So presidential envoy George Mitchell has now had his meeting with Pres. Bashar al-Asad in Damascus.
Afterwards he said, “”We are well aware of the many difficulties … yet we share an obligation to create conditions for negotiations to begin promptly and end successfully.”
Intriguingly, that Reuters report also tells us that Mitchell’s meeting with Asad,
was preceded by talks between U.S. and Syrian security officials in Damascus on Friday that included discussions on Iraq, sources in the Syrian capital said.
A U.S. embassy official said the meeting was between a “military-led” U.S. team and a Syrian delegation.
Alert readers here may have noted that in the piece I published at IPS Wednesday, that reported and analyzed my June 4 interview with Syrian FM Walid Moualem, I drew attention to the fact that, in talking about his recent phone conversation with Secretary Clinton,
he mentioned the two countries’ shared concerns in Iraq before the Arab-Israeli peace process… [and that] tracked with what a number of other well-connected individuals in Syria have recently been saying.
In that piece I also characterized what I see as the precise nature of the two countries’ shared concerns regarding Iraq.
If you haven’t read that piece– or the longer collection of excerpts from the interview that I published at ForeignPolicy.com (and also here)– then you should do so.
Also, go read Peter Harling’s excellent recent article “Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue.”
I would add at this point that during the six days I was in Syria, several well-connected private citizens there talked about how Syria’s interests in Iraq diverge from those of its longtime ally Iran in some significant ways.
Basically, while Syria and Iran (and the US) all want to strengthen the Maliki government in Baghdad and help him crack down hard on the anti-Baghdad insurgents, Damascus and Tehran differ on the kind of regime they want to see emerging over the long haul in Baghdad. Damascus wants to see one that is determinedly Arab and secular, while Tehran wants to see one that mirrors its own Shi-ite-Islamist character much more closely and might not be particularly closely integrated into the rest of the Arab world.
Yes, this is a difference, and an intriguing one. Several Syrians have also noted how relieved they are to have built good relations over the past few years with their northern neighbor Turkey, a NATO member that has a determinedly secular constitution (even though it is currently ruled by an Islamist party.)
No-one should ever expect, though, that Damascus will simply turn on a dime and– as the childish US parlance has it– “flip” rapidly or completely against Tehran. The Islamic Republic has been an essential regional bulwark for the Asads through many years in which they have faced extremely dangerous threats (especially the early 1980s and the GWB years.)
Anyway, the original intention of this post was to note that, though most Americans have paid ittle attention to the Syrian track of the Arab-Israeli negotiations over the past two decades, in fact this has been a fascinating story.
Damascus has negotiated with every Israeli premier from Yitzhak Shamir through Ehud Olmert, with the exception of Ariel Sharon. You can see the book I wrote about the very fruitful first five years of these negotiations, here. Good news, it is now apparently back in print.
Here’s the short version of all the negotiations since 1991:
With Yitzhak Shamir.
Syria decided to participate in the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, after Sec. of State Baker pre-negotiated between Shamir and Asad the agreed basis on which the conference would be held. The encounter at Madrid was not itself productive. Syrian FM Farouq Sharaa used his time there to hold up old 1940s-era posters published by the British in which Shamir was (rightly) described as a “Wanted criminal.”
But still, an official Syrian envoy had participated in a public negotiating forum with an Israeli leader for the first time ever; and Pres. Hafez al-Asad assured everyone at home and abroad that securing a negotiated peace was Syria’s “strategic option”, and not just a mere tactic.
Rabin succeeded Shamir in 1992, and engaged in negotiations with both Syria and, as it turned out, the PLO. After the PLO concluded the bilateral Oslo Agreement with Rabin in September 1993, Syrian oficials said that though previously they had been committed to negotiating jointly with all the other Arab parties, now they felt prepared to negotiate the best deal they could for Syria even if the Palestinians were not yet ready to conclude a final peace.
Moualem and other officials reiterated that position to me during my recent stay in Damascus– though they all still said that a “comprehensive peace”, that is, an all-track peace, is their preferred outcome.
Rabin engaged more seriously with Damascus than any other Israeli PM before or since. In summer 1994 he handed the US intermediaries what has since been called the “Rabin deposit”, which was a commitment to– in the context of getting satisfaction from Damascus on a range of other issues in the security, economic, and diplomatic fields– withdraw Israel completely back to the lines of June 4 , 1967.
That deposit was never handed over to the Syrians. But Washington’s assurance to Damascus that the deposit was indeed “in Washington’s pocket” was sufficient to allow negotiations on the associated range of other issues to proceed. Including, the chiefs of staff of the two country’s military’s engaged in discussions of a post-peace security regime.
Opposition to the idea of withdrawing from Golan grew up inside Israel, however. (Most of the 20,000 or so Israeli settlers there were put there by Labour, and are still, basically secular-type people, since Golan has almost none of the hot-button “religious”-type sites that are important to the religious-extremist settlers in the West Bank.) Then in November 1995, Rabin was assassinated.
