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Assad's Road to Washington?

By Scott MacLeod, The Middle East Blog- Time, 16.01.07

My immediate take on the secret Israeli-Syrian negotiations, as reported in today's Haaretz: interesting, useful, but not especially surprising and not very fruitful.

Haaretz's well-connected Akiva Eldar breaks the story with a convincing amount of detail about how the secret discussions got started and what understandings they led to. Basically, the Israeli party agreed to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights over a 15-year period all the way back to the June 4, 1967 border. In return, Israel would maintain control over Lake Tiberius and the Jordan River and Israeli citizens would have unrestricted access to a large part of the Golan that would be designated a "park."

We know from past open Israeli-Syrian negotiations that Israelis are ready to contemplate a withdrawal from the Golan. It is quite possible that in order to make a historic peace deal with Israel, the Syrians would be ready to throw in strategic concessions, like cutting off relations with Iran and some radical groups that Syria sponsors, like Hizballah and Hamas. I'm skeptical, though, that Syria would ever agree to some core compromises Haaretz indicates, like giving full control of the waters to Israel, or accepting infringement of its national sovereignty in the form of the Golan Park.

 The telling detail in Eldar's report may provide the clue to understanding the understandings: the parties in these secret talks never signed anything. The contacts ended when the Israelis rejected a Syrian proposal that the level of talks be elevated to include the participation of the Bush administration. Haaretz quotes Alon Liel, a former Israeli foreign ministry official who was involved in the talks, saying, "There was no official Israeli connection to the content of the talks." In other words, nothing was official.

It is certainly preferable to have Israelis and Syrians secretly talking, instead of openly fighting as they did indirectly during last summer's Israel-Hizballah war in Lebanon. One hopes that the secret talks were something akin to the Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Accord in 2003--an unofficial deal worked out by respective peace camps that can serve as a benchmark when official talks some day resume.

Syria's aims in the secret talks may have included something more than reaching a peace deal: Assad has been seeking to get out of the doghouse with Washington since the Bush folks became enraged with his support of the insurgency at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Assad has been playing good-cop, bad-cop: extending a diplomatic hand in pleading for talks with Israel, while backing the Iraqi insurgency and other radical forces, including Hizballah and Hamas, to demonstrate Syria's weight in regional affairs. With Washington's gate shut to the Syrians, especially after the Hariri assassination two years ago, Assad may have concluded that the road to the White House went through Jerusalem. [This, indeed, proved to be the road successfully taken by Yasser Arafat in the Oslo peace talks.] Haaretz writes about how the Syrians "asked for help in improving their relations with the United States, and particularly in lifting the American embargo on Syria." Assad may have burned too many bridges to get where he wants to go. Haaretz reports that the secret talks were held only after the Bush folks vetoed the idea of Israel holding proper negotiations with Syria--"The Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria."

That raises the question: If Bush is seeking peace in the Middle East, why not at least test Assad's sincerity, if not follow the Baker-Hamilton recommendation to urgently sponsor Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations?