Reporter-at-Large: Time to Talk to Syria?

Categories: Israel
By Leon Hadar

As the Iraq debate intensifies and the situation on the ground worsens, we hear more and more calls for tough action against Syria from prominent neoconservatives. The current regime in Damascus, these commentators argue, is hopeless—and it will never become a partner for peace in the Middle East. They charge that Syrian President Bashir al-Asad’s regime is a pernicious influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, a sponsor of Islamic terror and actively seeks weapons of mass destruction.

Yet making the assumption that Syria will never work with the United States or its allies in the region to help bring stability to the region would be both foolish and irresponsible. On the contrary, pragmatic leaders in Damascus are seeking to break loose from isolation and make a deal with the United States and Israel. Syria has worked with Washington in the past. Damascus supported the U.S. coalition in the first Gulf War; after September 11 it arrested suspected Al-Qaeda members and shared related intelligence with the U.S. (Nevertheless, then–Undersecretary of State John Bolton added Syria to the infamous “axis of evil” in 2002.) There is no reason that it cannot do the same in the future.

Although it may come as a surprise, Damascus wants to settle its long-running dispute with Israel. Indeed, Syrian representatives have been trying for some time to make headway on the issue. But even after strong diplomatic efforts on Damascus’ behalf—routed through the Turkish and Swiss governments—and conducted by prominent Israelis, Syrians and Americans, the situation remains stagnant. Firsthand accounts of recent Syrian-Israeli relations by those who took part in the talks reveal how eager Damascus has been to make peace with Jerusalem. The efforts have only been met by an intransigent Bush Administration.

Turkey’s Mediation Efforts

In January 2004, five years after Turkey and Syria nearly came to blows (over charges that Damascus was harboring Kurdish guerillas), President al-Asad visited Ankara.  When al-Asad met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he floated the possibility of a Turkish role in peace talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey, a nato member and close ally of Washington with significant ties to Israel, saw a possible peace agreement between the two countries as serving its interests: At a time when Ankara was trying to join the European Union, brokering a settlement between the two strongest powers in the Levant would raise its international standing.

“The Turkish ambassador told me that Asad had raised the issue and asked Erdogan to use Turkey’s ‘good relations’ with Israel to try to revive the moribund negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem”, Dr. Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Ankara involved in the negotiations, told me in an August interview in Tel Aviv. “I was asked to put out feelers to Sharon to find out if there was an Israeli partner for secret talks with Syria.”

Erdogan’s hope that the road toward an Israel-Syria peace would lead through Ankara wasn’t fulfilled, however. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisors rejected his initiative, insisting that Syria was a “terror state” and that the Bush Administration, then backing Jerusalem in its efforts to contain the Palestinian uprising, was opposed to the idea and wanted instead to isolate Damascus. According to Liel, the Turks were under the impression that Israel was always interested in negotiating with the Arabs and that Washington was committed to helping Israel make peace with its neighbors. They were shocked by Sharon’s dismissal of the proposal.

“Track Two” Diplomacy; Enter the Swiss

The Israeli government did, however, give a green light to Liel and other members of Israel’s foreign-policy community to take part in so-called track two diplomacy with Syria—low-level talks between academics, retired government officials and businessmen from both sides. But the Syrian goal was to upgrade the “academic” talks into full-blown negotiations with the Israeli government, an idea that Sharon had already rejected. When nine months of discussions in the Turkish Foreign Ministry produced no concrete results, Ankara decided to close down the secret Israel-Syria channel.

But after the failure of these talks, Liel had a chance meeting with the Director of Middle East Affairs in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, who immediately stated that his government wanted to “pick them up” again. Liel also recruited his old friend Geoffrey Aronson, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, into the secret diplomacy. In turn, he proposed that Liel bring in his neighbor from suburban Maryland, Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman.

