Syrian President Bashar Assad’s assertion this week that relations with Israel will be normalized only when the Palestinian conflict is resolved has “poured cold water on the Syrian track,” according to Dore Gold, a senior foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gold was referring to Assad’s interview in the United Arab Emirates daily Al-Khaleej, in which Assad was quoted as saying that a peace agreement with Israel is possible that would perhaps include an embassy and formalities.
“But if you want peace, then it has to be comprehensive,” he said. “We give them a choice between comprehensive peace and a peace agreement which does not have any real value on the ground.”
Assad added that the Syrian people would not accept a peace agreement that included trade and normal relations with Israel “since there are half a million Palestinians in our country whose position remains unresolved. It is impossible under these terms to have peace in the natural sense.”
Gold said Wednesday that it therefore “makes absolutely no sense to have an agreement without peace, and it makes no sense to have an agreement without Assad dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism.”
Since 1979, Syria has been on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Assad’s comments came just days after two American officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, flew to Damascus to explore with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem the possibility of reestablishing relations with Syria. The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harari was linked to Syria.
At the meeting, the American officials reportedly said the Obama administration wanted to see “forward momentum” on peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last weekend was quoted as saying that the importance of the Syrian-Israeli peace track “cannot be overstated.”
Indirect Syrian-Israeli talks were held last year under the auspices of Turkey, and Syria made clear that it wanted the U.S. to participate before it could agree to direct negotiations. Assad reiterated that stance in an interview published Wednesday in a Japanese newspaper.
“We need the United States to act as a mediator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations,” Assad was quoted as saying.
And for the first time he said Syria wanted to engage in a dialogue for regional peace, one that would involve the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Both are funded and supplied with arms by Iran.
Such an approach coincides with one being adopted by the Obama administration, according to Tom Dine, a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum.
“What happens in one area affects what happens in another,” he wrote on the IPF’s Web site.
“Syria is a pivotal player in the region but, as the Syrian leadership is making clear to the Americans, disengagement cannot be overturned and upgraded overnight,” he wrote. “What can be exclaimed is that the end of American isolation of Syria has commenced.
“But until major adjustments and changes in behavior are made by Syria, according to administration officials, a new policy day in the bilateral sphere will not begin,” he wrote.
Dine, who just returned from his fifth visit to Syria in the last 12 months as part of U.S.-Syrian back channel talks, cautioned that the U.S. must “go slow, be careful [and] develop a sense of trust” in its talks with Syria.
Although the Obama administration is also reaching out for talks with Iran, it also wants to see Syria halt Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah.
An Iranian shipment of arms supplies and explosives headed for Syria and believed ultimately bound for Lebanon or Gaza was detained off Cyprus in January. The United Nations sanction committee has asked both Iran and Syria to explain the shipment, which includes a number of items banned by UN sanctions against Iran. Among the items on the ship: armor-piercing guns and high explosive anti-tank missile propellant.
“The seizure of this boat is the most visible example of the United States and Europe taking seriously its obligations to prevent smuggling [to Palestinians] in Gaza,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “This is the only example of an attempt to enforce the arms limitations that the Europeans and Americans” promised to undertake, he added. “The Egyptians haven’t done anything” to stop the smuggling.
Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office in Jerusalem, said wooing Syria from its Iranian ties will not be easy.
“He [Assad] is much more bound to the Iranian connection than people seem to recognize,” he said. “There is an image, fostered by some analysts, that all one needs to do is give them a good offer and Syria will walk away from Iran because they are not religious radicals.
“But the truth is that the relationship between Syria, Hezbollah and their masters [in Iran] is much deeper. Assad is sending a signal that it is not going to be easy to disassociate Syria from Iran and that he will not accept the legitimacy of Israel. He will accept a ceasefire [with Israel], just as Hezbollah did [after its 2006 war with Israel], but not the recognition of what peace entails. This position serves his strategic purpose now because he has to assure the Iranians that he is not slipping away.”
“I’m not saying it is entirely outside the realm of possibility for Syria to change its orientation,” Lerman added. “But as things stand now, it is highly unlikely.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu appeared on the verge of forming a narrow right-wing government with perhaps as few as 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
One associate of Netanyahu said privately that once the government is formed members of other parties may defect to join the coalition once they see the increasing danger that Iran poses as it moves closer to developing nuclear weapons.
Raphael Israeli, a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the coalition could increase to 65 seats if the National Union joins.
But he said it wants to head the ministry of construction, a portfolio already promised to Shas.
“They want this ministry so they can build homes for Orthodox Jews,” he said.
But Israeli noted that they have been offered the agriculture ministry, a post from which Ariel Sharon was able to develop settlements in the territories.
“I think this can be resolved,” Israeli said.