A Surprise Negotiation

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's going on between Syria and Israel? Are the indirect peace negotiations through Turkish mediators that were announced last month for real? I've been talking with sources on all sides, and they present an upbeat view of a peace process that has taken many people (including top Bush administration officials) by surprise.

As with any secret diplomatic initiative, this one is surrounded by mysteries and riddles. So I'll examine the Syria-Israel dialogue as a series of puzzles and offer my best guesses about what's happening:

(1) How did these negotiations begin?

The channel opened in the fall of 2006, just after the summer war in Lebanon that had made both Damascus and Tel Aviv nervous about the destabilizing role of Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon. Syria proposed indirect "proximity" talks and insisted on Turkey, a rare friend of both countries, as intermediary.

For many months, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wasn't sure he trusted the channel. The Bush administration was skeptical about whether the process would lead anywhere, but it didn't try to stop it. About a year ago, Olmert decided to test the Syrian track. He had strong encouragement from the Israeli defense establishment -- the defense minister, Ehud Barak; the army chief of staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi; and Israeli military intelligence.

(2) What's in it for the two sides?

The Israeli military brass favored engagement with Syria because they didn't think the status quo in the region was sustainable. Lebanon had become a surrogate battleground between Israel and Iran, and the Israelis arguably had lost the first round. Meanwhile, the Syrians were increasing their arsenal of missiles and other weapons. The judgment in Tel Aviv was that Israel stood to lose strategically by letting things continue as they were.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad favored an opening to Israel to counter attempts by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia to isolate his country. Syrian confidence in the Turkish negotiating channel increased after Israel indicated informally that it was prepared to accept terms for return of the Golan Heights (and related issues, such as water rights) that had been reached in direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations during the 1990s.

(3) Can Syria be decoupled from Iran?

Israel's overriding goal has been to draw Syria away from its alliance with Iran. So far, the Israelis see no sign that the peace talks have achieved this goal. Syria-watchers caution that this sort of decisive transfer of loyalties is unlikely. But eventually, Syria may move away from Iran (and toward Turkey) because the Baath regime in Damascus is secular to its core -- and mistrusts the religious fervor of the mullahs. The decoupling would be cultural and political, rather than a matter of security policy.

(4) Who assassinated Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in February?

The car bomb that killed Iran's key covert operative in Hezbollah is still echoing in the Middle East. Suspicion immediately focused on Israel. But on Feb. 27, a London-based newspaper called Al-Quds Al-Arabi, with very good sources in Damascus, alleged that several Arab nations had conspired with Mossad to assassinate Mughniyah.

Adding to the speculation are reports that shortly before his death, Mughniyah was attempting to heal a split within Hezbollah between the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and its former leader, Subhi Tufaily. Tufaily's power base is the Bekaa Valley, which has lost influence in Hezbollah to Shiites from southern Lebanon. According to one Arab source, Mughniyah -- traveling under his longtime pseudonym, "Haj Ismail" -- paid a visit shortly before his death to Tufaily's village of Britel, just south of Baalbek.

Mughniyah usually traveled without bodyguards, believing that his protection was the surgical alteration of his features, which prevented even old friends from recognizing "Haj Ismail." For that reason, the Syrians insisted they weren't at fault. But a sign of tension was Tehran's announcement that a joint commission would investigate the killing, a statement that Damascus promptly denied.

(5) What about Syria's secret nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by the Israelis on Sept. 6, 2007?

Oddly enough, that attack on what CIA analysts called the "Enigma Building" may have helped the peace talks. The Israelis felt that their decisive action helped restore the credibility of their deterrence policy. The Syrians appreciated that Israeli and American silence allowed them time to cover their tracks. Finally, the fact that Assad kept the nuclear effort a secret, and that he managed the post-attack pressures, showed Israelis that he was truly master of his own house, and thus a plausible negotiating partner.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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