This week's question | 2006-08-22

Should Syria and Israel start peace negotiations now?

After the October War of 1973, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted famous shuttle diplomacy between Damascus, Tel Aviv, and Cairo. This led to the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, setting buffer zones between the two warring countries, and establishing a no-peace, no-war relationship. Both parties have remarkably respected this relationship despite all the tension in the Middle East. Kissinger?s shuttle diplomacy paved the road for signing of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, former Secretary of State James Baker conducted his own shuttle diplomacy to establish an international coalition for the liberation of Kuwait. This diplomacy led to the grand entry of former Syrian President Hafez al-Asad into the international coalition, giving Arab legitimacy to ?Operation Desert Storm.? Asad?s Syria after all, was a secular regime bent on Arab nationalism like the one in Iraq, ruled by a rival wing of the Baath Party. In exchange for Asad?s siding with the US against a fellow Arab country, he received a green light to keep Syrian forces in Lebanon, end the civil war, and dispose General Michel Aoun, the anti-Syrian leader of Lebanon who was fighting a ?war of liberation? against the Syrian Army. As promised the Americans also jumpstarted a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace conference?the first of its kind since 1948, in Madrid in 1991. In turn, this led to 10-years of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

In 1996, Israel conducted ?Operation Grapes of Wrath? against Hizbullah in South Lebanon. Former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher conducted his own shuttle diplomacy between Damascus, Jerusalem, and Beirut, which led to the April Understanding and a joint Syrian-French-Israeli-American monitoring group to supervise the Lebanese-Israeli border. By this understanding, Hizbullah was forced to cease missile attacks on northern Israel and Israel agreed to end its target attacks on civilians in South Lebanon. The ?April Understanding? remained intact until the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000.

These three cases of ?shuttle diplomacy? speak volumes about how the current war in the Middle East can be solved.

1) Every confrontation creates a window of opportunity for a new beginning.
2) The need for commitment from a Great Power to conduct shuttle diplomacy, armed with creative solutions.
3) The need to engage with both state and non-state parties (like Hizbullah) to build a coalition.
4) Readiness to present initiatives for a win-win solution to all parties, accompanied by big carrots?and big sticks.

All of us know that the current administration of George W. Bush wanted to revolt against all?or some, of these established principals. The Bush team hates barter deals and upon coming to power in 2001 did not want to pursue the policies of former President Bill Clinton of permanent engagement in affairs of the Middle East. Then came the terrorist attacks of 9-11. They strengthened the main principal of the Bush administration: you are either with us or against us. Either black or white. No room for the color grey.

Precisely from here arise the roots of continued hostility in the Middle East. We can safely say that the events taking place are transition from one adventure to another: from Afghanistan to Iraq, from democratizing the Middle East to preserving peace and security, from the Greater Middle East, to the ?new Middle East.? It is possible to say that at many times the results were different from what was announced or expected. Syria is a good example in this case. As it is know, Syria is listed on the ?List of State Sponsors of Terrorism? by the US State Department since 1979. But there were always Syrian-American ?deals? and summits between Syrian leaders and US presidents since 1970. After 9-11, the Bush administration presented specific requests to Syria, which included: ending support for ?terrorism,? expelling the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas from Damascus, severing relations with Hizbullah, and ending support for the insurgency in Iraq. The US administration got used to making demands without offering any rewards to the Syrians: a stick with no carrots. That is why it was unable to obtain any serious concessions from Damascus. Since 2004, Washington adopted a policy of escalating pressure on Damascus and isolating Syria, topped with economic sanctions in May 2004. Political ones followed after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri. Then Bush decided to recall his Ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scooby. After that there was an international campaign, spearheaded by the USA and France, which led to Syria?s exodus from Lebanon, as specified by UN Resolution 1559. An international committee was created to investigate the Harriri murder, which became a sharp sword trained on the neck of the Syrian regime since many in Lebanon believed that Syria was either directly or indirectly involved in liquidating Harriri. Since then the Bush administration started to isolate Syria and severe all political dialogue, and some among the neocons went as far as to talk about regime change in Syria. The official line, however, talked about ?changing the regime?s behavior? in Syria. Meaning, meeting the list of demands mentioned above. What happened in reality, however, was the exact opposite. Locally, more pressure increased on the Syrian opposition and several dissidents and human rights activists were arrested, and political and economic reforms were stalled. The Syrian government strengthened its political alliances with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It also strengthened its relations with Hizbullah after the Syrian Army left Lebanon in 2005, in order to maintain its political influence in Lebanon. The most important indicator is that Syria cuddled up to Iran, after the victory of the hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in July 2005.

Washington was able?unintentionally, through isolating Syria and non-engagement with Damascus, to push Syria into an alliance with all the parties targeted by the US. This created a virtual alliance between Syria, Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, with extensions in Iraq. The latest confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah revealed an important issue that must not be ignored by the decision-makers in Israel, the Arab World, and the West. A small non-state organization was able to remain steadfast in front of the might of the IDF?something that three Arab states were unable to do for more than 6 days in 1967. This poses a big challenge to the concept of ?the state.? It greatly exposes the danger of chaos.

The difficult stage is the post-cease-fire period. There are two scenarios. One is to create a new situation of violence in the Middle East. The second is for a peaceful and promising future. Issuing an UN resolution by the Security Council, without international consent, and sending multi-national forces to Lebanon without the approval of Hizbullah or those who support it?meaning Syria or Iran, would repeat what happened in 1983: Hizbullah targeting these forces with suicide attacks. The more dangerous scenario is that these multi-national forces get transformed into a magnet for al-Qaeda to South Lebanon. This means transforming Lebanon into another Iraq on the northern border of Israel. Meaning, solving the Lebanese problem a-la Iraq: US stubbornness with no international support and regional backing would mean chaos in Lebanon. This might lead to another civil war. Until now there are indicators that several countries do not want an Iraqi solution to Lebanon. France requested Iranian help for a solution. Germany and Spain want a positive role from the Syrians and consider Syria part of the solution, rather than part of the problem itself. There is reluctance at the Security Council to reach a consensus and an increasing number of states that oppose the disarming of Hizbullah by force and propose the integration of Hizbullah into the political process, and simultaneous disarmament. Solving the domestic Lebanese crisis requires dealing with in its regional context.

The US President does not want to reward the Syrians. President Jacques Chirac of France cannot forget his personal disappointment with the domestic reforms in Damascus, on which he was personally advising and following up on. British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to punish Syria for its role in Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not want to reward the ?terrorism? of Hizbullah. But the war has showed that the "problem" could not be solved by military means. That was the bases for the Israeli talk about "the need for peace" with Syria.

We need a US Secretary of State who is a mixture between Henry Kissinger and James Baker, one who is able to secure a disengagement agreement, create a buffer zone in Lebanon, as Kissinger did in 1974. And one who is able to launch a political process to achieve a peaceful settlement to enable the Israelis to live in peace with the other people of this part of the world, in a truly ?new Middle East.?