A Last Chance for Bush to be Relevant to Middle East Diplomacy

Sami Moubayed, one of the most important Syrian commentators, is proposing a last chance for the White House to come to the table of Syrian/Israeli peacemaking. Sami writes:

Everybody is worried about progress on the indirect Syrian-Israeli talks, currently underway in Turkey. According to Syria commentator, Joshua Landis, they have either reached a breakthrough, or a dead end.

Contrary to what some media sources are saying, however, the talks are going well. Already 85 per cent of critical issues had been solved since the 1990s. The talks are going too well in fact and there is worry on both sides that an agreement can be reached within what remains of 2008.

The radical contrast between Washington’s attitude, and that of Iran, is striking. The Americans still refuse to endorse these talks, writing them off as a hoax by the Syrians to end the US-imposed isolation that started in 2003. They still believe that the Syrians are more interested in a peace process, than a peace treaty. It is clear that no endorsement is forthcoming while George W. Bush is at the White House.

The Iranians, however, are clearly not happy with what is happening in Turkey. They were equally unhappy when the Syrians went to Annapolis last November or when earlier, they had received Nancy Pelosi in Damascus.

This deal, if it materialises, would re-structure the balance of power in the Middle East, and affect a basket of issues including Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Hamas.

They would want these talks to fail, as would several non-state players in the Middle East, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad (which all remain pro-Syria until today). If an agreement is reached this year, it would be put aside, awaiting a new US administration, until January 2009, maybe until summer.

Non-state players can take matters into their own hands, and create havoc in the Middle East – making ratification of an agreement impossible for Israel – between now and summer 2009.

And still the Americans are remarkably indifferent.

Another way of getting the Americans more involved is to simply show more seriousness in the talks, and shift from indirect to direct negotiations, under auspices of both France and Turkey.

This was leaked last week by veteran US journalist David Ignatius, who recently wrapped up a visit to Damascus and wrote an article about it in The Washington Post. Ignatius wrote, “Syrian President Bashar Assad appears ready for direct peace talks with Israel, if the United States will join France as a co-sponsor.”

If losing its role as a broker in Middle East peace to France and Turkey will not get the Americans interested, then nothing will. Regional players are betting on Bush’s desire to leave behind an honourable legacy before leaving the White House.

He badly needs a ‘success story’ and is working on several fronts to achieve that:

The Syrians, however, do not trust Bush. The Americans need a serious effort to change that, if they think they can find Bush’s “success story” on Syrian-Israeli peace. They need to send off a clear signal to the Syrians that they support the talks in Turkey, and are prepared to join the French to sponsor them.

Historically speaking, the Americans might always lean on Europe for solutions in the Middle East but they don’t like it when Europe (either France or Great Britain) chart their own course with the Arabs, regardless of the Americans. The President of France Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Damascus tomorrow for talks with Bashar that deal extensively with the peace talks.

The Americans wouldn’t want Sarkozy’s reputation enhanced with the Arabs at the expense of Bush. That too might be another reason for the Americans to walk into the negotiating room in Turkey… before the French get there.

I would add that this is not just about Syria and Israel. This is the key to the whole region. A Syrian move towards Israel means that the rejectionist arm of Hamas, embodied in the person of Meshal, may have to find a new home, whereas the strengthening of the side of Hamas interested in a long term hudna (treaty) with Israel might be the key to a restoration of Palestinian unity and national aspiration. The widespread rumors in Damascus of Meshal’ departure may be evidence of a serious thaw in Syrian/Israeli relations. There are also several press reports of this. If he lands in Sudan, as rumored, this would be an appropriate stage in the marginalization of violence in the region inside this problematic regime.

Here is another central issue to consider. The more that the center of the Middle East conflict becomes a place of negotiation and the more that the periphery, such as Sudan and Iran, carries the extremist positions, the more able the central players will become in moving their constituencies toward compromise. This is vital for convincing a greater number of Israeli Jews, for example, that the time has come to end the war and give the Palestinians a just settlement, in exchange for which the Jewish people in Israel will have neighbors they can really trust. This path is both geopolitical and psychological. The two are inseparable.

A Syrian/Israeli peace could also have a domino effect on politics from Iran to Lebanon where the advantages of a new approach may push Hezbollah further into the mainstream of Lebanese politics, and also marginalize the current Iranian president. This is a sensible strategic goal that will move everyone away from violent confrontation and toward a realistic negotiation over land for peace, normalization of relations, and the final honest embrace of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including in Israel and Syria.

© Marc Gopin