Experts: Assad signaling desire to talk

Syrian leader sending message that he's game for negotiations after elections, Syrian specialist says.

Assad 88 (photo credit: )
Assad 88
(photo credit: )
Syrian President Bashar Assad's comments Monday about conducting direct peace talks with Israel at a later time are in line with Syrian policy, but are also a signal to Israel and the new American administration that he is serious about negotiations, some Syria experts said Tuesday. "I think he's sending a message both to Israel that he's game for [peace] talks" after the February elections "and second, he's trying to send a message to Washington that 'if you end your isolation of Syria and get involved in these talks, they can go somewhere'," said Andrew Tabler, who deals with the issue of Syrian engagement as a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Syria is seeking, in part, respect from the United States, which from its perspective would involve direct talks between Syria and America, Tabler said. "There are those who talk about returning the US ambassador to Syria and ending Syria's isolation, especially its isolation from the States, which [Syria] feels detrimentally affects its policies and its relations with European countries," he said. American-Syrian relations broke down following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, though the US ambassador was only recalled from Damascus following Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005. In recent months, the United States has taken Syria to task for allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq from Syria. American commandos conducted a helicopter raid on Syria in October and reportedly killed an Iraqi terrorist responsible for dispatching weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border. It will be interesting to see "what Syria will do to improve its security along its border with Iraq," Tabler said. Syria's president said Monday that he believes direct peace talks with Israel are possible and that they will eventually take place. This seems to reflect a softer stance, after Assad only recently claimed the Jewish state does not genuinely desire peace with its Arab neighbors. Others suggest that Assad is weary of Israeli regimes that oppose ceding the Golan Heights, and is actually trying to influence the upcoming Israeli elections. "Apparently, Syria thinks that if it is to show moderation at this point when Israeli society is approaching elections, this will influence Israeli voters to vote more for the center or the Left, rather than the Right," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations unit at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political studies. In addition, Syria also hopes to turn a new page with the United States and consolidate its position with US President-elect Barack Obama. "They want to show him there is a partner here in Damascus who is willing to talk," he said. Syrian policy has long been that "direct negotiations with Israel are accepted but it's about the right time to do it," he added. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that if Syria wants peace, it would have to stop funding Hamas and Hizbullah, Army Radio reported. Syria and Israel conducted direct peace talks following the Madrid peace conference in 1991 until March 2000, when negotiations broke down after Syria rejected Israel's final offer for a peace deal. Syria has introduced important changes in its foreign policy in recent months not only by starting indirect negotiations with Israel but by establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time and opening up to European countries toward the implementation of a Euro-Mediterranean partnership, Gawad said. However, for strategic reasons, Syria is still not ready to fully change its policy, particularly its relationship with the Iran, he said. Syrian officials have decided to maintain their relationship with Iran in order "to consolidate their negotiating position with Israel and the United States," Gawad said. "The best choice for them is to maintain this relationship for the time being," he said. "It's a bargaining chip." But Eyal Zisser, director of the Tel-Aviv based Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, argues that Syria hasn't changed its views in recent months. Rather, Israel, the United States and European countries have all shifted their positions and capitulated to Assad's regime. "Why did Olmert decide in May 2008 to resume negotiations? It has nothing to do with Syria, but they decided in Israel that time is not on our side and that we should [sign] an agreement," said Zisser, who is a Syria expert. "Bashar didn't change any of his policies, views or positions. There are the others that have changed their views," he said. In addition, recent comments made by Olmert and Assad reflect the common, short-term interests shared between the two Middle East leaders, he said. While Olmert is eager to leave behind a legacy not overshadowed by the Second Lebanon War, Assad wants to secure something from the outgoing Israeli prime minister that he can present to the upcoming Israeli and new American administrations. According to Zisser, Assad wants to tell them "I had very fruitful and positive discussions with Olmert [who said] 'Yes, I am ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Let's continue from that point.' That would be a great Syrian achievement." Four rounds of Syrian-Israeli talks have been through Turkish mediators, though no breakthroughs were made. The talks were suspended after Olmert announced his resignation in September. AP contributed to this report.