US Affairs: Damascus be damned

As long as the Syrian regime continues to be seen by Washington as an obstacle to US interests in the ME, Israel will be expected to reject its overtures.

By NATHAN GUTTMAN
September 28, 2006 22:48

Israel's quick rejection of Syria's latest overture did not come as a surprise to policy-makers in the Bush administration. After years of trying as hard as possible to push a Syrian-Israeli peace process forward, the US has given up, at least temporarily, on such a prospect. Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained this week that President Bashar Assad's offer to open negotiations was turned down mainly due to US opposition. While no one in the administration will put it as bluntly as these anonymous sources in Jerusalem did, Washington indeed believes there are more pressing issues to discuss with Syria than its decades-long dispute with Israel. In fact, while Assad was calling for talks with Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was busy appealing to world leaders to impose new sanctions against Syria because of its support for terrorist groups. For years, US policy was quite different. The administration of George H. W. Bush considered Hafez al-Assad's Syria to be a key component of any Middle East peace deal, and former secretary of state James Baker spent much time and effort in bringing Syria into the Madrid process. Former president Bill Clinton held a similar view, and while moving forward rapidly on the Palestinian track, his administration always looked for ways to engage Syria in the peace process. During former prime minister Ehud Barak's tenure, this culminated in the first significant attempt to get Syrians and Israelis to sit together directly and discuss a possible peace accord. The current administration has a different agenda, driven by the global war on terrorism and the ongoing American military presence in Iraq. The first word that comes to its mind in relation to Syria is not peace. Bashar Assad's Syria is more commonly associated with terror, Hizbullah, the Hariri assassination and the Iraqi insurgency. Indeed, in the eyes of US policy-makers, Damascus has evolved from being a key to regional peace to constituting an obstacle to American interests. According to diplomatic sources, the US sees Assad's peace talk as no more than a trick - an attempt to divert world attention from the real issues on the table and from the American demands to stop sponsoring terror and to close the porous border with Iraq. "The only thing the Syrians want is to get the heat of the Hariri issue off them," said one official. Another added that if Syria really wants negotiations with Israel and a rehabilitation of its relations with the US, it must first deal with the terror issue, which took center stage following the Lebanon war. THE LAUNDRY list of complaints the US has against Syria is growing longer by the day. While the matter of allowing insurgents and terrorists into Iraq through the border was seen over the past three years as the main obstacle to US-Syrian relations, new issues have been attracting attention of late. The US now fears that Damascus will try to sabotage the peacekeeping mission of the newly formed international UN force in southern Lebanon, and that it will make the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 - which the US views as an important diplomatic achievement - impossible. For the administration, the course is clear. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Rice called on the international community to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria. "I think as Syria continues to show its stripes and isolate itself from its Arab friends, that may be somewhat easier to do," Rice said, referring to the chances of wider international pressure on Syria to succeed. "We're going to have to look at tougher measures if Syria continues to be on the path that it's on." The US sanctions, imposed more than two years ago, have not had much of an impact on Syrian behavior. In contrast to the sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which are viewed in Washington as a success, Syria proved to be capable of bypassing restrictions, ignoring the US trade ban and turning to Iran and Southeast Asia as partners in trade and development. This has led to increased frustration on the part of the US regarding the Assad regime and to Rice's attempt to enlist other nations in the coalition pressuring Syria for change. Syria is doing its best to show it couldn't care less about America's demands. Before arriving in New York for the UN General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem stopped in Havana to attend the summit of the non-aligned countries, which turned out to be a forum for US-bashing. Once at the UN, Moualem blamed the US for making the world pay for its mistakes by insisting it understand the Arab world better than the Arabs do. As far as many in Washington are concerned, Syria missed the opportunity that presented itself during the Lebanon war to rebuild its relationship with the US. According to American analysts, the regime in Damascus forfeited the chance to play a positive role in stabilizing Lebanon, curbing Hizbullah or pressuring the Hamas to moderate. Assad's refusal to budge on any of these issues has led even the pragmatists in Washington to believe that the only treatment for Syria is isolation. Still, there are a number of other voices calling for dialogue with Assad. In an op-ed in The International Herald Tribune earlier this month, former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer argues that for the sake of making a US withdrawal from Iraq possible, there is a need to invite Syria and Iran to take part in multinational talks on the future of the region. Similar sentiments - either coming from Democratic critics of the Bush administration or former diplomats and administration officials who believe that the more dialogue the better - have also been expressed. "These are different groups who do not share the motives or the reasons for favoring talks with Syria," says Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert from the US Institute for Peace. He believes that it is difficult to see these individuals and groups joining forces to make a powerful demand for changing US policy toward Syria, and admits that "it does not seem as if these calls have made any impact on the administration." As long as the administration remains steadfast in its views regarding Syria, a renewal of negotiations with Israel is not seen as a preferable course of action.


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