not represent “new ambitions” on Tehran’s part.) This has expanded Syria’s strategic optionality. In this context, Assad underscored that the rise of Iran and Turkey to new levels of regional influence has not come at Syria’s expense; rather, all three states have been able to improve their own relations and bolster their regional influence.
    This is not to say that Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option of realignment toward the West through a “principled” peace with Israel does not remain deeply attractive to his son and successor. But, the longer that Damascus must wait for the United States to deliver on its end of the peace process, the more time that Bashar and his advisers have to internalize what they see as the reality of America’s slow decline. And that has a palpable effect on the price they are willing to pay for realizing Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option.

I see that the well-informed Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed also focuses a little on King Abullah’s role in this recent article on Syria’s diplomacy.
I’m not quite sure how Moubayed manages the feat of “reading” King Abdullah’s mind… But what he writes here is nonetheless very interesting:

    King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia shares this view [that Syrian-Iranian relations are in the best interest of the international community, and should be seen as a blessing in disguise for the United States], believing that Syria can indeed walk the tightrope between the so-called moderate and radical camps in the Middle East, helping influence and moderate the behaviour of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Syria has repeatedly used its influence with these players in meetings like the ones that just took place in Damascus (which perhaps were not as high profile) to get Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, for example, or to get Hezbollah more involved in the political process in Lebanon. In Iran, Syria used its influence to free 17 British sailors captured in 2007, as well as a French prisoner in the summer of 2009. Syria, after all, doesn’t have a history of anti-Americanism, and has proven since 1990 that it is a credible peace partner, with whom the West can do business.
    The Damascus Summit [with Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, and Meshaal] by no means indicates that engagement has come to an end between Syria and the US. Far from it; the meeting is a reminder of how helpful Syria can be in dealing with these non-state players. Nevertheless, it sends another strong message: Think twice before waging another war on Lebanon, because neither Syria nor Iran will allow it. Rather than escalate the conflict, the tripartite meeting in Damascus actually forced Israel to recalculate, thereby minimising the chances of war next summer. The leaders assembled in Damascus are clearly very confident of their abilities, and feel that neither Israel nor the US can deal with them as they have in the past. Much has changed since Obama came to power in 2009, but much remains the same, given that the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah alliance has outlived five US administrations since that of Ronald Reagan, and will likely outlive the Obama administration as well. Persuading the US to pressure Israel into seeking peace is high on Syria’s agenda, and this explains the recent Damascus Summit.

WaPo’s hate propaganda against Syria

Today, the WaPo had an editorial filled with inaccuracies about Syria’s record and just oozing pure venom for the Syrian government.
The title is, “Don’t expect progress from talking to Syria.”
I’m still trying to figure out why editorial page editor Fred Hiatt feels obliged to publish such hate-filled, inaccurate, and incendiary garbage.
Here are just a few of the notable inaccuracies in this screed:

    “Having carried out a campaign of political murder in Lebanon, including the killing of a prime minister for which he has yet to be held accountable, Mr. Assad continues to insist on a veto over the Lebanese government… “

The truth here:
(1) No-one has yet been able to substantiate the many accusations that hostile forces have made against Pres. Bashar al-Asad regarding the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri. This, despite the involvement of scores of highly-paid international investigators in the commission that was jointly established by the UN and the Lebanese government to investigate the affair and the Hague-based Special tribunal that was the successor to the commission. Last April, in fact, the Hague tribunal ordered that four pro-Syrian figures who had been high-ranking officers in the Lebanese security forces pup until the assassination should be freed from jail, given the paucity of evidence against them.
(2) Meanwhile, in response to the demands that rose loudly in Lebanon after the Hariri killing that Syria should withdraw the security forces it had kept in Lebanon since 1976 (when they went in at the behest of Washington), Asad did indeed withdraw all Syria’s troops from Lebanon within the couple of months right after the killing. Then, in October 2008, Syria formally recognized Lebanon’s independence for the first time ever. (All previous Syrian governments, including the most pro-western of them, had always, ever since Syria was established as a separate country in the 1920s, claimed that Lebanon was a part of it.) After Syria’s recognition of Lebanon’s independence, the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
(3) Last December, Lebanese PM Saad al-Hariri made a state visit to Damascus, where he held talks with Asad. Hariri is a very pro-western politician, and the son of the slain former premier. Haaretz reported that Hariri told a press conference held in the Lebanese embassy in Damascus that,

    I saw all positive signals from President Assad in all issues and we agreed on opening a new phase in our relations… The talks were excellent and frank… It all depends on the future….We want to build a future that serves the interests of the two countries.

Ah, but Fred Hiatt claims he “knows better” about the state of Syrian-Lebanese relations than Hariri does??
… More Hiatt:

    “[Asad] continues to facilitate massive illegal shipments of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, dangerously setting the stage for another war with Israel, and to host the most hard-line elements of the Hamas leadership. He continues to harbor exiled leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime and to allow suicide bombers to flow into Iraq for use by al-Qaeda… He has promised to check suicide bombers bound for Iraq but has never done so… “

Where to begin with all this nonsense?
(1) Lebanon is a sovereign country that has the right to defend itself against Israel’s daily continuing incursions and provocations in the way it judges best. Thus far, its government has decided to do so in conjunction with Hizbullah’s paramilitary capabilities. If someone wants to prevent another war between Israel and Lebanon, wouldn’t they be advised to call on Israel to stop its incessant violations of the border between the two countries? Ah, but not Hiatt…
(2) Hamas’s over-all leadership is indeed headquartered in Damascus. But all who study the organization carefully (though not Fred Hiatt) recognize that the Damascus-based leaders range from the middle to the more flexible end of the (anyway narrow) spectrum of opinion in the organization’s leading ranks. They are a moderating influence within Hamas– and very, very far from being “the most hard-line elements.”
(3) On the accusations about Damascus’s policies with respect to Iraq– where is the evidence for the claims Hiatt makes?? In the talks I had with officials in Damascus last year, it was clear that cooperation with Washington against the threat they judged that they both jointly faced from any renewed descent into chaos in Iraq was the single greatest motivator the Syrian government had for improving its relations with Washington. What evidence does Hiatt have that might outweigh the evidence I and numerous others have gathered on this question?
… So why do I even both spending time trying to correct the many gross inaccuracies included in this text? Because despite its many, many shortcomings, the WaPo is still a very influential newspaper in Washington DC, and in political circles throughout this country. Most people in the U.S. political elite don’t have the time to study carefully the actions and record of this or that foreign country… So they might well be inclined to “take the word” of a WaPo editorial regarding whether engagement with the current Syrian government is a worthwhile venture or not.
But why has the WaPo departed so hugely from the standards of accuracy and truth-telling that it once used to uphold?
That, I don’t feel qualified to answer. But the paper should certainly be held to account for these inaccuracies– and for the escalatory, war-mongering kind of atmosphere that they tend to feed.