Suleiman, a Syrian immigrant to the United States and successful businessman, had served as a conduit for officials in Damascus before. His admirers regard “Honest Ayeb” as a man of principles, genuinely committed to helping his native country make peace with Israel. Others see Suleiman as a political conman trying to gain personal favors in Washington and Damascus. A member of the same Alawite sect of Islam as the al-Asad family, Suleiman told Newsweek that he first met the late Hafez al-Asad, Bashir’s father, in 1957.

Whatever one’s take on Suleiman, his ties to senior Syrian officials and to the Ba’ath Party helped persuade the head of the Middle East desk in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Nicholas Lang, to include him in informal talks at the Bellevue Hotel in Berne. Lang joined Suleiman on trips to Damascus, where they met with senior military and diplomatic officials like Vice President Farouk Shara and occasionally Foreign Minister Walid Moalem. He was convinced that the Syrian government had endorsed Suleiman’s participation in the track two negotiations with the Israelis; furthermore, he believed Damascus regarded them as integral to Syria’s strategy for reaching a peace accord with Jerusalem.

The Israeli government received updates on each stage of the negotiations. Suleiman even joined Liel in one of his meetings with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, where he briefed them on al-Asad’s views. These talks continued for about two years.

Lost Opportunities

Syria’s opening to Israel in early 2004 was clearly part of an effort to limit the rising anti-Syrian sentiment in Washington and thwart the campaign to label Damascus an “evildoer.” As a number of prominent observers see it, Syria was genuinely interested in renewing negotiations with Israel and encouraging the Americans to play an active role in the talks. Liel agreed: “At that time, a Syrian-Israeli peace process under American auspices would have been a win for the Syrians as well as for the Israelis and the Americans.” After all, the possible diplomatic momentum from such talks would have encouraged the Syrians to play a more constructive role in Iraq and Lebanon, maybe even leading it to tame Hizballah. Moreover, greater American involvement on the Syria-Israel front would have eased Damascus’ isolation, both eliminating a prime reason to strengthen ties with Iran and also strengthening the American position in the Middle East.

The Bush Administration and its legions of neoconservative apologists saw things differently, however. They identified Syria as a global outlaw opposed to the U.S.–led march of freedom—as demonstrated by its alleged involvement in Hariri’s assassination, its attempts to reassert influence in Lebanon, and its ties with Iraq. For them, the only option was isolation and, failing that, regime change. From that perspective, Syria’s peace feelers to Israel were nothing more than Machiavellian ploys to retard the U.S. diplomatic campaign against al-Asad.

Lee Smith, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, thus tried to discredit Suleiman in the Weekly Standard, noting that Suleiman’s brother Bajhat is a Syrian security officer “whose name has popped up repeatedly in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.” He went on to say that “many observers are not sure the self-appointed peace delegate [Suleiman] actually represents anyone.” To neoconservatives, the specter of an Israel-Syria peace process is nothing more than a diplomatic smokescreen aimed at securing al-Asad’s long-term political survival, sabotaging U.S. policy in the Middle East and weakening Israel.

Al-Asad Wants Peace; Fears Islamist Challenges

According to Liel, these pundits are making a grave mistake. Al-Asad, not unlike the undemocratic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan—all prime U.S. allies—operates on realpolitik calculations. These calculations—not some adherence to Bush’s freedom agenda—have led al-Asad to conclude that it’s in his interests to make peace with Israel and join the Middle East’s pro-American camp. Suleiman has told the Israelis that al-Asad regards radical Islam, not Israel, as the main threat to Syria—and that peace is the only way to stop it. The Syrians are also concerned that their oil sources will soon run dry; remedying this problem will require significant amounts of foreign currency and a more amenable international community.

“Instead of creating even more incentives for the Syrians to pursue policies . . . motivated by self interests,” Liel says, “the Americans pressed the Israelis not to engage diplomatically with Syria and have launched a campaign to isolate it.” He continues: “The price of dividing our region into goodies and baddies is always paid by both sides. . . . There isn’t going to be any happy end here.”

