As the US Warms to Syria, A Frost May Descend on US-Israeli Relations
by Charles Lemos, Wed Apr 08, 2009 at 06:47:33 PM EDT
The US relationship with Syria has been strained to say the least and though the Bush Administration didn't formally treat Damascus as part of the "Axis of Evil," Syria was effectively treated as an international pariah. The United States has criticized Syria for supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and has accused the country of allowing extremists to cross its border to fight US-led forces in Iraq. The Bush Administration recalled the US ambassador to Syria for consultations in early 2005 in protest of the Hariri assassination in Lebanon -- Syrian officials have been investigated in the killing, though Damascus denies involvement. Significantly, however, the Bush Administration opted to maintain diplomatic relations even as the relationship continued to sour and deteriorate. As Martin Indyk, the Director of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Studies and former US Ambassador to Israel, noted the dominant view of Syria that had developed in Washington during the Bush Administration is that of Syria as "a country ruled by an unreliable leader, with ruthless ambitions to dominate its smaller Lebanese neighbor, harboring Palestinian terrorists and Iraqi insurgents, and maintaining an alliance with Iran - a strategic adversary of the United States."
In early March, the Obama administration began taking action to reverse historic US policy of isolation towards Syria preferring to directly engage Damascus even if only temporarily to better gauge what Syria is currently thinking. Though US politicians regularly visit Damascus (Speaker Pelosi and Senator John Kerry among others with Congressmen Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, and Republican Bob Inglis meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just this past Sunday), no US diplomat had been since 2005. That all changed in March when Secretary Clinton dispatched two high-ranking emissaries, including former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman and Daniel B. Shapiro, the top Middle East officer at the National Security Council.
Today Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem praised President Obama's pledge to pursue a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians as "positive," but warned the real test for the new American approach in the Middle East was yet to come. More on this from CBS News:
"We welcome the positive speech which indicates a clear inclination towards a two-state solution, including a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," Moallem told CBS News on the sidelines of a two-day Alliance of Civilization Conference in Istanbul.
"The speech reflects Washington's encouragement for a lasting peace settlement on all tracks and signals the importance of the Turkish role in this respect, unlike the position of President Bush who was against the resumption of indirect talks between Syria and Israel," said Moallem.
But, Moallem (at left) cautioned, "We still need to know the nature of the relationship between the new U.S. administration and the Israeli radical, right-wing government which is rejecting the two-state solution, international resolutions and the Arab peace initiative."
On the other hand, US-Israeli relations may take a decidedly more confrontational tone. According to Haaretz, the Obama Administration is warning Democratic members of Congress that Obama Administration is expecting a clash with new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In recent weeks, American officials have briefed senior Democratic congressmen and prepared the ground for the possibility of disagreements with Israel over the peace process, according to information recently received. The administration's efforts are focused on President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, which now holds a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The preemptive briefing is meant to foil the possibility that Netanyahu may try to bypass the administration by rallying support in Congress.
The message that administration officials have relayed to the congressmen is that President Obama is committed to the security of Israel and intends to continue the military assistance agreement that was signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
However, Obama considers the two-state solution central to his Middle East policy, as he reiterated during a speech in Turkey on Monday, and he intends to ask that Netanyahu fulfill all the commitments made by previous governments in Israel: accepting the principle of a Palestinian state; freezing settlement activity; evacuating illegal outposts; and providing economic and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
I tend to agree with Bilal Saab of the Brookings Institute who views "the visit of Feltman and Shapiro to Syria represents not a thaw, but merely a de-icing of relations." The opening is a space to exchange frank views and explore commonalities on which to move forward. A Syrian peace deal with Israel is likely predicated on the return of the Golan Heights and that seems unlikely at this point. Still Syria may content itself with breaking its near decade long isolation and enjoying a productive relationship with the West including an expansion of commercial relations and an easing of trade sanctions. The Obama Administration in a gesture of goodwill granted a waiver allowing Boeing to go ahead with major overhauls of two 747 jetliners belonging to Syria's state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines. Further improvements, however, are likely predicated on Syria refraining from its traditional disruptive and destabilizing role in Lebanon and from Syrian compliance in the non-proliferation of missile technologies.
However, the de-icing of US-Syrian relations is not the catalyst for the frost that is descending over US-Israeli relations. There the return of the hawkish Likud-led coalition and statements by various members of the new Netanyahu government on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the two-state solution and the Annapolis process are clearly disruptive to the progress made the past decade. For the moment, US relations with Netanyahu's Israel seem clouded at best in advance of Prime Minister Netayahu's visit to Washington. It is ironic and extremely saddening that as the Obama Administration came to power, Israel turned to the right by the narrowest of margins again forestalling progress towards a lasting and sustainable peace in the region.