Turkish FM mediating between Iraq and Syria

As long-time JWN readers are aware, I have always been worried about the prospect that as the US military decreases its presence in Iraq, many of the country’s neighbors would rush in to fill the resulting security vacuum and the contest between them could escalate in many unpredictable ways. That was why I strongly urged– from long before the Iraq Study Group endorsed this necessary recommendation– that as the US withdraws either Washington or, preferably, the UN should convene a high-level meeting of Iraq, the US, and all Iraq’s neighbors to work out a code of conduct for the behaviors of all parties with regard to Iraq; and preferably also establish a UN-based monitoring and incident-resolution mechanism to follow up on compliance with those agreements.
The US government hasn’t done that, though the troop withdrawal is already well underway and some serious tensions have already been emerging. And neither has the UN done much to put into place such a plan.
I guess for both the US and the UN, the ‘sensitivity’ of including Iran in any such arrangement seems like a real obstacle. (I wish, obviously that the UN had a lot more independence from US tutelage at this point.)
But now, Turkey seems to be stepping into the conflict-reduction role in a significant way. Today, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is scheduled to pay consecutive visits to Iraq and Syria to try to resolve the conflict that’s erupted since the Iraqi government accused Syria of harboring the opposition leaders who, Baghdad alleges, orchestrated the bombings of various Iraqi ministries on August 19 that killed 95 and wounded more than 600, many of them ministry employees.
Davutoğlu became foreign minister only a couple of months ago. But before that, as a much respected foreign-policy intellectual, he was a special adviser to Turkish PM Rejep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that role, he spearheaded a fascinating– though ultimately unsuccessful– series of “proximity talks” between Syria and Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel.
The idea that Turkey may be in a position to help Iraq and its six neighbors keep tensions among them to a minimum as US power recedes may seem counter-intuitive, since for a couple of generations many Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs retained a degree of remembered resentment against Turkey over the oppressive role the Ottoman Empire played against ethnic-Arab nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, I was surprised during my last few visits to Syria to discover the degree to which Syrians in and close to government– and Syrians in general– seem to have “gotten over” those sensitivities.
Indeed, many Syrians I’ve spoken to in the past couple of years speak of Turkey as something of a current role model for them. Many Syrians look at the success that Turkey has had in dealing with challenges like economic development, finding an internal balance between the forces of secularism and Islamism, finding an external balance between ‘east’ and ‘west’, the challenges posed by Kurds and other national minorities– and they wish they could emulate them.
The same is true, I think, of many other Arabs.
This doesn’t mean that, among Iraq and all of its neighbors, there are NO remaining sensitivities regarding Turkey’s role in the region. But it does mean there is considerably more scope for a leading Turkish role in reducing the kinds of tensions I’m worried about in the whole peri-Iraq theater than many people (self included) would have thought possible even five or ten years ago.
By the way, the watchword of the academic work Davutoğlu has done on Turkey’s foreign policy is that it should be aimed not just at “zero problems with the neighbors”, but also at intense engagement with the neighbors. (And yes, that includes Armenia, where the Erdogan government has taken some notable steps towards reducing earlier tensions.)
You can read two of my recent evaluations of Turkey’s new regional role here and here.
Turkey now has good relations with Iraq and all of its neighbors– including Iran– as well as with the US, which will continue to be a power in the region even as it departs. Turkey is, of course, a full member of NATO and retains numerous other very good links with the west.
I do wish, though, the Ban Ki-Moon and the weight of UN legitimacy was also a lot more involved in this peri-Iraq tension reduction effort.

Syria-Iran tussle over Iraq?

As the US withdrawal from Iraq become an increasingly firm prospect, the tussle is now quite predictably intensifying among the war-shattered country’s neighbors for influence over what remains of it.
One intriguing example of this is the very serious spat that erupted yesterday between largely Iranian-backed Iraqi PM, Nuri al-Maliki, and the government of Syria.
At issue are Maliki’s allegations that the extremely deadly bombings of last Wednesday were the work of Baathist networks whose leaders have been sheltered by Syria, and his demand that Syria hand them over to Iraq for trial. The Syrians deny that the wanted men, Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, are in their country, and point out that they have roundly condemned the bombings.
This new conflict between Baghdad and Damascus is serious– and its timing seems very surprising. Just last week, Maliki undertook a seemingly very successful and lovey-dovey visit to Damascus. He and his Syrian counterpart agreed to set up a “strategic cooperation council”. They agreed to ” establish a mechanism for high-level military dialogue” and pursue many joint economic opportunities.
And in a joint statement, they said,

    “The fraternal relationship between Syria and Iraq is characterized by strong social and pan-Arab ties, as well as common history, culture and neighboring relations of both countries.”

