Note this extremely well-argued realist piece from Robert Pelletreau and Ed Walker in the Boston Globe. All of my experience in Syria suggests to me that most of their points are accurate and should be appealing to the more rational side of the Bush team in its last months. It can only help the reputation of the Republicans to aggressively pursue a new approach to Syria right now. It could be the foreign policy success that has eluded them for eight years. Here is an excerpt:

Dr. Sami Taki, a close associate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said in late July that Syria might change its alliance with Iran if Syria achieves peace with Israel.

The United States stands to gain a great deal from an Israeli-Syrian agreement. Having served as US ambassadors to five Middle East countries, we are convinced that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is essential to American national security interests. As the United States tries to rebuild its image, influence, and prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to help bring about peace between Israel and all its neighbors.

The Bush administration should start this process. If it can dispatch the third highest person in the State Department to participate in a meeting with Iranian officials, it can certainly encourage the talks between Israel, its friend and ally, and Syria. And even though the presidential election is two months away, the transition period between Election Day and inaugural day is important in determining a new administration’s priorities. If the new president sees the prospect of progress along any section of the Israeli-Arab front, he is more likely to get involved in these efforts at the beginning of his administration.

Syria impacts many American interests. Chief among them currently is Syria’s engagement in Iraq and stabilizing the Iraq-Syria border. As Iraq shows signs of gradual stability, American-Syrian talks in parallel with Israel-Syria talks might yield agreements producing substantial benefits for Baghdad while helping to relieve Syria of the enormous Iraqi refugee burden it is carrying.

Additional American interests include Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Iran’s ability to undercut American efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, the core challenge of the Arab-Israel peace process.

If an Israeli-Syrian agreement is reached, the United States will emerge as one of the winners, along with Israel and Syria. Iran and Hezbollah will be the losers.

But such an agreement cannot be achieved without the United States. Syria wants the United States in the room, facilitating matters, offering security-related guarantees, and melting the frozen Washington-Damascus relationship. Some argue that Syria wants a warm relationship with the United States more than it wants the Golan Heights from Israel. However, if Damascus wants a positive relationship with Washington, cooperation over Iraq and respect for Lebanon’s independence are essential.

Iran, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Syrian peace with Israel implies a fundamental change in the Damascus-Tehran relationship. Syrian President Assad will need someplace safe to land as he moves away from the embrace of an Iran still hostile toward Israel. That someplace is the United States.

The one issue that I take exception to is overdrawing the need to isolate Iran and Hezbollah. The argument is that pulling Syria away from Iran and Hezbollah will somehow improve the geopolitical and security situation. I know the Syrians. Their relationship with Iran and Hezbollah is strategic not religious. On the other hand it is long-standing and involves many economic interdependencies. Besides, they, along with much of the world do not take kindly to imperialistic efforts to move chess pieces around and manipulate adversaries. They have their commitments and relationships. What is more accurate to say is that a profound improvement in Syrian/American relations, a removal of America’s investment in regime change in Syria, will have a number of salutary effects. Firstly, I am convinced it will improve the human rights situation in Syria because most of the deterioration is due to an absolute terror on the part of the elite that coups are all around them, funded by the United States and elements in Saudi Arabia. Second, peace with the U.S. and a peace process with Israel will vastly strengthen more moderate forces in Teheran, in Hamas and in Hezbollah. All three will have to reevaluate how out of step they want to be with the new trend of the region toward accommodation. This is the goal of a Syrian/Israeli/American rapprochement.

© Marc Gopin