A Syrian-Israeli Breakthrough?
DAMASCUS -- Of all the wild cards in the Middle East deck, this one may be the most intriguing: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears ready for direct peace talks with Israel, if the United States will join France as a co-sponsor.
That's the word from senior advisers to Assad, who spoke with me here this week. The same assessment comes from top French officials in Paris. A direct meeting would raise the Syrian-Israeli dialogue to a new level; so far, it has been conducted indirectly, through Turkey.
The Syrians would like to see a clear signal from the Bush administration that it supports the peace process and that the United States is prepared to join the French as "godfather" of the talks. But Syrian officials are pessimistic and say they doubt that the administration, which has sought to isolate and punish Syria, will change its policy in the few months it has left. That would disappoint some of Assad's advisers, who prefer to move quickly, rather than wait for a new U.S. administration to organize its foreign policy priorities.
The prospect for direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations will come into clearer focus next week when French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to visit here for talks with Assad. That meeting follows Assad's trip to Paris last month for a summit of Mediterranean nations. At that gathering, the Syrian leader sat around the same table with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but the two apparently didn't talk directly.
The French diplomatic engagement with Syria has already helped break the logjam in Lebanon, opening the way finally for election of a president and a new government. The new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, visited Syria this month to discuss opening formal diplomatic ties; Damascus had rejected such discussions in the past, regarding Lebanon as part of "Greater Syria."
Sarkozy's chief diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, has briefed U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley regularly about the French diplomatic moves, but U.S. public statements have been cautious.
Syria wants an American role in the negotiations partly as a guarantee that Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the border that existed before the June 1967 war. The Syrians have received private assurances through Turkish mediators that Israel will indeed withdraw as part of an overall peace deal, and that disputes about borders, water rights and other technical issues can be resolved through formulas explored in U.S.-backed negotiations during the 1990s.
Syrian officials caution that Washington shouldn't expect any quick, decisive break in its alliance with Iran. Instead, they say, Syria aims to broaden its relationships to include Turkey, France, Russia and even the United States and Israel, in addition to Iran. Officials here speak of a role for Syria as a potential bridge to Iran rather than as a new means of isolating it.
The Syrians certainly would like to be less reliant on Iran. The relationship has been strained since the indirect dialogue with Israel was announced in May, in part because of an Iranian regional rivalry with Turkey.
"If you force Assad to choose -- to leave the alliance with Tehran first [as a condition for U.S. support for the peace talks], he'll never do it," cautions a French official. "You have to offer a slow choice. He will gradually discover he doesn't need the alliance with Iran."
Assad's trip to Moscow last week, in which he discussed arms sales and military cooperation with Russia, raised concerns that Syria was slipping back into its old Cold War alignment. But officials here say the trip was driven in part by Assad's concern that Syria could get squeezed in any future conflict between Iran and Israel -- and Syria's desire for Russian protection. In this sense, a strategic relationship with Russia might be an alternative to Syria's current dependence on Iran, some Syrians argue.
Another card for Assad is his ability to pressure Hamas to restrain attacks in Gaza and the West Bank, sources here say. That would address a chief U.S. concern, which is Syrian support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups the United States views as terrorist organizations.
Israelis have been wondering for many months whether the peace feelers from Damascus are real. They may have a chance to find out soon, if the Bush administration decides to join France in sponsoring a meeting that would test everyone's sincerity. Often enough in the Middle East, potential diplomatic breakthroughs prove to be illusory. But that's no reason not to give this one a try -- and soon.