Well, so much for that “fraternal relationship”, eh?
What seems to have happened is that Baghdad’s relationship with Syria has gotten tangled up in the internal power struggle now going on inside the Iraqi regime over how closely it should align with Iran.
When I was in Damascus in June, several of the close-to-power people we talked with there were at pains to note two significant things about Iraq: (a) that the Syrian government considers stabilizing the regime there to be a high priority for them, and (b) that despite Damascus’s long and close strategic relationship with Iran, Syrians see their goals for Iraq as very different from, and sometimes clearly at odds with, those of Iran.
Damascus’s goal for Iraq, they said, is that Iraq should be stable, Arab, and basically secular. Iran’s goal, they allege, is that Iraq should be Shiite-dominated and basically follow Tehran’s theocratic model of governance regardless of whether this threatened the unity and stability of Iraq as a whole.
Damascus’s policy on all this is also influenced by the degree to which the Syrian government, which is basically secular and depends a lot for its internal stability on its pan-Arab credentials, feels it is getting support from other significant Arab powers, principally Saudi Arabia. When Syrian-Saudi relations are tense– as they were from 2005 until about three months ago– then the Syrian government feels less confident about risking a rupture with Tehran.
Right now, both Syria and Saudi Arabia probably feel they have a shared interest in minimizing the amount of influence Tehran can exercise over the Baghdad government– though I doubt if policymakers in either of those governments feel they can eliminate Iran’s influence completely, in the same way that Saddam Hussein was able to do, through the exercise of great internal repression, so long as he was in power…
That there is a huge internal tussle going on right now in the heart of the Iraqi regime is quite evident– though the actual line-ups and interests at work there are still extremely murky.
Last Wednesday’s bomb blast came six years to the day after the fateful August 19 bomb blast of 2003 that killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira De Mello and inaugurated a new period of considerable post-invasion political instability within the country. This year’s August 19 blast killed more than 100 people and left the finance and foreign ministry buildings pertaining to the Maliki government substantially wrecked.
Shortly after the blasts, the ethnically Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, voiced the serious allegation that they were the work of senior security officers within (other parts of) the regime. I find Juan Cole’s logic in claiming that the bombings were aimed at the blocs/parties in control of the targeted ministries to most likely be valid.
The education ministry was also targeted, though not I think as badly hit. It is controlled by a branch of Maliki’s own Daawa Party. The finance ministry has been in the hands of ISCI (whose leader Abdel-Aziz Hakim died in Iran earlier today.) Foreign affairs has, obviously, been largely run and staffed by ethnic Kurds.
I disagree, however, with Juan’s other main conclusion: that the bombings were likely the work of former Baathists, rather than Qaeda-related networks. I also think his allegation “Iraqi Sunni Arab resistance in exile in Syria… are running terrorist cells inside Iraq”, and that these networks were connected withe August 19 bombings, is a serious one that he does nothing whatsoever to authenticate or provide a source for.
But it is, certainly, murky. And all the more so because of the political developments that have been erupting within the coalition that’s been more or less “running” Iraq since 2007, under the different forms of tutelage provided by both the US military and the Iranian theocrats.
On Monday, Raed Jarrar had this fascinating analysis of what’s been going on.
In his view, it was Maliki who took the initiative in breaking his links with what Raed calls the “gang of four”: that is, the two Kurdish parties, ISCI, and the (Sunni) Islamic Accord Party. In his view, Maliki was doing this for these reasons:

    1- Demographic cleansing: Al-Maliki is against partitioning Iraq now. The gang of 4 have been following and promoting a separatist agenda aimed at creating sectarian/ethnic/religious regions that are self governed instead of having a strong central government in Baghdad running the country. The gang of 4 have been supporting the cleansing campaigns directly and indirectly for years. Al-Maliki’s recent attempts to reverse ethnic and sectarian cleansing and remove all walls in Baghdad were faced by fierce criticism by the gang of four. Following last week’s organized attacks in Baghdad, Hoshyar Zibari (a kurdish separatist who happened to be Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs) claimed the reason behind the attacks is Al-Maliki’s plan to remove the partitioning walls!
    2- Central government vs. regional powers: Al-Maliki is now for keeping and even increasing the powers of the central government. Mainly because he’s fighting for his own position’s authorities, and because he’s catering to the Iraqi public opinion that, according to numerous polls, favors a model where the central government runs a united and sovereign nation.
    3- Ending foreign intervention(s): Al-Maliki’s support for a plan where ALL U.S. troops must leave Iraq has been against the gang of four’s interests. They realize that the U.S. is there protecting them and supporting their weak and unpopular regime, and more importantly, the US is fighting their fight against other Iraqis.

(Raed also expressed this important conclusion: “There is a lot of violence coming ahead, but this does not mean in anyway the US occupation should last for an extra day… There is nothing that the US can do to fix the situation other than leaving Iraq completely and stopping all forms of intervention in Iraq’s domestic issues.”)
The WaPo and NYT accounts of the political split inside the Baghdad regime both seem to attribute much more of the momentum for the split to the non-Maliki side than to him… But I tend to respect Raed Jarrar’s feel for intra-Iraqi politics more than I do that of any of those western journos.
And meanwhile, from Syria, came this analysis piece today from the always well-informed Sami Moubayed.
First of all, Moubayed lays out a very well argued refutation of the accusations of Syrian complicity in last week’s bombings. Then he asks,

    why blame Syria? Clearly, from the contradicting remarks of Iraqi ministers, Black Wednesday puts many top officials in very difficult positions. It proves just how weak and divided they are – exposing them before ordinary Iraqis who are furious at the rising death toll and want answers from their elected representatives.
    … Nobody in Iraq wants to know who carried out the Wednesday attacks, because reality would expose dramatic mismanagement of government office. That in turn would drown many parliamentary hopefuls in January’s elections. It therefore suits all officials to cover up for their shortcomings by blaming Syria.
    Nobody in the Iraqi government would dare blame Iran or Saudi Arabia, because of the financial and military clout these countries have in Iraq, along with their respective army of followers. Left standing is Syria, which happens to be Ba’athist and still has Iraqi fugitives on its territory.
    In recalling their ambassador from Damascus, the Iraqis will have to deal with the aftershocks in their relationship with Syria. Iraq needs the Syrians much more than Damascus needs Baghdad. Iraq needs it for economic issues related to the pumping of oil and rebuilding of the war-torn country. It needs it to mediate explosive conflicts between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, whose leaders were all one-time residents of Damascus and still have excellent relations with the Syrians.
    Iraq needs it to police the Syrian-Iraqi border, and to continue playing host to over 1 million Iraqi refugees based in Syria since 2003. Iraq needs Damascus to mediate talks between Maliki and both Ba’athists and Sunni tribes. It also needs the Syrians to legitimize the Maliki regime, or whatever succeeds it in January, in the eyes of ordinary Iraqi Sunnis who have historically looked towards Syria for shelter and support.
    When Syria decided to open an embassy in Baghdad in late 2008, this greatly legitimized Maliki in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, who until then saw him as nothing but a sectarian clown who had nothing but animosity for the Sunni community and wanted to punish it collectively for having produced Saddam Hussein.
    It is one thing when countries like Jordan or Egypt recognize Maliki and legitimize his administration, but a completely different matter when this is done by Syria, a country that remains dominated by a strong brand of Arab nationalism that is appealing to the Iraqi street.
    In as much as the sending of an ambassador was symbolic for the Syrians, recalling him is equally symbolic, and will cause plenty of damage for the prime minister, who needs a broad constituency among Sunnis and Shi’ites in preparation for the elections.

