Above the Fray: Syria reasserts its centrality to peace

The country’s renewed influence in Lebanon makes peace talks even more critical.

Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush era, it has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East. Following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the US withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and sought to deepen Syria’s isolation from the international community. The recent array of high-level visitors to Damascus – including US officials – demonstrates that President Bashar Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Syria’s call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize its influence to advance peace, rather than thwart it.
The remarks at the UN General Assembly by President Shimon Peres that the country is prepared to begin negotiations with Syria “right away,” and those by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem that “Syria is ready to resume negotiations,” are more than just political posturing.
They are signs that both sides recognize the benefits of achieving a genuine peace accord. The meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Muallem in New York – the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2007 – indicates that the US recognizes Syria’s central role. But for progress to be made, the government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must now make a choice: Does it want peace with security or territory? Speaking with reporters in May 2009, Netanyahu said that he would never leave the Golan Heights, stating, “Remaining on the Golan will ensure Israel has a strategic advantage in cases of military conflict with Syria.”
The truth is that the continued occupation of the Golan will sooner or later instigate military conflict with Syria.
NETANYAHU MUST now realize that as Syria emerges from its international isolation and peacemaking efforts languish, Israel is becoming increasingly more isolated. The geopolitical benefits of a durable Israel-Syria peace are numerous, and the opportunity at this moment is ripe. Whether Netanyahu recognizes these benefits – and seizes the opportunity – will be a significant test of his leadership. Whether Syria’s peace overture is rhetorical or real, there is no better time to put Damascus to the test.
While some Israelis and Americans believe Syria should sever its relations with Iran to qualify for a place at the negotiating table, the opposite is actually true. Continued relations between Damascus and Teheran make the need to engage Syria even more critical. The relationship is one of geopolitical convenience, but it is not one that will easily be discarded.
The most glaring difference between the two countries is that while Iran is calling for Israel’s destruction, Syria is calling for peace. But its good relations with Iran could actually put it in a better position to help loosen Iran’s grip on Hizbullah and maintain stability throughout the region.
Assad’s comments after the raid on the Gazabound flotilla this summer – “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed it will be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations,” and that this would “without a doubt affect the stability in the region” – indicate that he recognizes the importance of strategic regional ties with Israel because its reality is far more enduring than the current Iranian regime.
Indeed, Assad’s greatest interest is a strategic relationship with the US, and by beginning peace talks without preconditions, Syria’s strategic ties with Iran could be utilized and stability in the region immeasurably enhanced.
Syria’s renewed influence in Lebanon makes peace talks even more critical. The visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Assad to Beirut in late July, and the statements last month by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri absolving Syria from responsibility for his father’s death underscore Syria’s renewed control over Lebanon. But while it has strengthened its position there, it has also become responsible for Hizbullah’s actions. Syria can no longer disavow responsibility should Hizbullah provoke Israel or commit any act that might undermine its national security interests. As such, Syria has a strategic interest in maintaining calm in the region.
Restarting negotiations would also provide Damascus with an incentive to be helpful with the Palestinian track. Syria has become an indispensable player in helping to resolve the dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The reconciliation talks held recently in Damascus between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders highlight the crucial role Syria can play.
While Egypt has traditionally hosted Palestinian unity talks, Hamas deeply mistrusts Cairo and is greatly dependent on Damascus.
Thus Syria has significant influence on Hamas.
Most importantly it can keep Hamas from torpedoing peace efforts, enabling negotiations to proceed with its tacit cooperation. In recognition of this, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently traveled to Damascus and emerged with a joint statement in support of the Arab Peace Initiative. Should peace talks succeed in achieving a framework for a lasting agreement, Syria’s role could also be critical in bringing Hamas into the process.
PEACE TALKS would also benefit Israeli-Turkish relations. Since they became especially strained following the flotilla episode, Israel has sought to strengthen its alliances with Greece and others. But Turkey cannot be ignored. It remains a significant power and asserts its influence in all directions. Reopening peace negotiations with Syria could provide a useful context for Israel to reassess its position toward Turkey.
The significant progress that was made through indirect talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey, suggests that it not only gained the trust of both sides, but also was deeply committed to achieving an end to the conflict as a part of its larger regional strategic objectives.
For this reason, Turkey remains eager to play a pivotal role in mediating between Damascus and Jerusalem. Ankara knows, however, that it must first regain Israel’s trust, starting, for example, by sending back its ambassador.
Finally, relations between the Netanyahu government and the White House would also improve with movement toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Syria. The Obama administration has made clear that it seeks to engage Damascus in an effort to change its calculus in the region and improve relations. In February, the White House nominated Robert Ford to serve as ambassador in Damascus, after a five-year absence of representation.
However, Ford’s nomination is still being blocked by a dozen senators opposed to sending an ambassador while Syria maintains its support for Hizbullah and Hamas. Positive signals from Israel could significantly advance the Obama administration’s engagement strategy and undercut the rationale for the congressional opposition.
Those who oppose negotiations with Syria argue that a withdrawal from the Golan would create a security risk, and that engaging Syria only rewards it for its support of terrorist groups and ties with Iran. This argument is no longer valid, not only because of the changing nature of warfare today, but also because the two countries have come incredibly close to reaching an agreement on a withdrawal in previous negotiations.
It is clear that any agreement would consist of a withdrawal from the Golan, demilitarization of the area and ironclad security guarantees from the US and Syria. Moreover, Damascus knows that any violation of the security terms would instigate retaliatory attack of such a magnitude that such an option would be inconceivable. It should be noted that Damascus has not violated the 1974 disengagement agreement.
Second, the effort to isolate Syria has proved to be counterproductive. Rather than encourage Damascus to moderate its behavior, the efforts to isolate it have pushed it further into the arms of Teheran, and into an alliance with Hamas and Hizbullah.
Syria has stated its intention to make peace, its desire for strong ties with the West is wellknown and its ability to eliminate threats to Israel’s security is significant. Syria’s recent efforts to liberalize its economy cannot be successful without expanding its global relations and creating a peaceful and secure environment for major foreign capital investments. In short, a peace accord is exactly what both Israel and Syria need.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.