Rice quartet 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
One can say many things about Syria: that it has great humous, wonderful antiquities and some really nice vistas. One can't say, however, that this country, which harbors the region's worst terrorists, supplies weapons to Hizbullah and kills opponents in Lebanon, is a country that rejects violence.
Yet, rejecting violence was one of the conditions that US President George W. Bush spelled out explicitly in his July 16 speech as one of the conditions countries needed to meet to merit an invitation to the international meeting he was planning for the fall.
"The world can do more to build the conditions for peace," Bush said at the time. "So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and commit to all previous agreements between the parties."
Since that time, Israeli and US officials have consistently indicated that Syria was not a welcome partner at this meeting. Until Sunday, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her own voice, indicated that Syria would be invited.
Asked at a press conference following a meeting of the Quartet in New York whether Syria would get an invitation, Rice replied: "Now, as to the invitations, we haven't issued invitations as such. But it's only natural that we would hope that the participants would include the members of the Arab Follow-up Committee, because that is the committee that has been charged by the Arab League with following up with the international community on the Arab Peace Initiative."
Syria is a member in good standing of this committee. The other members include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the Palestinians and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.
The change in America's policy regarding involving Syria is not an insignificant American flip-flop. And, in its wake, Israeli officials - who only two days ago were saying that the meeting was for countries that supported dialogue - were saying Monday that it was the US's meeting, and that Washington could invite whomever it pleased.
Israel, they said, would participate in any event and try to make it a success.
A number of explanations can be proffered for change in the US position.
First, it seems that the US has come under significant pressure in the Arab world to invite the Syrians, with a number of different interests coming into play.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptians have consistently said that the Syrians needed to be invited, not necessarily because of a yearning to see Syrian President Bashar Assad at the table, but rather because his presence would give the meeting widespread legitimization.
For instance, when Gaza Strip's leader Ismail Haniyeh lambasts Abbas for attending the conference - as he certainly will - as a "stooge" of the US and Israel, Abbas could turn around and say, "What do you want from me, even Syria is participating."
Saudi Arabia too, which is at great odds with Damascus over the situation in Lebanon, would gain legitimization on the Arab street for its own involvement in the conference if the Syrians participated.
There is also the idea that the Syrians could do a lot more harm outside the conference, unleashing their Hamas or Hizbullah proxies to try and torpedo it through various terrorist actions, than if they were a part of it. One way to neutralize active Hamas opposition, according to this logic, is to involve Syria.
Syrian participation, however, would to a large extent change the very nature of the meeting and transform it from a gathering of nations to support a bi-lateral Israeli-Palestinian process culminating in a two-state solution, Bush's idea, into something much wider.
For even if a wider peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon were not disused at the meeting, Syria and Lebanon's very presence would signal that they expected to be next in line.
But as headline-grabbing as Rice's remarks regarding Syria were, they represented only half of the story. It is by no means a given that Syria will accept an invitation.
It is conceivable that Iran, which won't be invited and has a huge interest in seeing the meeting fail, will tell Syria to stay home. Israeli diplomatic officials said that Russia, perhaps a bit miffed that the Americans were succeeding in bringing everyone to a meeting under their umbrella, might conceivably advise Damascus to stay away.
Either way, it is extremely unlikely that just because Rice asks, the Syrians will come running.
Damascus is sure to have its own conditions - perhaps promises of American mediation in negotiations with Israel, something they have long been yearning for, or perhaps being taken off the US list of counties that support terror.
Whatever these conditions will be, Syria will certainly make the lead-up to the international conference more complicated than it has been so far.