Well, let’s see how this plays out.
I just wish we had some kind of leading body in the international community who could get the leaders of Iraq and all its neighbors into one room together and get them to agree on strict codes for non-intervention, nonviolence, and de-escalation of tensions among them.
But alas, we have no such body. After many years of systematic US downgrading of the role and efficacy of the UN, the UN is just a shadow of what it should be today. And the US itself is clearly incapable of playing a neutral, calming role like this.

West Bank Palestinians and Golan Syrians at joint camp

I was intrigued to see the news from Maan that a summer camp has brought some 350 Palestinians from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and from inside Israel, along with Syrian indigenes from the Golan together in Bethlehem this week.
Many people in the US seem quite unaware that there is a strong human dimension to Israel’s 42-year-long military occupation of Syria’s Golan region. Thus, while the Palestinian issue is understood by most westerners to include some very tough issues of the serious violations of basic human rights that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has inflicted on the 4.3 million Palestinian residents of those regions, the Golan issue– when it is discussed at all in the west– is discussed overwhelmingly as “purely” a strategic issue.
Little or no attention is paid to the harms that have been imposed and continue to be imposed on either (a) the 18,000 indigenous Syrian residents of Golan whose lives have been severely constrained by the imposition of firstly Israeli military law and since 1981 Israeli civilian law on the towns, villages, and farms in which they live, or (b) the more than 500,000 Syrian citizens who in the chaos that surrounded the collapse of the Syrian army’s positions in Golan in 1967 fled from their homes and farms in the region, deeper into the Syrian interior– or who are descendants of those IDPs from 1967.
You can learn more about the Syrian Golanis here.
The way Golan is discussed in the west, it is as though that entire fertile plateau was always empty of people until the Israeli settlers came along and started to “make the plateau bloom.” Yet another version of the old Zionist myth of a “land without a people for a people without a land”!
The Syrian government, for its part, has never made a big deal at all of the plight of the indigenous Syrian residents of Golan– either those who stayed in 1967, or those who left. I once asked a Syrian colleague about whether there was anything that you might call a “Golan lobby” inside Syria, that agitates there for the restoration of the rights of the Golanis. He explained that there are no special-interest lobbies inside Syria– on Golan or anything else. (I kind of knew that, already.)
Also, if the Damascus government were to launch a big international campaign about the human rights of the Golan Syrians (whether displaced, or “occupied”), then other Syrians could start to ask for more concern for their rights, as well.
But whether the Damascus government takes up this issue as a human rights issue (and not just one of “the restoration of Syria’s national sovereignty over the Golan), or not, there still is a human rights issue… And those of us who are citizens of countries that have been strong backers of Israel throughout the 42 years of Israel’s occupation of Golan need to take our share of the responsibility for ending the systematic rights abuses that running a military occupation always entails– in Golan, just as in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and in Gaza.
Golan is like East Jerusalem, in that fairly early on in its 42-year military occupatin Israel imposed an Anschluss (annexation) on it. That happened in 1981; and since then, Israel has considered it just a regular part of Israel.
In Golan, the Israeli authorities went to great lengths, in 1981-2, to try to impose Israeli citizenship on the indigenous residents. In East Jerusalem, they haven’t ever undertaken much of a campaign to do this– probably because in E. Jerusalem there are some 270,000 indigenous residents, who would constitute one-third of the city’s voters and be a non-trivial voting bloc in Israel’s national politics, as well. The numbers in Golan are that much smaller.
Plus, most of the Syrian Golanis are Druze. The Israeli state authorities probably feel they have done a pretty good job of ensuring that Israel’s own (Palestinian) Druze community has been sufficiently bought off that it doesn’t cause them many problems; and they probably hoped that it would be fairly easy to assimilate the Golan Druze in with the Israeli-Palestinian Druze…
But that proved not to be the case. The vast majority of the still-resident Syrian Golanis have resisted having Israeli citizenship thrust upon them, though I think they have had Israel’s “Druze” education system thrust upon them, along with many other Israeli state institutions and regulations. This, while they maintained their Syrian citizenship. The Israelis and the ICRC have enabled some contacts to continue between these Syrians and their sisters and cousins residing on the other side of the disengagement line. I think a number of Syrian Golanis go to study in Damascus each year. Syrian Golani apple farers have been able to sell their beautiful produce to Syrian wholesalers, etc.
… So anyway, I’m interested to learn about the Bethlehem summer camp. I don’t know if this is the first year it’s been run; but it seems like an excellent initiative. Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation (with or without being Anschlussed), Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and Syrian Golanis living under occupation/Anschluss all have a lot in common; but of course the Israeli authorities have always tried to maintain a strong policy of “divide-and-rule” among them. So it’s good these young people can find a way to get together among themselves.
Let’s hope that next summer, youth from Gaza can participate as well.
And that the summer after that, Israel’s occupation of all these parts of the Arab world will have ended once and for all.
(A note on the timeline here: the US has formally agreed to end its entire military occupation of Iraq by the end of 2011. That withdrawal is complicated by the sheer logistics of trucking all that military materiel out of Iraq. The logistics of trucking all Israel’s military materiel out of the West Bank and Golan are nowhere near as complex! The logistics of moving all the Israeli settlers out of the West Bank and Golan may be a little more complex… But the Israeli government, which put them in there in blatant violation of international law can doubtless find a way to do that… But anyway, I’ll give them two years to complete the process… )

