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Throughout the summer months, the drums of war have been banging on both sides of the Golan Heights. Military experts assert that neither Israel nor Syria have any real interest in beginning a war at this time. The main fear has been that some kind of provocation could make war unavoidable.
The recent Israeli fly-over of Syrian territory is precisely the kind of event that could ignite a military escapade no one is interested in. Hopefully, this event will pass without either side taking further military action. But the incident should point to the importance of finding an effective way to de-escalate the northern front. It should also point out the utmost importance of drawing the Israeli-Syrian front toward dialogue and a genuine peace process.
The upcoming US peace meeting scheduled for November probably provides the best opportunity for changing the very dangerous course of Israeli-Syrian relations. A US invitation to Syria to join the meeting could have the kind of impetus that could lead to a change of course. The main obstacle to Syrian participation is the position of the Bush administration and not the position of Israel.
Washington has placed a series of preconditions on Damascus before it would be willing to engage the Assad regime. Syria would have to secure its border with Iraq to prevent continued insurgency that has led to many US casualties; cease and prevent the shipment of weapons to Hizbullah; close the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus, and stop interfering in Lebanese politics.
From all indications that I have from talks with Syrian officials and from people who have met with the highest officials in Syria in the most recent past, Syria is quite anxious to be invited to the Washington meeting. Senior Syrian officials and people close to the regime have told me and others that Syria is also ready to meet US demands as part and parcel of the peace deal with Israel and a promise of open and positive relations with the United States.
Syria will not, however, concede on anything as a precondition to that process because from their point of view, those are the only cards that they hold. The Syrian point of view is that fulfilling US demands must be the outcome of the process and not a precondition to its beginning.
EVEN ISRAELI intelligence reports assert that Syria is prepared to pick up formal direct negotiations with Israel. Everyone involved knows the contours of the potential agreement - the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for full and genuine peace with Israel.
Some Israelis and Americans who have been involved in Track II meetings that have been held with the agreement of senior officials in Damascus have noted more flexibility on Syria's positions concerning meeting Israel's security needs and on other strategic issues such as water.
According to people who speak regularly with Syrian officials, Syria is not only willing, but is in fact keen to be drawn away from their alliance with Iran. From the information that we have, Syria would be sincerely willing to take real steps to limit the power of Hizbullah and Hamas. But all of that can only be possible as part of a deal with Israel and with the inclusion and involvement of the United States.
Syria would be ready to replace its Iranian alliance with a new alliance with the United States, as long as it also includes a renewal of the Israeli-Syrian track and progress toward an agreement on the return of the Golan.
It is clear that if the US and Israel do not engage Syria, Damascus has the power to sabotage any Israeli-Palestinian progress, and is very likely to if its isolation is continued. From its point of view, there is almost no reason why it shouldn't. The continued isolation of Syria by the US and Israel puts the entire potential success of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian track in question.
FROM SYRIA'S perspective, the US administration is more interested in regime change than in engaging the minority Alawite leadership. From the perspective of almost all of the Syria experts I know, a regime change in Syria would only be for the worse - not a more democratic liberal regime, as the Bush administration hopes for, but one that would be controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood or worse.
The American adventure in Iraq should serve as a warning to decision makers in Washington and Jerusalem about forcing regime changes.
Syrian involvement in November's DC summit is crucial for the success of that meeting and for the success of any progress with the Palestinians. I believe the Syrians would be responsive to quiet US diplomacy in the way of creating the mechanism for them to participate in November. I am sure that if the Syrians had an indication from the administration that a positive change in US-Syrian relations was on the way, they could also be quite helpful on the issue of the Israeli hostages in Lebanon and Gaza. There is so much more to be gained from Syrian engagement than from their isolation.
Regrettably, in a recent communication with a very senior policy-maker in the White House, I received the following response to the above ideas:
I appreciate having your views, but you are right: I am not persuaded. This (Syria) is a vicious brutal regime allied to Iran strategically, not tactically, engaged in helping kill Americans in Iraq, helping the worst Palestinian terrorist forces, desperate to reassert its rule over Lebanon, and sponsoring not simply anti-Zionist but the most barbaric anti-Semitic views.
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