Analysis: Syrian illusions

Assad won't tango with Israel without US buy-in, which is nowhere near.

Assad plastered 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad plastered 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement Thursday that he will go to Turkey Monday to discuss negotiations with Syria, coupled with a speech he gave the same day saying a peace deal with Syria was achievable, led to a paroxysm of commentary about whether he was trying to wrap up an agreement with Damascus in the less than two months he has left in office. As if a decades-old dispute, one which dozens of world leaders and seasoned negotiators have worked on for thousands of hours, was going to magically resolve itself in the waning days of Olmert's administration. Fuhggedaboutit. At the very most, what Olmert might be able to do now is announce the beginning of direct negotiations with the Syrians. For Olmert, this would be an important achievement, a significant feat that would go down in the history books under his name. But that is a far cry from wrapping up a peace deal. There are those who maintain that Olmert's Eveready Bunny-like energy in the diplomatic field over the past few months was an effort to craft a diplomatic legacy so history would remember him for more than just an unsuccessful war in Lebanon and a series of corruption scandals that forced him out of office. In that sense, getting a Syrian nod for direct negotiations would - for Olmert - be very important right now. But the Syrians are not exactly working according to the prime minister's clock. And for them to agree, they are probably going to want something in return right away - both from Israel, in terms of a commitment to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, and from the Americans, in terms of close, tight, continuous American involvement. Even if, for argument's sake, Olmert were willing to give Damascus some kind of commitment, the Americans are a different story. And there's the rub. In any peace agreement with Israel, Syria is not only interested in regaining the Golan. Damascus also wants America; they want the same type of economic assistance the Americans gave the Egyptians and Jordanians after they signed their peace agreements with Israel, they want much closer ties to the US, and they want the US to wink at what they believe is their right to influence Lebanon. The US, in turn, has two major quarrels with the Syrians. The first has to do with Syrian actions to undermine the development of a pro-Western democracy in Lebanon, and the second is the terrorists' use of Syria as a staging ground for attacks inside Iraq. The US sees Damascus as a regional problem, not only an Israeli one. And, unlike Israel, the US position has been that there has to be some kind of Syrian behavioral modification before the door to Damascus can be opened. The type of change in behavior the US wants to see is an end to the use of Syria as a staging ground for terrorists; an end to Syria's efforts to undermine efforts to set up a pro-Western government in Lebanon; an end to support, both material and moral, for Hizbullah and Hamas; and an end to Damascus's tight tango with Iran. From an American perspective, Syria's international isolation has had an impact, and if Damascus looked inward it would see the following: a string of assassinations in Damascus over the last year that, while Syria blamed them on Israel, were likely either home-grown or connected to Saudi Arabia; the destruction of an alleged nuclear facility by Israel; a US commando cross-border raid in October; and the fact that Syria's best friends in the world are sitting in Teheran. The American position has been that the screws should continue to be turned on Syria, so that it will realize that this situation is not in its interest and begin to modify its actions. This has been the present administration's position, and - judging from the people President-elect Barack Obama has selected for key national security positions - it is likely to continue under the new one. Although the Obama administration may want to talk to Damascus, just as it wants to talk to Iran, that doesn't mean it will give the Syrians anything concrete until they change their behavior. What this means for Olmert is that all the talk of achieving peace with Syria now is divorced from reality, because in exchange for any deal with Israel, the Syrians are going to want a massive buy-in from the US. And that type of American buy-in is not on the horizon - at least not for the foreseeable future.