Eldar and Kipnis on Golan

Akiva Eldar recently published a short piece in Haaretz about the recent book on Golan and the history of the Israeli-Syrian conflict written by Yigal Kipnis.
Kipnis is a resident of the settlement of Maale Gamleh in southern Golan. He is one of a group of Golan settlers who says they would be prepared to evacuate their present homes in the interest of a final-status peace between Israel and Syria.
Golan has been under belligerent military occupation by Israel since June 1967. In 1981, the Israeli parliament “extended Israeli jurisdiction” to the area– a step that is the equivalent of all-out annexation. (Such as the Israeli parliament did to occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.) Some 18,000 Israeli settlers and 17,000 indigenous Syrian citizens live on Golan. The Syrian Golanis are the remnants of a once much larger civilian Syrian population there; the rest all fled almost immediately after the collapse of the Syrian army’s defensive positions there during the 1967 war.
Kipnis’s book, “The Mountain That Was As a Monster” (Magnes Press), is an account of the history of the always fraught Syrian-Israeli relationship and includes an assessment of the way that Israelis have nearly always felt fearful about the prospect of the Syrian army coming once again to the Golan Plateau. (Hence its title.)
Of course, in the context of any conceivable Syrian-Israeli peace, all of Golan– including the elevated plateau– would be substantially demilitarized subsequent to the full Israeli withdrawal from the plateau that the Syrians have always, quite justifiably, insisted on. So the “fears” of the Israelis about the heights are quite groundless; but they go back a long way.
In his article, Eldar reports,

    Kipnis writes that from the perspective of the Galilee panhandle inhabitants, who until June 1967 had been bombarded from the east, the image of the Syrian Golan as a “monster” is justified. However, in his opinion, a precise examination of the Israeli-Syrian conflict reveals that the sense of threat and fear has existed, perhaps even more so, on the other side – looking from the mountain to the valley, from Syria into Israel. Kipnis argues that the Syrian’s fear of Israel grew stronger in direct proportion to Israel’s increasing military might and superiority over Syria. Exaggerated fear and mistaken information, he wrote, fed into each side’s perception of the other as demonic.

I don’t know if Kipnis writes this in the book, but it is also certainly the case that the Israeli military’s current positions atop the heights and also in the upper reaches of Jebel al-Shaikh (Mount Hermon) allow them to directly overlook Damascus, which is not far away, and to peer deep into the Syrian interior beyond.
If all those heights are demilitarized and a trustworthy monitoring and verification regime is installed there, neither side need live in fear.
Even more importantly, once Israel has a final-status peace with Syria– which will certainly help pave the way for an Israeli-Lebanese peace– then for the first time Israel will have no immediate neighbor with whom it is at war and who has any substantial military capability able to threaten Israel’s homeland. This means Israeli society can become transformed from the militaristic, national-security state it has been since its founding into a much more normal form of state. Military spending can be ramped down considerably, and young Israelis (and young Syrians) need no longer have to serve as conscripts in their army.
What a great prospect.
In the context of a final-status Syrian-Israeli peace, citizens of each country will be able to visit each other’s countries. And if Israel has also concluded a sustainable and fair final-status peace with the Palestinians at that point, the possibilities for extensive normalization of relations are enormous.
However, many or most Jewish citizens of Israel remain until now unpersuaded by those prospects. They prefer the idea that they alone can dominate Golan’s fertile plateau and its rolling hills and streams.
Netanyahu’s national security adviser Uzi Arad recently had this exchange with Haaretz’s Avi Shavit:

    Arad: [I]f there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights.
    Shavit: From your point of view, is that the right position to take? That this must be the essence of a settlement – a compromise deep into the Golan Heights? That even in peace we must ensure that a large part of the Golan Heights remain in our hands?
    For strategic, military and land-settlement reasons. Needs of water, wine and view.
    So you say unequivocally: Peace yes, Golan no?
    What about the “deposit” of Yitzhak Rabin, in which he undertook to leave the Golan Heights?
    There is no such thing…

Too bad about that language in all the relevant UN resolutions about “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, eh?

US, Syria, Iran, Hamas

The Obama administration has decided to return a US ambassador to Syria, the WaPo’s Scott Wilson reports today. This is a long overdue move– see below. However, the timing of the announcement does seem to link it to the ongoing turmoil inside the Iranian regime.
The always very well informed David Ignatius, writing (also in today’s WaPo) about US policy responses to the developments in Iran, says,

    As the mullahs’ grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalize relations with Syria, and there’s talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: “Iran’s allies in the region have to be wondering, ‘Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?’ ”

