US doesn't object to Israel-Syria talks

However, State Department official says US has "reservations" about Syria's policies in the region.

David Welch good 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
David Welch good 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The White House said Wednesday it had no objections to Israeli-Syrian peace talks, despite being perceived for years as applying the brakes to any such overtures. "We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on the unexpected joint announcement by Israel and Syria earlier Wednesday that they were conducting indirect talks through Turkey. Perino said that the United States was not involved in the effort, which was "a decision undertaken by Israel," but added that the administration hoped "that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria - Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people. And so we will see how this progresses." Her cautious note and emphasis on Syria's transgressions echoed previous responses to questions about the possibility of Israeli-Syrian rapprochement, in which the Bush administration has emphasized how few prospects for peace such talks held due to Syria's destabilizing role in the region. "We do have reservations about the foreign policy behavior of Syria, and, for that matter, its internal politics as well. We have expressed those many times, including directly to the Israelis. I have to say they share our concerns," David Welch, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said Wednesday when asked about US opposition to Israeli-Syrian talks. "That said, Israel lives in a difficult neighborhood. It's in its interest to expand the circle of peace and other people who are serious about doing it and I see that they're undertaking that experiment now." At the same time, he stressed the US remains focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, which it has been promoting since the administration convened an international conference in Annapolis in November. "President [George W.] Bush as recently as this trip to the region declared that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians offer special promise and we're working to conclude an agreement by the end of the year on this. Those parties are in direct negotiation," Welch said. The lukewarm US response to the announcement of the talks could have implications for their success, because Syria has long sought engagement and concessions from the West as part of dealing with Israel. Yet even holding such talks and their public announcement must have come with US consent, in the assessment of Middle East expert David Makovsky, who testified before Congress Wednesday. A cornerstone of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's policies has been "to make sure that any big moves aren't at variance with the White House," according to Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I find it hard to believe that Israel would have progressed this far without at least an amber light." The Bush administration has long been wary that Syria has no real desire to make the concessions necessary for peace but believes it scores international points by appearing to be engaged with discussions with Israel. The administration has worried that such a scenario would hinder its efforts to end Syrian control in Lebanon and establish a secure democratic state. In recent weeks, coinciding with Bush's trip to the region, those efforts have appeared to founder as Syrian - and Iranian-backed - Hizbullah has tightened its grip on the government and demonstrated its military superiority over other Lebanese entities. Makovsky speculated that during Bush's consultations last week with Olmert and the defense establishment - which has largely supported talking to Syria as a means of peeling it out of Iran's influence - he might have been open to a different perspective on Lebanon. "There's no issue that has divided the United States and Israel more than Lebanon," Makovsky said. But the new reality in Lebanon might have eased some of those divisions. If the US approach on tempering Hizbullah's influence wasn't seen to be working, then perhaps it would be more open to the Israeli argument. "Once people in Washington and Jerusalem saw the die being cast in Lebanon, I wonder if Olmert's conversation with Bush looked different," Makovsky said.