America's next president should support talks between Israel, Syria

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008

The next president will inherit a depressing litany of Mideast problems. But there is a chance to change that negative dynamic by zeroing in on a promising Mideast peace track that was never supported by the Bush team.

I refer to indirect talks between Israel and Syria that Turkey has been mediating since early 2007.

"Syria is the conduit for Iran's influence into the Middle East heartland," says Martin Indyk, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. An Israeli-Syrian peace could "produce a strategic realignment in the region."

Yet the talks can't move ahead if the United States fails to support them (or even tries to undermine them), as has been the record of the Bush team. On a trip to Turkey last week, I spoke at length about the Israel-Syria track with top officials and strategic experts, who are waiting anxiously to see if the next U.S. president will finally engage.

For years, administration policy aimed at isolating Syria, which had allied itself with Tehran and permitted Iran to ship arms via Syrian territory to Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters. But circumstances in the region had changed dramatically by 2006 and 2007 in ways that made it more likely that Syria could be wooed away from Iran by diplomacy rather than by threats.

Turkish experts say that Syria was able to maintain a strategic relationship with Iran so long as it could also maintain its standing in the Arab world. But in the post-Saddam Hussein era, the growth of Iranian Shiite influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and the Gulf has frightened Sunni Arabs. Such tensions made Syria's close alliance with Tehran too risky.

Turkey believed Syria was seeking a way to loosen ties with Iran. Meantime, Israeli officials came to see their primary security threat as emanating from Iran. This made them willing to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria, in order to separate Damascus from Tehran.

Talks were kicked off after a February 2007 visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Turkey. Four rounds of indirect talks have been held, and a fifth one has been postponed until a new Israeli government is formed after Olmert's resignation.

But until the last few months, the Bush administration resisted the talks. The recent thaw by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems too little, too late to make a difference. The Syrians have made clear that strong U.S. support for the process will be necessary for talks to progress.

Turkish officials have no illusions that the process will be easy. Previous Israeli-Syrian talks, during Bill Clinton's administration, went to the brink only to fail. Israel's ruling Kadima party is struggling to form a new government, and the Israeli public is reluctant to give up the Golan. No one is certain what Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad really wants.

However, a Syrian-Israeli peace is worth pursuing because it would change the strategic picture in the region. Iran would no longer be able to ship arms to Hezbollah through Syria, and Hezbollah would have to rethink its policies toward Israel. Iran's post-Saddam expansion of regional power would be reversed. This, in turn, would undercut Hamas and help expedite Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Progress on the Israel-Syria front could mesh with Israel's new interest in reviving the dormant Saudi plan for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world. At the same time, a new administration could reach out to a chastened Iran.

Of course, these hopes could prove illusory. But Turkish officials point out that change is already happening. Last week, Syria formally recognized Lebanon for the first time, thus abandoning its historic dream of a greater Syria. Can the United States afford to sit this process out any longer?

Sen. John McCain has said little on the Syria issue, but his close friend Sen. Joe Lieberman has been publicly negative about talking to Syria. Sen. Barack Obama would be likely to back the process Turkey began.

"While Turkey mediates between Syria and Israel, the United States is on the sidelines," I was told by Dennis Ross, a Mideast negotiator in the administrations of Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and an adviser to the Obama campaign. "Until the parties (in the region) see U.S. effectiveness, they will hang back.

"It makes sense to work on all components of the peace process, but work to get some things done. Test Assad."

This is advice the next president should take.

• Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.



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