It has, of course, long been a dream of some Israelis and allies of Israel that they could “flip” Syria away from its sturdy, 30-year alliance with Iran. “Peeling them away” is a less crude and possibly more nuanced version of the same idea.
Ignatius links the administration’s current overture toward Syria, and its consideration of an overture toward Hamas, centrally to its desire to take maximum advantage of the current political problems in Tehran. I would note, however, that these moves have been under active consideration in the administration since considerably before the hotly disputed June 12 election in Iran.
From that perspective, announcing the moves in the context of linking them to the situation in Iran might be very canny politics within the US. But it is not the whole story.
Indeed, when I was in Damascus earlier this month, there were already many signs of a growing thaw in the long frozen US-Syria political relationship.
It has also been an open secret for some time now that Obama, Mitchell, and Clinton are very eager that the Palestinian movements– especially the ‘Big Two’, Fateh and Hamas– find a way to settle their differences enough to allow a unified Palestinian delegation to take part in negotiations for a final peace with Israel. Mitchell said as much in his first conference call with Jewish-American leaders back in early February. And his determination– along with, presumably, that of the person who appointed him, Pres. Obama– that this happen seems only to have grown since then.
Including that Mitchell gave an attentive hearing to former Pres. Jimmy Carter when Carter went to brief him June 18 about the discussions he had had over the preceding week with Hamas leaders in Damascus, the West Bank, and Gaza.
In my recent blog post on Fateh’s woes, I made one suggestion as to how a Palestinian negotiating team that enjoys the confidence of both the big parties might be constituted. Such a team might or might not include Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas.
When I interviewed Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus June 4, he restated Hamas’s longstanding position that it is happy to have Abbas do the negotiating with Israel– but on the condition that any final deal negotiated should be submitted to a Palestinian-wide referendum thereafter. Hamas, he said, would abide by the results of that referendum.
Personally, I think it would be better to find a way to get Hamas more involved in the negotiating– even if only indirectly– from a far earlier stage than that. Hence my suggestion that a person or persons whom they trust be fully included on the negotiating team from the beginning.
Either way, folding Hamas into the diplomatic strategy is something that has to be done, given their real weight in Palestinian society. And it’s something the Mitchell team has been wrestling with from the get-go. Let’s hope the current turmoil in Iran gives Mitchell and Obama a new opportunity to “sell” this idea to the many folks in Congress and the US public who are still very wary of the “the H word.”
We can note, though, that there is significant support in Israel for talking with Hamas directly. The last time Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center recorded the answer to this question, in its February 2009 poll, it found that 45% of Israelis supported this. In other, earlier polls, pollsters found that an even stronger percentage of Israelis supported negotiating with a Palestinian team that included both Fateh and Hamas.
Regarding the new US opening to Syria, we should remember that it was Pres. Bush who decided to withdraw the US ambassador from Syria; and he did so, in February 2005, in response to the specific situation in Lebanon. Former PM Rafiq Hariri had just been assassinated there, and much of the evidence about that seemed to point towards Syria.
A lot has happened– in Lebanon, in Syria, and in the US– since then.
Back in February 2005 Syria still had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, the remnant of a peacekeeping force that went into the country in 1976 with Washington’s blessing. After the Hariri killing, a broad movement of Lebanese arose that called for the withdrawal of those troops; and that withdrawal was duly completed in April 2005. After subsequent developments inside Lebanon, that included a nasty assault from Israel, elections, further discussions, and a new government, Lebanon and Syria agreed for the first time ever to have normal diplomatic relations with each other and exchange ambassadors.
That step took place earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the “evidence” that the Bushites and others had relied on to pin blame for the Hariri killing on Syria seemed to largely unravel. Earlier this year, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who had been imprisoned in Lebanon since 2005 were released by order of the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon. So there really has been little continuing rationale for Washington not to have an ambassador in Damascus. And meanwhile, Syria is a regional player of considerable significance in both the Iraqi and the Arab-Israeli theaters.
In recognition of that, Sec. of State Clinton called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem May 31, and they agreed on a ‘Road Map’ for improving relations. Ten days later peace envoy Mitchell made his first visit to Damascus.
You can find my June 12 account of the recent history of the US-Syrian relationship here. My thoughts on the need to include Syria in the Arab-Israeli negotiations are here. My compilation of the 18-year record of Syria’s attempts to negotiate its own final peace with Israel is here. And my June 4 interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem is here.
It is intriguing, though, to see that we finally have a president who recognizes the importance of diplomacy and has the capacity and agility to start to rebuild a whole host of important relations that had, basically, been shredded by the Bushites.

Syrian negotiations with Israel: the short version

So presidential envoy George Mitchell has now had his meeting with Pres. Bashar al-Asad in Damascus.
Afterwards he said, “”We are well aware of the many difficulties … yet we share an obligation to create conditions for negotiations to begin promptly and end successfully.”
Intriguingly, that Reuters report also tells us that Mitchell’s meeting with Asad,

    was preceded by talks between U.S. and Syrian security officials in Damascus on Friday that included discussions on Iraq, sources in the Syrian capital said.
    A U.S. embassy official said the meeting was between a “military-led” U.S. team and a Syrian delegation.

Alert readers here may have noted that in the piece I published at IPS Wednesday, that reported and analyzed my June 4 interview with Syrian FM Walid Moualem, I drew attention to the fact that, in talking about his recent phone conversation with Secretary Clinton,

    he mentioned the two countries’ shared concerns in Iraq before the Arab-Israeli peace process… [and that] tracked with what a number of other well-connected individuals in Syria have recently been saying.

In that piece I also characterized what I see as the precise nature of the two countries’ shared concerns regarding Iraq.
If you haven’t read that piece– or the longer collection of excerpts from the interview that I published at (and also here)– then you should do so.
Also, go read Peter Harling’s excellent recent article “Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue.”
I would add at this point that during the six days I was in Syria, several well-connected private citizens there talked about how Syria’s interests in Iraq diverge from those of its longtime ally Iran in some significant ways.
Basically, while Syria and Iran (and the US) all want to strengthen the Maliki government in Baghdad and help him crack down hard on the anti-Baghdad insurgents, Damascus and Tehran differ on the kind of regime they want to see emerging over the long haul in Baghdad. Damascus wants to see one that is determinedly Arab and secular, while Tehran wants to see one that mirrors its own Shi-ite-Islamist character much more closely and might not be particularly closely integrated into the rest of the Arab world.
Yes, this is a difference, and an intriguing one. Several Syrians have also noted how relieved they are to have built good relations over the past few years with their northern neighbor Turkey, a NATO member that has a determinedly secular constitution (even though it is currently ruled by an Islamist party.)
No-one should ever expect, though, that Damascus will simply turn on a dime and– as the childish US parlance has it– “flip” rapidly or completely against Tehran. The Islamic Republic has been an essential regional bulwark for the Asads through many years in which they have faced extremely dangerous threats (especially the early 1980s and the GWB years.)

