Inter Press Service
As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama struggles to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Syria is well positioned to benefit no matter the outcome.
Traditionally a spoiler in the process, Syria retains leverage with the two militant movements Israel fears most – Hamas and Hezbollah – and is also being courted by Washington to restart its own negotiation track with Israel.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Sep. 27 in New York with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for what both termed "constructive" talks. Muallem's deputy, Fayssal Mekdad, followed up with a two-day visit to Washington.
Interviewed Sep. 29 by IPS, Mekdad said Syria is not opposed to the current U.S.-led negotiating effort.
"We are neither party to the sceptics or those who oppose the talks," Mekdad said.
However, he blamed Israel for the current crisis and described progress so far as mere "pictures and poses."
Hamas, which controls Gaza and whose external leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus, staged two attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank shortly after the talks began last month.
Last weekend, Syria hosted a meeting between Hamas and the other main Palestinian movement, Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) that governs the West Bank.
The factions split after Hamas won 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and violently expelled Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Efforts at reconciliation – mostly led by Egypt – have so far failed.
At the end of the weekend session, Meshaal urged a representative of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to tell Abbas to withdraw from negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if Israel fails to extend a partial moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank that expired on Sep. 26.
Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition that opposes extending the moratorium, has been bargaining with the Obama administration over the terms of a 60-day extension.
Mekdad said reconciliation between the Palestinian factions is essential for the peace process to succeed.
The United States and Israel prefer to exclude Hamas because it does not recognise Israel or prior peace agreements between Israel and the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Mekdad said those who oppose Palestinian reunification "must know that without reconciliation, nothing will be achieved."
Syria is "exerting all pressure" to bring about Palestinian re-unification. "We wanted this reconciliation to take place yesterday," he said.
Still, the Syrian government has not called on Abbas to quit the negotiations with Israel.
David Schenker, a Levant expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said that, in Syria's case, "the absence of a negative is certainly a positive."
Syrian restraint may reflect the view that the talks will collapse on their own, leading the Palestinians to take a harder line.
If so, it is also possible that Israel will turn toward peace negotiations with Syria.
The outlines of a settlement between the two countries are well known: the return to Syria of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967; early warning monitoring stations in the Golan; and an end to Syrian military aid to Hezbollah.
Schenker said a renewed Syrian-Israeli peace track could help relieve international pressure on Syria on two fronts.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due to conduct a special inspection in December of the site of a purported nuclear reactor in Syria that was bombed by Israel in 2007.
Damascus is also concerned about upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While Syrian officials are no longer believed to be a target, a U.N. tribunal may finger members of Hezbollah.
U.S. Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell has visited Syria several times, most recently Sep. 16, to emphasise that the Obama administration seeks a comprehensive regional peace that includes Syria. However, Mekdad said Syria is not interested in U.S. mediation at this point.
He said Damascus preferred to return to proximity talks that were mediated by Turkey in 2007-2008 when Ehud Olmert was Israel's prime minister. They broke down after Israel mounted a major offensive against Gaza in December 2008.
Resuming Turkish mediation now appears to be a non-starter given the deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel following the Israeli interception of a flotilla of Turkish ships en route to Gaza in May that ended in the killing of nine Turkish citizens.
Analysts say that despite concerns over the IAEA and the Hariri case, Syria is in a relatively strong position. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survived a concerted effort by the George W. Bush administration to remove him following the Hariri assassination.
David Lesch, a Syria expert at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex. and the author of "The New Lion of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria," says Assad used the Lebanon crisis to "re-organise the [ruling Baath] party and government and get rid of threats to the regime."
Assad also benefited as the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, and Israel lobbied Bush against regime change in Damascus, preferring "the devil you know" in Syria to a possibly more militant and less predictable replacement, Lesch said.
As a result, "by 2007-2008, Bashar was very confident that he was on the right side and the U.S. was on the wrong side," Lesch said. "His view was that the United States has to make concessions to improve relations with Syria," not the other way around.
The Obama administration is trying to return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005, although the confirmation of Robert Ford to that post has been held up in the Senate.
There is no indication so far, however, that the administration is seeking to ease economic sanctions on Syria which Mekdad described as "incorrect and based on political accusations."
Mekdad, an urbane former ambassador to the United Nations who wrote his thesis on the works of British author, Graham Greene, said relations with the United States had clearly improved after the "hatred" of Syria displayed by the previous U.S. administration.
"Syria is playing a pivotal role in all developments in the Middle East," he said. "Without Syria, nobody can connect the dots."
Indeed, al-Assad is travelling to Tehran this weekend to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top officials, presumably in part to reassure them of the durability of their alliance and to remind the Obama administration how pivotal Syria's role can be.