(photo credit: AP)
Ostensibly, the Annapolis conference is about Israel, the Palestinians and efforts to bring about peace between them.
But Annapolis is about much more than just that. From the very beginning, Annapolis has also been about a key US interest: forming a coalition of "moderate" Sunni states to serve as a bulwark against rampaging Shi'ite extremism after the US leaves Iraq, or if Washington decides to move into Iran. And in recent days the Annapolis conference has also turned into a meeting that is to a large degree about Syria.
Regarding the formation of a moderate Sunni coalition, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is betting that showing progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track will go a long way toward cementing together a moderate coalition willing to stand up to Iran and Shi'ite extremism.
Therefore, despite all the problems in pulling the meeting off, despite the failure up to this point to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a joint statement, despite a realization in Washington that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not have the ability to carry out an agreement and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may not be able to carry it off politically, the US is dead set on going ahead with the meeting.
The reason: US President George W. Bush announced in July that such a meeting will be held in the fall, and - as a result - such a meeting will be held in the fall, ready or not.
Bush cannot afford to be seen now as someone who cannot even succeed in bringing two parties heavily dependent on the US to a US-sponsored meeting. That would be a huge slap in the face, and another sign of US weakness in the region.
And this is where Syria comes in. While there is no love lost in Washington for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria's presence at the meeting is something that in a matter of months has gone from something that the US indicated it would tolerate, to something that the US now wants badly.
And not only the US. Jordan's King Abdullah II made a rare trip to Damascus Sunday to try and get Assad on board. As odd as it may sound, Syria is the prize.
The US wants to see Syria at Annapolis because its presence there will be proof that it may very well be possible to peel Syria out of Iran's orbit and into the warm embrace of the "normative" Arab world. Iran, obviously, is pulling Syria in the other direction.
Washington is so keen on seeing some kind of Syrian presence at Annapolis that it has apparently given assurances that "Syrian issues" will be addressed there in some fashion.
And Syrian issues in this context means only one thing: the Golan Heights. Syria has made it clear that it would not show up in Maryland unless the Golan was on the agenda.
It is clear that Assad will not be sending a representative to Annapolis to grant legitimacy to a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian process that is meant to end up with an agreement between Israel and the Fatah-led PA. Keep in mind that Damascus houses and fully supports Hamas, which is ideologically opposed to any such process. Rather, Assad has a price for his attendance and for moving away from Iran, a price that - sooner or later - Israel will be asked to pay.
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