Anyway, the original intention of this post was to note that, though most Americans have paid ittle attention to the Syrian track of the Arab-Israeli negotiations over the past two decades, in fact this has been a fascinating story.
Damascus has negotiated with every Israeli premier from Yitzhak Shamir through Ehud Olmert, with the exception of Ariel Sharon. You can see the book I wrote about the very fruitful first five years of these negotiations, here. Good news, it is now apparently back in print.
Here’s the short version of all the negotiations since 1991:
With Yitzhak Shamir.
Syria decided to participate in the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, after Sec. of State Baker pre-negotiated between Shamir and Asad the agreed basis on which the conference would be held. The encounter at Madrid was not itself productive. Syrian FM Farouq Sharaa used his time there to hold up old 1940s-era posters published by the British in which Shamir was (rightly) described as a “Wanted criminal.”
But still, an official Syrian envoy had participated in a public negotiating forum with an Israeli leader for the first time ever; and Pres. Hafez al-Asad assured everyone at home and abroad that securing a negotiated peace was Syria’s “strategic option”, and not just a mere tactic.
Yitzhak Rabin.
Rabin succeeded Shamir in 1992, and engaged in negotiations with both Syria and, as it turned out, the PLO. After the PLO concluded the bilateral Oslo Agreement with Rabin in September 1993, Syrian oficials said that though previously they had been committed to negotiating jointly with all the other Arab parties, now they felt prepared to negotiate the best deal they could for Syria even if the Palestinians were not yet ready to conclude a final peace.
Moualem and other officials reiterated that position to me during my recent stay in Damascus– though they all still said that a “comprehensive peace”, that is, an all-track peace, is their preferred outcome.
Rabin engaged more seriously with Damascus than any other Israeli PM before or since. In summer 1994 he handed the US intermediaries what has since been called the “Rabin deposit”, which was a commitment to– in the context of getting satisfaction from Damascus on a range of other issues in the security, economic, and diplomatic fields– withdraw Israel completely back to the lines of June 4 , 1967.
That deposit was never handed over to the Syrians. But Washington’s assurance to Damascus that the deposit was indeed “in Washington’s pocket” was sufficient to allow negotiations on the associated range of other issues to proceed. Including, the chiefs of staff of the two country’s military’s engaged in discussions of a post-peace security regime.
Opposition to the idea of withdrawing from Golan grew up inside Israel, however. (Most of the 20,000 or so Israeli settlers there were put there by Labour, and are still, basically secular-type people, since Golan has almost none of the hot-button “religious”-type sites that are important to the religious-extremist settlers in the West Bank.) Then in November 1995, Rabin was assassinated.
Shimon Peres.
Peres inherited the Syria policy from Rabin. (He had to be informed of the nature of the Rabin deposit while he was actually at Rabin’s funeral. That, though he had been Rabin’s foreign minister. Go figure what that says about the integrity of the process for strategic decisionmaking at the top of Israel’s leadership structure.)
Peres faced imminent elections. He didn’t want to push on with the always-tough Palestinian negotiations. But he did want some kind of an “achievement” of his own to take into the elections, so he moved rapidly into accelerating the negotiations on the Syrian track. Asad was eager to do that, too. In January 1996 the two sides went to the Wye Plantation in Maryland and held very intense negotiations over all the fine details of a final peace agreement. With help from actively involved US mediators there, they nailed down many of its these details.
In February and March 1996, Hamas and other Palestinian militants angry with the the ever-deteriorating situation inside Paltustan as the settlements continued to grow there, launched a devastating series of suicide bombs against civilian targets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Peres called the elections immediately and ordered his negotiators to return from Wye to Israel. He also launched a nasty little war (as an election-related ploy, as so often in Israel.) That war was against Hizbullah in Lebanon, which as it happened he lost. He also lost the election.
Bibi Netanyahu.
He came in in late spring 1996 on a strong platform of opposing Oslo and not doing anything further on the Palestinian track. But when he came under some (not enormous) pressure from Washington to do “something” peace-wise, he tossed a few grudging and inconsequential crumbs to the Palestinians while engaging in a ploy that Likud people have often resorted to: dealing with Syria as an alternative to dealing seriously with the Palestinians.
That, at least, is my reading of the episode in which Netanyahu went along with a plan proposed by the pro-Likud US-American businessman Ron Lauder that he, Lauder, fly to Damascus and try to conclude a quick deal with Asad. (By the way, if I used cosmetics I would definitely boycott those from Lauder’s Estee Lauder brand.)
On this occasion, though, Lauder still had not finally satisfied Asad that Bibi was committed to the June 4, 1967 line before news of Lauder’s activities was prematurely leaked to the media– by, according to Moualem, Sharon, acting in cahoots with Daniel Pipes. Bibi abruptly ended the intiative.
(One casualty of the Lauder affair was, for a few years thereafter, present FM Walid Moualem, who as Asad’s ambassador in Washington in the 1990s had been a full participant in the Rabin and Peres-era talks and had helped facilitate the Lauder mission. After it bombed he was recalled abruptly to Damascus and sent to the woodshed for a few years. We should all be glad he’s back from there.)
Ehud Barak.
Barak came to power in 1999 on a platform of achieving a final Palestinian-Israeli peace “within six to nine months”. But when that proved harder than this intensely arrogant man had understood, he abruptly switched to the Syrian track. He instructed Clinton to convene peace talks with Syrians at Shepherdstown in West Virginia; and then as a follow-up to that, in mid-2000, to organize a summit meeting with Asad in Geneva.
Okay, maybe he didn’t actually, directly, “instruct” Clinton to take these steps… But it was almost like that, given Clinton’s slavering admiration of anyone (Rabin, Barak) who had actually not only served in the military but also had been a renowned leader in the IDF.
Asad was intrigued by the invitation to Geneva and very much hoped that when he met Clinton face to face there Clinton would assure him that Barak had finally reaffirmed his adherence to the terms of the 1994 Rabin deposit. There was some very last-minute sleight of hand involved there– in which Dennis Ross was extremely deeply involved– and when the two presidents met in Geneva Clinton was unable to give Asad the assurance he sought. The meeting broke off very badly. Asad returned to Damascus and a month later died of some combination of long pre-existing conditions and a broken heart.
Dennis, by the way, was the only person taking notes in Geneva. And nine years later the Syrians say he still has not made good on his promise to hand a copy of those notes over to them. Memo to any negotiators: Take your own note-taker with you.
So Pres. Hafez al-Asad died and was succeeded by– what an amazing coincidence!– Pres. Bashar al-Asad. As for Barak, he was still useless at the coalition-guarding task that’s a sine qua non of political survival in Israel. Plus Sharon was stirring things up against him, deciding to go visit the Haram al-Sharif plaza in Jerusalem, and things were going downhill fast in Paltustan… So Barak’s coalition fell apart and he had to call an election in early 2001. He lost to Sharon.
Who as far as I can recall never did anything significant on the Syrian negotiating track. (Maybe I’ve forgotten something. I’m writing this fast.) But anyway, for the new and in some ways accidental Pres. Asad, that meant he had a few years to consolidate his hold on power before he needed to engage in the perils of peace diplomacy with an extremely erratic and ever-changing cast of leadership characters in Israel. He did, however, reiterate at every possible opportunity the commitment that a negotiated peace with Israel was Syria’s “strategic decision.”
Sharon was the PM from 2001 through January 2006, when he was felled by a stroke and was succeeded by his long-time protege…
Ehud Olmert.
In 2007, Turkey’s AKP prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan started sending a high-level adviser, the foreign-policy intellectual Ahmet Davutoglu, shuttling between Israel and Syria to explore the possibility of re-opening the peace negotiations on this track with the help of Ankara. These feelers resulted, in May 2008, in Turkey convening a first round of proximity talks between Syrian and Israeli officials in, I think, Istanbul. In the proximity talks, each delegation had rooms in a separate hotel, and Davutoglu and his team carried messages between them.
Olmert continued participating in this initiative until December 2008 even though Bush’s top Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams very strongly disapproved of it. I guess we could call that evidence of a modicum of courage and vision on Olmert’s behalf? H’mmm… Maybe…
(Clarification, morning of June 14: Though Abrams opposed Olmert’s involvement, Olmert reportedly checked in with Bush himself who gave him a go-ahead of some sort. So Olmert’s “courage” is not necessarily proven by this episode.)
Once again, the members of the Syrian team in Turkey sought assurance from this new leadership in Israel of commitment to the 1994 Rabin deposit. They also sought assurance that, when referring to “the June 4, 1967 line”, everyone was actually still talking about the same exact spot on the map. So demarcating that line because an issue.
On around Christmas Day last year, Olmert himself went to Ankara to give his Turkish hosts his version of where the six key GPS points on the demarcation line were. If Davutoglu, Erdogan, and Asad had determined that this concurred with the Syrian view of where the line was, then Moualem was reportedly ready to fly to Istanbul at a moment’s notice to engage in the first direct face-to-face talks any Syrian official had held with Israeli officials since Shepherdstown… But before the Turks could fully examine the six GPS coordinates being offered by Olmert, Olmert got urgently called back home.
One or two days later he launched the assault on Gaza.
In both Damascus and Ankara there was some real anger that in the whole exercise of the promximity talks these two governments had merely been “used” by Olmert and as part of an elaborate strategic deception operation, designed to provide a flim-flam of diplomatic movement to hide the reality of the assault that Olmert– and Barak– had for many months been preparing, against Gaza. There is considerable evidence of other elements of this strategic deception operation, too, as has been widely noted by Israeli analysts and reports. In one part of it, Barak went on a very silly game show and had tomatoes thrown at him, or whatever, to “lull” the watching world into thinking that Israel really couldn’t be preparing any serious military operations if the defense minister had so much free time on his hands…
In Damascus, in addition, I heard some real relief expressed that the regime had dodged a bullet by not having moved to the next level of direct talks with Olmert by the time he launched the assault on Gaza.

