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(photo credit: AP)
With the Senate gearing up to approve the nomination of veteran diplomat Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005, no one, obviously, asked Israel for its opinion.
At least not formally. Informally, the Obama administration’s decision to send an ambassador back to Syria has been discussed between US and Israeli officials. And the Israelis, though they see both pros and cons in the move, are not enamored of the idea.
Although it is not clear when the full Senate will vote on the nomination, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee moved the process forward Tuesday and gave Ford its backing.
From an Israeli perspective, as one official said, there are pluses and minuses.
The first plus is that an American envoy in Damascus, with good access to the ruling elite, could be a convenient go-between for Israel with Syria on diplomatic matters, especially at a time when Israel has no interest whatsoever in the Turkey of habitual Israel-basher Recep Tayyip Erdogan filling that role again anytime soon.
Erdogan, the official said Wednesday, wants to have his cake and eat it too: He wants to have the freedom to rhetorically bash Israel at whim, and at the same time he wants Israelis to trust Turkey as an honest broker which could again act as a mediator in indirect talks between Jerusalem and Damascus.
That is something that obviously won’t work with this government, so a US ambassador could be a good channel of communication if anything on the Syrian track began moving again.
But beyond the hard-core diplomatic issue, a US ambassador in Syria would also be helpful for Jerusalem in passing messages or warnings, such as the recent reports about an Israeli warning to the Syrians not to transfer Scud missile to Hizbullah, at the risk of incurring an Israeli attack. It will always be possible to find a courier for those types of messages, but having an envoy from the US there would be easier and more convenient.
That, from an Israeli point of view, sums up the pluses. The minus is that Syria gets the US envoy reinstated, something Damascus sees as a prize, without having to give anything in return.
Syria did not improve its human rights record, did not promise to peel away from Iran, did not reduce military transfers to Hizbullah, did not kick the Palestinian terrorist organizations headquartered in Damascus out of the country. In short, from Jerusalem’s perspective, it did nothing.
On the contrary, even as Ford’s appointment was being discussed in Washington, Syrian President Bashar Assad hosted a terror summit together with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah. And at last month’s Arab League meeting in Libya, he urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to step away from any talk of negotiations with Israel and return to violence.
While some could argue that a US envoy in Damascus could convince Assad
to chart a new path away from Iran and into the arms of the more open
West, Israeli officials dismiss that as little more than wishful
thinking. Assad, according to this school of thought, has one top
priority, the survival of his regime, and toward that end he feels
Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah have more to offer.
The bottom line for Israel is that the cons here outweigh the positives
and the US move is viewed as a mistake, one that will only reinforce
the intransigence of the radicals, who will look at Assad and see a
leader who didn’t give an iota, and still the Americans came to him on
But no one asked Israel. And if they did, the differences of opinion
could be chalked up as one more instance where the Israel of Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Washington of President Barack
Obama view the region through vastly different lenses.
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