Peres inherited the Syria policy from Rabin. (He had to be informed of the nature of the Rabin deposit while he was actually at Rabin’s funeral. That, though he had been Rabin’s foreign minister. Go figure what that says about the integrity of the process for strategic decisionmaking at the top of Israel’s leadership structure.)
Peres faced imminent elections. He didn’t want to push on with the always-tough Palestinian negotiations. But he did want some kind of an “achievement” of his own to take into the elections, so he moved rapidly into accelerating the negotiations on the Syrian track. Asad was eager to do that, too. In January 1996 the two sides went to the Wye Plantation in Maryland and held very intense negotiations over all the fine details of a final peace agreement. With help from actively involved US mediators there, they nailed down many of its these details.
In February and March 1996, Hamas and other Palestinian militants angry with the the ever-deteriorating situation inside Paltustan as the settlements continued to grow there, launched a devastating series of suicide bombs against civilian targets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Peres called the elections immediately and ordered his negotiators to return from Wye to Israel. He also launched a nasty little war (as an election-related ploy, as so often in Israel.) That war was against Hizbullah in Lebanon, which as it happened he lost. He also lost the election.
He came in in late spring 1996 on a strong platform of opposing Oslo and not doing anything further on the Palestinian track. But when he came under some (not enormous) pressure from Washington to do “something” peace-wise, he tossed a few grudging and inconsequential crumbs to the Palestinians while engaging in a ploy that Likud people have often resorted to: dealing with Syria as an alternative to dealing seriously with the Palestinians.
That, at least, is my reading of the episode in which Netanyahu went along with a plan proposed by the pro-Likud US-American businessman Ron Lauder that he, Lauder, fly to Damascus and try to conclude a quick deal with Asad. (By the way, if I used cosmetics I would definitely boycott those from Lauder’s Estee Lauder brand.)
On this occasion, though, Lauder still had not finally satisfied Asad that Bibi was committed to the June 4, 1967 line before news of Lauder’s activities was prematurely leaked to the media– by, according to Moualem, Sharon, acting in cahoots with Daniel Pipes. Bibi abruptly ended the intiative.
(One casualty of the Lauder affair was, for a few years thereafter, present FM Walid Moualem, who as Asad’s ambassador in Washington in the 1990s had been a full participant in the Rabin and Peres-era talks and had helped facilitate the Lauder mission. After it bombed he was recalled abruptly to Damascus and sent to the woodshed for a few years. We should all be glad he’s back from there.)
Barak came to power in 1999 on a platform of achieving a final Palestinian-Israeli peace “within six to nine months”. But when that proved harder than this intensely arrogant man had understood, he abruptly switched to the Syrian track. He instructed Clinton to convene peace talks with Syrians at Shepherdstown in West Virginia; and then as a follow-up to that, in mid-2000, to organize a summit meeting with Asad in Geneva.
Okay, maybe he didn’t actually, directly, “instruct” Clinton to take these steps… But it was almost like that, given Clinton’s slavering admiration of anyone (Rabin, Barak) who had actually not only served in the military but also had been a renowned leader in the IDF.
Asad was intrigued by the invitation to Geneva and very much hoped that when he met Clinton face to face there Clinton would assure him that Barak had finally reaffirmed his adherence to the terms of the 1994 Rabin deposit. There was some very last-minute sleight of hand involved there– in which Dennis Ross was extremely deeply involved– and when the two presidents met in Geneva Clinton was unable to give Asad the assurance he sought. The meeting broke off very badly. Asad returned to Damascus and a month later died of some combination of long pre-existing conditions and a broken heart.
Dennis, by the way, was the only person taking notes in Geneva. And nine years later the Syrians say he still has not made good on his promise to hand a copy of those notes over to them. Memo to any negotiators: Take your own note-taker with you.
So Pres. Hafez al-Asad died and was succeeded by– what an amazing coincidence!– Pres. Bashar al-Asad. As for Barak, he was still useless at the coalition-guarding task that’s a sine qua non of political survival in Israel. Plus Sharon was stirring things up against him, deciding to go visit the Haram al-Sharif plaza in Jerusalem, and things were going downhill fast in Paltustan… So Barak’s coalition fell apart and he had to call an election in early 2001. He lost to Sharon.
Who as far as I can recall never did anything significant on the Syrian negotiating track. (Maybe I’ve forgotten something. I’m writing this fast.) But anyway, for the new and in some ways accidental Pres. Asad, that meant he had a few years to consolidate his hold on power before he needed to engage in the perils of peace diplomacy with an extremely erratic and ever-changing cast of leadership characters in Israel. He did, however, reiterate at every possible opportunity the commitment that a negotiated peace with Israel was Syria’s “strategic decision.”