So now we are back to Bibi Netanyahu in power in Israel.
Moualem told me he thought the best to resume the peace negotiations with Israel would be to resume the approach that was used with Olmert in Turkey; and to resume it with Turkey playing the same role, as before.
Here was what he said, precisely:

    We think that was a good approach: to start with the indirect talks in that way. And then, if we had gotten over the preliminaries with the Turks the plan was to hand the task of completing the peace agreement over to the Americans.
    The best way would be to try to repeat this approach now. If this should succeed, the success would belong to Barack Obama — and if we fail, the failure would be ours alone!
    Why do we need the U.S. in this? Firstly, because of the unique nature of the relationship they have with Israel, and secondly because of their command of certain technical capabilities — for monitoring and verification of a peace agreement — that only the United States has.

Of course, Mitchell and Obama may well have other plans for how to proceed. My own longstanding preference, fwiw, is for a resumed, all-track, international peace conference that is convened with the goal of securing a comprehensive, all-track peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.
I wish that in his Cairo speech, Obama had mentioned the words “comprehensive peace.” He has mentioned them since then; but in the Cairo speech would have been even better.
If that really is his goal– as seems to be the case– and it is also, crucially, the goal of the Arab Peace Initiative, then that needs to be repeatedly spelled out, and concrete actions in pursuit of that goal need to be taken very soon indeed.
Maybe the resumed international peace conference should be convened in Turkey. That would be a fabulous location, and would send many constructive messages to important audiences all around the world. Plus, Edogan and Davutoglu– recently named his foreign minister– have proven their abilities as mediators and negotiators on a broad range of issues relevant to the quest for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
I can’t quite make up my mind between Ankara and Istanbul. Istanbul maybe carries a bit of left-over Ottoman baggage– but it is a ways more exciting city!
But maybe the Ottoman baggage has nearly all dissipated now, anyway. Gosh, I still have half an essay on my hard drive on the emergence of a helpful, de-escalatory form of neo-Ottomanism in Turkey under the AKP… Ankara’s foreign policy under the AKP has truly been inspired. (Including, of course, that even though Turkey’s a NATO member it dug its heels in, in opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.)
Enough here, for now. The main topic of this post is, after all, the history of Syria’s peace efforts with Israel since 1991.

Mitchell mission getting very serious

Most people in the western MSM have for some days now seemed strongly fixated on the elections in Iran. (And my thanks to Scott Harrop for getting his excellent post on that up here this morning.)
However, something else really important is happening in the Middle East in these days. That is the latest trip around the region being made by special peace envoy George Mitchell.
Today, Mitchell has already visited Lebanon, and is probably just about now arriving in Syria.
My sense is that after he returns to Washington, after everyone has heard what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his much-touted speech on Sunday, and after the important people on Washington’s Arab-Israeli policy have been able to do some joint brainstorming there… we might see some significant “next steps” emerging from the White House.
I hope so. I certainly hope there is some decisive move to expand the administration’s actions from words to deeds, and to expand its purview from “merely” the issue of a settlement freeze (which is only an interim-stage issue, anyway, however important it is), to the all-important goal of securing a fair and sustainable final-status peace between Israel and ALL of its neighbors.
Syria is, of course, an important part of this, so Mitchell’s visit there is extremely timely (or, in fact, long overdue.). This is his first visit either there or to Lebanon in his present round as envoy, since he skipped both countries during his earlier three trips around the region.
On this trip, Mitchell has already been in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon…. All this, in the wake of Obama’s June 4 speech at Cairo U.
It is worth reflecting a little on the meaning, for Syrians and for their relations with the US, of Mitchell’s visit to the country. So long as G. W. Bush was president, as I noted in this recent piece, high officials in the neocon-swayed US administration considered themselves to be “in a state of quasi-war” with Syria. This manifested itself in Bush-era acts like the following:

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