Engaging Syria: Losing Ground

By Ramzy Baroud

On 15 May, President Bush gave a speech before the Israeli Knesset decrying "radicals and terrorists" (basically anyone who opposes the United States and Israel). His archaic references to the "promised land" and "chosen people" certainly appealed to the equally outdated and exclusivist views of many, though not all, Israeli Knesset members who reportedly saw in Bush the quintessential Zionist.

A few days later, Bush took his message to Sharm El-Sheikh, stating, "we must stand with the good and decent people of Iran and Syria, who deserve so much better than the life they have today. Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in stopping these nations from supporting terrorism."

Yet, on 21 May, media reports revealed that Israel and Syria were engaged in mediated peace talks in Turkey. Both sides sounded upbeat, with Syrian officials stating that Israel showed readiness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, which it occupied in 1967 and illegally annexed in 1981.

Within days of Bush’s seemingly firm stance against "appeasement" — which ignited a political storm back in his own country — Israel seemed ready to do exactly what the US president had so ardently opposed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to engage Syria has been met with much scepticism in Israel and the Arab world. There, media discussions of Olmert’s intentions fall between the following parameters: breaking the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance, isolating the Palestinian opposition headquartered in Damascus, and diverting attention from heated corruption scandals dogging him at home.

As outspoken as hawks (both in Israel and the US) might be about the "need" for another war, many know by now that a full-scale invasion of Iran would be political, if not also military suicide. Iran has a stable and popular government with ample resources and many years of mental and physical preparations for a military showdown. It also has plenty of options for retaliation and great influence among Iraqi militias that would, on a whim, turn their weapons on US occupation forces.

The prospect of attacking Hizbullah is also now diminished. Olmert may not be a wise leader, but he is certainly not a foolish one. Considering the utter failure of his country’s conventional military approach in the July- August 2006 war on Lebanon, he is unlikely to try the same strategy again. The attempt to destabilise Lebanon from within, in the hopes of igniting a protracted civil war, also yielded a gloomy outcome when much-derided Hizbullah easily took control of Beirut.

The result of anticipated muscle flexing in Lebanon was another blow to those hoping to undermine Hizbullah and the regional alliance. The outcome of the clash was a rude awakening for pro-US local leaders in Lebanon, demonstrating that the balance of power was not in their favour. Hizbullah’s triumph led to intense talks in Doha, Qatar, between the competing parties, followed by an agreement. On 21 May, the two blocs — those of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and Hizbullah — resolved on Michel Suleiman as president as a means to end the crisis.

What does this mean for Lebanon as far as US regional policies are concerned? Although it indicates another foreign policy failure for the Bush administration and an incomparable disappointment for Israel, it hardly signals the end of plotting against Lebanon, Hizbullah and its allies. Another irony is that the peace agreement was achieved in Qatar, a US ally, and only a few miles from the US’s largest army headquarters in the region.

Meanwhile in Egypt, Israel and Hamas have been talking, albeit indirectly. Although little progress has been reported, the fact remains that Israel is engaging a party that has conspired to undermine, defeat and humiliate it for years.

What do we make of all of this: negotiations that livened peace talks with Syria (dead since 2000), engaging Hamas, and doing little to hamper the peaceful settlement to the Lebanese crisis at the same time as heightening the rhetoric against Iran and its allies and vowing not to engage "radicals and terrorists"?

There are a few reasons for the apparent "cooling-off" in US-Israeli strategy. The failure to completely marginalise Hamas led to immense human suffering among Palestinians, but actually strengthened the democratically elected group. Every attempt at eradicating Hizbullah yielded the exact opposite outcome, and the group is now stronger than ever. The burning Israeli desire to ignite another US war against Iran is being met with little enthusiasm in the US as Bush’s days in office are numbered. It is unlikely that the remaining eight months in Bush’s regime will lead to the long- aspired geopolitical reconfiguration in the Middle East that neo-conservatives were once so obsessed by.

It is also highly doubtful that Olmert’s peace talks with Syria are an exclusively Israeli affair, designed to create a distraction from his personal woes. The regional implications of that decision — the future of the Syria-Iran, and Syria-Palestinian opposition alliance and the Israeli-Turkish political relationship — are too valuable for a personal gamble. Moreover, while some may see Israel’s decision to engage Syria as an indication of the political independence under which Israel operates, it is also unlikely that the US would permit an entirely free Israeli hand in reshaping regional politics while the former is engaged in a cold and active war in the same region.

The failures of US-Israeli policies in Lebanon and Palestine seem to have brought an end — for now — the "creative chaos" agenda once espoused with infamous enthusiasm. Lebanon has not succumbed completely to civil strife, and Palestinians in Gaza are still not willing to unconditionally submit to Israel’s political diktats. The new strategy is likely to surpass national schemes, engaging each party separately, conceding little or nothing, and working diligently to break opposing regional alliances. This will start with Syria, that is expected to bring an end to its honeymoon with Palestinian opposition groups. It’s the least the country can do if genuine about achieving "peace", or so the rhetoric goes.

-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).

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