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Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under threat from Hamas. Can Syria help?

US envoy George Mitchell arrived in Damascus today after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks culminated in Jerusalem. He may ask President Bashar Assad to lean on Hamas amid fresh Gaza air strikes.

By Correspondent / September 16, 2010

Syria's President Bashar Assad (l.) meets US envoy George Mitchell in Damascus September 16.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

With Gaza rocket fire and Israeli air strikes providing a potent reminder of Hamas's potential to destabilize Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, US envoy George Mitchell arrived in Syria today looking to secure broader regional support.

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While Syrian leaders have repeatedly expressed support for restarting peace talks with Israel, few expect an imminent breakthrough on that front. But where Syria could play a crucial role in the short term is in helping the US shore up the recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Since the negotiations resumed Sept. 2 after a 20-month hiatus, there has been an uptick in rocket attacks from Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Palestinian movement Hamas. The organization, whose political leaders are based in Syria, has spearheaded opposition to the peace process and is a bitter rival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The timing of Mitchell's trip to Syria, coming after a two-day summit between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has analysts surmising that he will ask Syria to discourage Hamas from upsetting the talks.

“There are many groups that want to spoil the talks. The fact that Mitchell is going to Damascus now has a lot to do with the Palestinian issue,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The US also believes that hopes of an eventual Israeli-Syrian peace track are dependent on the continuation of the Palestinian track.

“If Hamas succeeds [in scuttling the talks], the prospects for eventual Syria-Israel talks are zero,” says a US official who requested anonymity.

US priorities in Syria, and the broader Mideast

American diplomats have trodden the path to Damascus repeatedly over the past 18 months as part of a renewed attempt to engage with the Syrian leadership – a reversal of the policy of isolation practiced under the presidency of George W. Bush.

Progress has been slow, analysts say, complicated by waning US influence in the region, the Israeli government’s preoccupation with Iran, and the complex and ever-changing interplay of the region’s key powers, such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The US hopes that a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors not only will end the festering Arab-Israeli conflict, but will blunt some of Iran’s regional influence. Iran has an alliance with Syria dating back 30 years, a relationship that was further solidified through a series of defense and trade agreements from 2005 when Damascus found itself increasingly isolated by the West and its Arab neighbors.

The US had signaled a renewal of diplomatic relations in 2009 – a move calculated to woo Damascus away from Iran and tap its leverage over Hamas and Hezbollah. But more than a year later, Washington has yet to send a new ambassador, and sanctions remain in place.

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