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Talking Into the Sunset

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, July 24, 2008

It's the season for peace talks in the Middle East, as the region watches the clock and waits for the departure of the Bush administration. Some of what's going on is real and some of it is illusion, but to a student of diplomatic intrigue all of it is interesting. So here's a brief guide to the Syrian and Iranian negotiating tracks:

First, the Syrians. Though they are technically in a state of war with Israel, these two bosom enemies (to borrow a phrase from journalist Barbara Slavin) have been conducting a surprisingly robust round of negotiations through Turkish intermediaries. We Americans like to think that people should either talk or fight, but the wily politicians in Damascus and Jerusalem understand that in real life, nations often pursue a combination of the two. They need each other, the way the Joker needs Batman.

So the Syrians have kept up a dialogue even as the Israelis destroyed what they claimed was a secret nuclear reactor. Welcome to the Middle East.

The first surprise about this diplomacy is that it has been underway for so long: Contacts through the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began early this decade. They became serious during the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, when the Syrians and the Israelis used Turkey to pass crucial messages about "red lines" that had to be preserved to avert a wider conflict. Despite American misgivings, the dialogue continued that September, after the war ended.

Syrian and Israeli negotiators have explored issues in four categories -- borders, water rights, security and normalization of relations. A breakthrough came early this year, after the Syrians attended the Annapolis peace conference: Both sides accepted as starting points for their discussions the agreements that had been reached in these four areas during intensive bilateral negotiations brokered by the Clinton administration.

According to Syrian sources, agreement is close in three areas. On water rights, both sides tentatively endorse a suggestion made by then-President Bill Clinton to delineate a common water basin used by Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon; on borders, the Syrians insist that they must regain the Golan Heights, but they recognize that the Sea of Galilee, a crucial marker of the old border, has shrunk over the past 40 years. Thus, compromises are possible that maintain Syrian sovereignty but allow Israeli access.

Similarly, on security matters, the tentative agreements reached in the late 1990s would resolve most of the remaining outstanding disputes. On normalization, the icing on the cake, little progress has been made.

The Syrians have shown no interest in discussing the disputed territory known as Shebaa Farms, since a withdrawal of the Israelis from this area would remove the last pretext for Hezbollah's role as a "resistance" that fights to recover Israeli-occupied land. Hezbollah is a hornet's nest, so the Syrians want to set aside this issue for later.

I asked a Syrian friend how to describe the negotiating style of President Bashar al-Assad, and he answered with an Arabic expression, "shaarat Muawiyah," which literally means the hair of Muawiyah, the first Umayyad caliph of Damascus. Muawiyah, it's said, understood that if you pull the hair too hard, you lose it, and if you're too gentle, you lose it as well. So he's in the middle -- cunning, cautious, between hard and soft.

As for the Iranians, a Lebanese friend speaks of their recent cocky behavior by using an Arabic expression that translates roughly as "steam in the head." They are floating on a sense of their own power; they are luxuriating in a Persian hammam.

In this frame of mind, the Iranians attended a ballyhooed meeting last Saturday in Geneva that, some analysts hoped, might launch a "freeze for freeze" package that would allow "pre-negotiations" between Iran and the permanent representatives of the U.N. Security Council, to be followed by actual negotiations in which Iran would suspend enrichment of uranium.

Did Iran respond with a clear yes-or-no answer? Of course not. Instead it brought a two-page "non-paper" that called for three sets of consultative meetings, to be followed perhaps by six weeks of preliminary talks, to be followed in theory (but almost surely not in fact) by actual negotiations.

What's the Iranian position? With "steam in the head," Tehran wants to convey the appearance of flexibility but isn't yet ready to negotiate seriously. The Iranians' watchword remains a guarded "maybe." Meanwhile, they watch the clock ticking away and wonder what kind of games they can play with Barack Obama.

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


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