This week's question | 2006-08-22

Should Syria and Israel start peace negotiations now?

Recent indications would suggest that Israel ? or at least some Israelis ? are beginning to explore the possibility of restarting negotiations with Syria after a six-year interruption.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had appointed a senior official ? Yaakov (Yaki) Dayan, formerly head of the diplomatic desk at the Ministry ? as ?project manager? of possible future talks with Damascus.

There have also been suggestions that an informal committee has been formed to look into the matter, consisting of two ?Syria experts? -- General (retired) Uri Saguy, an ex-head of Aman, Israel?s military intelligence, who advised former prime minister Ehud Barak on negotiations with Syria, and Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to Washington, negotiator with Syria and now President of Tel Aviv University.

The United States may itself be considering putting out tentative feelers towards President Bashar al-Asad?s regime. The Israeli daily Maariv reported that Edward Djerejian, who served as U.S. ambassador to both Syria and Israel and is now President of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas, had been asked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to act as an informal liaison with Damascus, where he is known and respected for his even-handed views. Djerejian played an unofficial advisory role of this sort on behalf of former Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W Bush?s first administration.

What are likely to be the motives of Israel and the U.S. in contemplating an opening to Damascus?

The broad objective is clearly to break up the Iran-Syrian alliance, or at least to draw Syria out of Iran?s orbit. Neither Washington nor Tel Aviv makes any secret of it.

More specifically, the U.S./Israeli ambition is to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis, which poses a major challenge to American and Israeli regional supremacy. Damascus is seen as the weak link in the axis. If Bashar al-Asad cannot be overthrown ? he has so far resisted attempts to do so -- then he can perhaps be tamed and removed from the axis by negotiations. If that could be engineered, the axis would collapse. Such would seem to be the thinking in Washington and Tel Aviv.

The Lebanon War underlined the strategic importance of the axis. Israel?s failure to destroy Hizballah during the war ? and the unpleasant surprise occasioned by its skilful guerrilla tactics and sophisticated weaponry ? reminded everyone that the Lebanese resistance movement enjoys the military, financial and political backing of both Syria and Iran.

To disarm Hizballah -- which remains a major Israeli and U.S. post-war goal ? would, at the very least, require Syria?s consent. But, in exchange for such a major policy switch, Syria would no doubt demand a concession of real substance for itself, like the chance to recover the Golan. Hence, Israel?s current signals that it is considering resuming negotiations with Damascus.

For the moment, at least, such moves lack credibility. Damascus is bound to wait a few months to see how things turn out.

- For one thing, Israel is in political turmoil. The Olmert government may not survive, and nor may the Kadima-Labour coalition. If the government falls and fresh elections are held, Binyamin Netanyahu?s Likud could well return to power. The outlook might then be for war ? beginning very probably with a ?second round? in Lebanon -- rather than for negotiations.

- For another, Syria?s alliance with Iran is far too valuable, and far too vital for Syria national security, for it to be sacrificed or even endangered by taking the bait of separate talks with Israel and an opening to the United States.

-Thirdly, Syria is now engaged in a ferocious struggle with France and the U.S. ? and, of course, indirectly with Israel -- for influence in Lebanon. France and the U.S., and their local Lebanese allies, are seeking to oust Syria altogether from Lebanon. Syria and its allies are fighting back. Syria?s national security demands that it must do whatever it takes to prevent a hostile power from gaining a predominant position in Beirut. This is Syria?s immediate priority, far outweighing, for the moment at least, any temptation to take seriously the signals hinting that Israel is ready for talks.

In brief, a resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks would seem to be a long way off.