The Second Track Yields Mixed Results

The track two diplomacy pursued by Liel and Suleiman never brought about a positive outcome, although the discussions in Switzerland initially raised expectations. Some of the ideas raised by the Syrians in the talks reflected a certain flexibility on a timetable for evacuating Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights and even included a proposal for building a “peace park” in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria. The final document drawn up by negotiators, a nonbinding statement agreed to by both sides in August 2005 and published in Ha’aretz, outlined rough plans for Israel to withdraw from the Golan to 1967 borders and for Syria to distance itself from Hizballah, Hamas and Iran.

The final meeting took place a year later, in the midst of the second Lebanon war. On a day in which eight Israelis in the Galilee were killed by Hizballah-fired rockets, Suleiman announced that the Syrians had done all they could with the covert channel and recommended that senior-level talks between Jerusalem and Damascus begin. Both the Israeli and U.S. governments rejected the Syrian request. Liel believes that had the Bush Administration given Israel a green light to enter talks, Ehud Olmert would have agreed to test Syrian intentions.

Liel told me that the Israel-Hizballah War of 2006 demonstrated the danger of U.S.-Syria policy. Co-opting instead of isolating Syria clearly made sense given the current state of the Middle East as a result of the war in Iraq, but the Administration did the exact opposite. Coaxing a Syria concerned about instability in Iraq (and the spread of Islamic radicalism) into the pro-American camp could have helped Washington shift the regional balance in its favor. Instead, the U.S. decided to punish the Syrians, making it inevitable that Damascus would try to resist American pressure by partnering with Iran and strengthening its support for Hizballah.

The Latest

Damascus has become worried that the Bush Administration may be pushing Israel toward war with Syria, hoping that the expected Israeli military victory in a conventional conflict would swing the balance of power in Iraq and the Middle East in the U.S.’s favor. To combat this and promote the revival of talks, Suleiman accepted an invitation to address the Israeli Parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in April (the first time a Syrian national has ever spoken there). Suleiman told Israeli lawmakers that Damascus was prepared to begin peace talks, adding that he believed an initial agreement could be reached within “six months.” “Since 1948 Israeli leaders have said they are ready to talk peace anytime and anywhere”, he told reporters afterwards. “Syria right now is ready to speak peace.” He also challenged Jerusalem “to answer President Bashir’s call for peace and sit down together.” Alongside Liel, he told Knesset members that the peace plan drafted during the track two negotiations would allow Syria to cut itself off from Hizballah and join the global struggle against terror. He maintains that al-Asad has already appointed a committee, headed by an army general, to coordinate the talks with Israel.

According to Israeli press reports, Olmert is under pressure from members of his coalition and top military and intelligence officers to gauge al-Asad’s sincerity. The Prime Minister stated recently that he was interested in negotiating with Syria and willing to return part of the Golan Heights, but insisted that Syria needed to end its support for Hizballah and cut ties with Iran before any official talks. But as Liel points out, the Syrians realize their links to Hizballah and Iran are valuable bargaining chips, and they will not give them up easily. Furthermore, U.S. officials have said that the American position is to “not encourage” Israel to engage with Syria and seem to be focusing on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This suggests that the Americans are not planning to play an active diplomatic role on the Syria-Israel front.

Fortunately, the leadership in Damascus remains hopeful that it can work out an understanding with the United States and Israel to shore up its precarious security situation. American policy, however, appears unchanged: A prominent U.S. official recently justified Washington’s opposition to Syrian participation in the upcoming regional summit by stating his conviction that Damascus will not compromise on major issues.1 This is simply untrue.

Reaching even a limited accommodation with Syria would pay enormous dividends for the United States—and for Israel. Now is the time for Washington to cast aside its rigid ideological positions of the past and start negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus—before it is too late. “Everyone understands that nothing is going to happen here unless there is a change in U.S. policy”, Liel adds. “We’re all waiting.”

Leon Hadar is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2005). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.

1 Barak Ravid and Yoav Stern, “U.S. official says Syria should be barred from regional summit”, Ha’aretz, September 18, 2007.

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