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Commentary: Important, Doable, But (For Now) Improbable

By Abbas Djavadi

A second round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria ended on June 16 in Istanbul. As last month, advisers of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad didn't meet in person. Mediating Turkish officials conveyed proposals and counterproposals to the parties.

The good news is that Israel is talking peace with an important Arabic player. The surprisingly positive news is that Olmert and al-Assad may meet and talk on July 13, when Mediterranean leaders gather in Paris to discuss better cooperation. The bad news is that real peace can't happen between the two countries before the United States has a new president.

An Israeli-Syrian settlement would diffuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reduce the sources of violence, and weaken those such as Iran who oppose mutual recognition and internal stability in the region. More importantly, it would bring better security to the Jewish state, which feels threatened by the "Resistance Group" (Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas), and greater prosperity to Syria through an improved standing in the international community.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, writing in Lebanon's "Daily Star," says an Israeli-Syrian deal is strategically vital for both. For Syria, it is a "prerequisite" to peacefully recover the Golan Heights from Israel and to achieve rapprochement with Washington.

And the Iranian-Syrian alliance? The Arabic, secular Syria has no sympathies for Iran's ayatollahs. The alliance started with both countries' opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and continued after his overthrow. Damascus profited from the alliance by receiving cheap oil and major loans from Iran, and the consolidation of its influence in Lebanon through Hizballah.

Turkish-mediated Israeli-Syrian talks have alarmed Tehran. The conservative Iranian newspaper "Kayhan," which is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, argued that Syria should not give up a "strategic alliance" for the sake of "an unimportant piece of land" (the Golan Heights).

But with Saddam Hussein gone and Damascus under pressure from both the West and most powerful Arab nations, the basis for that "strategic alliance" is eroding and Syria is ready to break out of the "Resistance Group." Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, recently told "The Wall Street Journal" that peace between his country and Israel can be achieved, but "it requires the full commitment of the U.S."

So far, Washington has offered only lukewarm support to the Israeli-Syrian talks. Actually, it cannot even be termed support. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last week that the United States "does not object to the effort, which was a decision undertaken by Israel."

Washington has reservations, rightly so, about al-Assad's foreign policy and domestic policies. The Bush administration's policy has been to isolate and pressure rather than to engage Syria. Damascus is often cited along with Tehran, Hizballah, and Hamas as a bundle of evil in the Middle East. There is no indication that President George W. Bush is prepared to change such a view -- particularly in the last months of his administration.

Raymond Hinnebush of Scotland's University of St. Andrews told Radio Farda, a U.S. broadcast service to Iran and part of RFE/RL, that the talks are exploratory. But they are "technically very close to a possible agreement because they came quite close [in 2000]."

Hinnebush says an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is part of a bigger package consisting of an Israeli-Palestinian and an Israeli-Lebanese settlement. It is even "compatible" with an ultimate U.S.-Iranian settlement. But he says, "it is hard to see that anything like that could be in the cards until there is a change in the [U.S.] administration."

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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