The Obama administration has decided to return a US ambassador to Syria, the WaPo’s Scott Wilson reports today. This is a long overdue move– see below. However, the timing of the announcement does seem to link it to the ongoing turmoil inside the Iranian regime.
The always very well informed David Ignatius, writing (also in today’s WaPo) about US policy responses to the developments in Iran, says,
- As the mullahs’ grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalize relations with Syria, and there’s talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: “Iran’s allies in the region have to be wondering, ‘Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?’ ”
It has, of course, long been a dream of some Israelis and allies of Israel that they could “flip” Syria away from its sturdy, 30-year alliance with Iran. “Peeling them away” is a less crude and possibly more nuanced version of the same idea.
Ignatius links the administration’s current overture toward Syria, and its consideration of an overture toward Hamas, centrally to its desire to take maximum advantage of the current political problems in Tehran. I would note, however, that these moves have been under active consideration in the administration since considerably before the hotly disputed June 12 election in Iran.
From that perspective, announcing the moves in the context of linking them to the situation in Iran might be very canny politics within the US. But it is not the whole story.
Indeed, when I was in Damascus earlier this month, there were already many signs of a growing thaw in the long frozen US-Syria political relationship.
It has also been an open secret for some time now that Obama, Mitchell, and Clinton are very eager that the Palestinian movements– especially the ‘Big Two’, Fateh and Hamas– find a way to settle their differences enough to allow a unified Palestinian delegation to take part in negotiations for a final peace with Israel. Mitchell said as much in his first conference call with Jewish-American leaders back in early February. And his determination– along with, presumably, that of the person who appointed him, Pres. Obama– that this happen seems only to have grown since then.
Including that Mitchell gave an attentive hearing to former Pres. Jimmy Carter when Carter went to brief him June 18 about the discussions he had had over the preceding week with Hamas leaders in Damascus, the West Bank, and Gaza.
In my recent blog post on Fateh’s woes, I made one suggestion as to how a Palestinian negotiating team that enjoys the confidence of both the big parties might be constituted. Such a team might or might not include Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas.
When I interviewed Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus June 4, he restated Hamas’s longstanding position that it is happy to have Abbas do the negotiating with Israel– but on the condition that any final deal negotiated should be submitted to a Palestinian-wide referendum thereafter. Hamas, he said, would abide by the results of that referendum.
Personally, I think it would be better to find a way to get Hamas more involved in the negotiating– even if only indirectly– from a far earlier stage than that. Hence my suggestion that a person or persons whom they trust be fully included on the negotiating team from the beginning.
Either way, folding Hamas into the diplomatic strategy is something that has to be done, given their real weight in Palestinian society. And it’s something the Mitchell team has been wrestling with from the get-go. Let’s hope the current turmoil in Iran gives Mitchell and Obama a new opportunity to “sell” this idea to the many folks in Congress and the US public who are still very wary of the “the H word.”
We can note, though, that there is significant support in Israel for talking with Hamas directly. The last time Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center recorded the answer to this question, in its February 2009 poll, it found that 45% of Israelis supported this. In other, earlier polls, pollsters found that an even stronger percentage of Israelis supported negotiating with a Palestinian team that included both Fateh and Hamas.
Regarding the new US opening to Syria, we should remember that it was Pres. Bush who decided to withdraw the US ambassador from Syria; and he did so, in February 2005, in response to the specific situation in Lebanon. Former PM Rafiq Hariri had just been assassinated there, and much of the evidence about that seemed to point towards Syria.
A lot has happened– in Lebanon, in Syria, and in the US– since then.
Back in February 2005 Syria still had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, the remnant of a peacekeeping force that went into the country in 1976 with Washington’s blessing. After the Hariri killing, a broad movement of Lebanese arose that called for the withdrawal of those troops; and that withdrawal was duly completed in April 2005. After subsequent developments inside Lebanon, that included a nasty assault from Israel, elections, further discussions, and a new government, Lebanon and Syria agreed for the first time ever to have normal diplomatic relations with each other and exchange ambassadors.
That step took place earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the “evidence” that the Bushites and others had relied on to pin blame for the Hariri killing on Syria seemed to largely unravel. Earlier this year, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who had been imprisoned in Lebanon since 2005 were released by order of the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon. So there really has been little continuing rationale for Washington not to have an ambassador in Damascus. And meanwhile, Syria is a regional player of considerable significance in both the Iraqi and the Arab-Israeli theaters.
In recognition of that, Sec. of State Clinton called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem May 31, and they agreed on a ‘Road Map’ for improving relations. Ten days later peace envoy Mitchell made his first visit to Damascus.
You can find my June 12 account of the recent history of the US-Syrian relationship here. My thoughts on the need to include Syria in the Arab-Israeli negotiations are here. My compilation of the 18-year record of Syria’s attempts to negotiate its own final peace with Israel is here. And my June 4 interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem is here.
It is intriguing, though, to see that we finally have a president who recognizes the importance of diplomacy and has the capacity and agility to start to rebuild a whole host of important relations that had, basically, been shredded by the Bushites.