Saturday, August 29, 2009

Syria Comment: The Damascus-DC Minuet

Syria Seeks to Separate US Relationship from Arab-Israeli Conflict

US-Syrian relations have continued to improve over the two weeks that I was on vacation. A second US military delegation visited Damascus to work on implementing agreements on Iraq security and intelligence sharing. Doubtlessly there will be hiccups in this process. American will want quick compliance and its requests met in full; Syria will hold back information and access until it is satisfied that its demands, particularly on the economic front, are being met. Economic demands are the most easy for the US to deliver on. Even then, US diplomats will claim that congress, the pro-Israel lobby, and “old-think,” stand in the way of change.

Al-Maliki, upset that the United States has taken it upon itself to negotiate over Iraq’s security with another country, followed the Americans to Damascus. “Iraq is still complaining about the infiltration of Arab and foreign terrorists into Iraq,” said Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to al-Maliki. As the US pulls out of Iraq, Baghdad authorities are beginning to accuse Saudi Arabia of fueling the continuing violence against Shiites.

Al-Akhbar claims that Obama has moved the Syria and Lebanon file from the State Department to the White House, which is theoretically less subject to pressure from pro-Israeli elements. I have no idea if this is true. President Bush was the first president to move the Syria-Lebanon file to the White House, where it was jealously tended by the NSC and Elliott Abrams. Abrams served as a point person for policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he viewed Lebanon and Syria policy as a subset of the Israeli-US relationship. He used his perch in the NSC to fight efforts to push diplomatic approaches to the crises in the Middle East. In particular, he saw Saudi King Abdullah’s Arab Peace initiative as dangerous. He sought to prevent land for peace discussions and tried to stop Condoleezza Rice from pushing them forward. He used democracy promotion as a weapon to prevent engagement with Syria or the Palestinians and to divert discussion from talking about land to “capacity expansion”, “institution building,” etc., which led no where. This permitted him to focus on the enemies of Israel, which he was determined to destroy.

It was said that Obama would unwrap his Middle East Peace Plan during August, but this seems unlikely today. It is clear that Israel will not freeze settlements and will fight Obama by going to the Senate, Republican Party, and US evangelicals. See the article on Hukabee copied below.

Foolishly, the Obama administration asked Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Arab states to “normalize” relations with Israel in exchange for Netanyahu’s acceptance of the two-state solution and the freeze. Predictably, they have brushed off this suggestion, claiming that it would be putting the cart before the horse to normalize before a sovereign Palestinian state is established. and they are correct to do so.

The Arab refusal, however, has been useful to Israel supporters and opponents of the Obama initiative in the US government, who can now attack the Arabs for torpedoing the US plan. Two of my very smart students returned from an AIPAC led trip to Israel. They explained to me that “Obama is a well meaning man, who doesn’t understand the Middle East and is tilting at wind mills in trying to promote a two-state solution, which was never viable. Why,” they say, “even the Arab states are ignoring Obama’s requests. Why would Israel be a sucker and comply?” Then they decried the PLO conference, lamenting how no moderates remain among the Palestinians for Israel to negotiate with. They insisted that Obama was squandering his precious political capital on foreign policy when he needs it all for health care at home.

So how does this impact Syria? Damascus is trying to separate US-Syria relations from the Arab-Israeli conflict in anticipation of the day that Obama’s initiative founders. Even Hussein Agha and Robert Malley are claiming that “The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything”. Syria’s effort to develop a relationship with Washington that is not ultimately contingent on Israel will be difficult.

The only reason most policy makers in Washington are interested in Syria is because of Israel. They want to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they have to do it without forcing Israel to give up the Golan because they are incapable of pressuring Israel. Clinton got close in 2000, but was ultimately unable or unwilling to pressure Barak to give up the Golan.

President Assad spent Wednesday in Iran to congratulate President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad on his election. He has been able to use his good relations with Iran to free a French-Iranian recently imprisoned in Tehran. Assad condemned foreign intervention in Iran’s internal affairs, saying that “the main purpose of the interference of enemies and the West in Iran’s internal affairs is to prevent Iran and Syria from gaining consecutive victories in the next four years.”

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