Sharon was the PM from 2001 through January 2006, when he was felled by a stroke and was succeeded by his long-time protege…
In 2007, Turkey’s AKP prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan started sending a high-level adviser, the foreign-policy intellectual Ahmet Davutoglu, shuttling between Israel and Syria to explore the possibility of re-opening the peace negotiations on this track with the help of Ankara. These feelers resulted, in May 2008, in Turkey convening a first round of proximity talks between Syrian and Israeli officials in, I think, Istanbul. In the proximity talks, each delegation had rooms in a separate hotel, and Davutoglu and his team carried messages between them.
Olmert continued participating in this initiative until December 2008 even though Bush’s top Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams very strongly disapproved of it. I guess we could call that evidence of a modicum of courage and vision on Olmert’s behalf? H’mmm… Maybe…
(Clarification, morning of June 14: Though Abrams opposed Olmert’s involvement, Olmert reportedly checked in with Bush himself who gave him a go-ahead of some sort. So Olmert’s “courage” is not necessarily proven by this episode.)
Once again, the members of the Syrian team in Turkey sought assurance from this new leadership in Israel of commitment to the 1994 Rabin deposit. They also sought assurance that, when referring to “the June 4, 1967 line”, everyone was actually still talking about the same exact spot on the map. So demarcating that line because an issue.
On around Christmas Day last year, Olmert himself went to Ankara to give his Turkish hosts his version of where the six key GPS points on the demarcation line were. If Davutoglu, Erdogan, and Asad had determined that this concurred with the Syrian view of where the line was, then Moualem was reportedly ready to fly to Istanbul at a moment’s notice to engage in the first direct face-to-face talks any Syrian official had held with Israeli officials since Shepherdstown… But before the Turks could fully examine the six GPS coordinates being offered by Olmert, Olmert got urgently called back home.
One or two days later he launched the assault on Gaza.
In both Damascus and Ankara there was some real anger that in the whole exercise of the promximity talks these two governments had merely been “used” by Olmert and as part of an elaborate strategic deception operation, designed to provide a flim-flam of diplomatic movement to hide the reality of the assault that Olmert– and Barak– had for many months been preparing, against Gaza. There is considerable evidence of other elements of this strategic deception operation, too, as has been widely noted by Israeli analysts and reports. In one part of it, Barak went on a very silly game show and had tomatoes thrown at him, or whatever, to “lull” the watching world into thinking that Israel really couldn’t be preparing any serious military operations if the defense minister had so much free time on his hands…
In Damascus, in addition, I heard some real relief expressed that the regime had dodged a bullet by not having moved to the next level of direct talks with Olmert by the time he launched the assault on Gaza.
So now we are back to Bibi Netanyahu in power in Israel.
Moualem told me he thought the best to resume the peace negotiations with Israel would be to resume the approach that was used with Olmert in Turkey; and to resume it with Turkey playing the same role, as before.
Here was what he said, precisely:
We think that was a good approach: to start with the indirect talks in that way. And then, if we had gotten over the preliminaries with the Turks the plan was to hand the task of completing the peace agreement over to the Americans.
The best way would be to try to repeat this approach now. If this should succeed, the success would belong to Barack Obama — and if we fail, the failure would be ours alone!
Why do we need the U.S. in this? Firstly, because of the unique nature of the relationship they have with Israel, and secondly because of their command of certain technical capabilities — for monitoring and verification of a peace agreement — that only the United States has.
Of course, Mitchell and Obama may well have other plans for how to proceed. My own longstanding preference, fwiw, is for a resumed, all-track, international peace conference that is convened with the goal of securing a comprehensive, all-track peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.
I wish that in his Cairo speech, Obama had mentioned the words “comprehensive peace.” He has mentioned them since then; but in the Cairo speech would have been even better.
If that really is his goal– as seems to be the case– and it is also, crucially, the goal of the Arab Peace Initiative, then that needs to be repeatedly spelled out, and concrete actions in pursuit of that goal need to be taken very soon indeed.
Maybe the resumed international peace conference should be convened in Turkey. That would be a fabulous location, and would send many constructive messages to important audiences all around the world. Plus, Edogan and Davutoglu– recently named his foreign minister– have proven their abilities as mediators and negotiators on a broad range of issues relevant to the quest for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
I can’t quite make up my mind between Ankara and Istanbul. Istanbul maybe carries a bit of left-over Ottoman baggage– but it is a ways more exciting city!
But maybe the Ottoman baggage has nearly all dissipated now, anyway. Gosh, I still have half an essay on my hard drive on the emergence of a helpful, de-escalatory form of neo-Ottomanism in Turkey under the AKP… Ankara’s foreign policy under the AKP has truly been inspired. (Including, of course, that even though Turkey’s a NATO member it dug its heels in, in opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.)
Enough here, for now. The main topic of this post is, after all, the history of Syria’s peace efforts with Israel since 1991.