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.
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The Obama administration has decided to focus instead on relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, regarded as the keystone to resolving the broader Israeli-Arab conflict.Skip to next paragraph
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"The US believes, as a practical matter, that comprehensive peace will ultimately require parallel talks on multiple tracks," says the US official. "But for the time being the priority of effort – virtually all of it – is putting Palestinian-Israeli direct talks on a sound basis."
Other US concerns: Hezbollah arms, Syrian nukes
Aside from the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the US has several grievances with Syria that can hamper diplomatic moves to resume negotiations between US ally Israel and Syria. They include Syria’s continuing support for militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Earlier this year, Israeli and US officials accused Syria of transferring Scud ballistic missiles to Hezbollah.
On Monday, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, the head of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, threatened to bomb a Syrian government facility that he claimed had provided Hezbollah with sophisticated arms.
“Hezbollah has weapons that are not found in Europe,” he said.
The US is also troubled by Syria’s lack of cooperation with the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency over suspicions that it has a clandestine nuclear program. Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in northeast Syria three years ago. Syria has blocked visits by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the alleged nuclear activities.
Even as Mitchell was arriving in Damascus Thursday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, US delegate to the IAEA Glyn Davies warned that if Damascus continued to stonewall, the agency could invoke a rarely used special inspection of suspected Syrian sites.
If Syria refuses to cooperate, it could lead to the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions similar to those aimed at Iran.
Decoding Syria's seeming contradictions of policy
Syria tends to follow a carefully crafted preference for ambiguity over clarity, choosing to straddle the fence on key Mideast issues and its bilateral relationships. For example, the Syria-Iran alliance is evident in facilitating the arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon and support for Hamas in Damascus.
Yet Syria and Iran have conflicting interests in Iraq and the Syrian leadership has repeatedly declared that it is willing to resume peace talks with Israel.
Syria’s sometimes contradictory policies tend to divide analysts into two camps: some believe Syria is the lynchpin for Middle East stability. If Syria’s interests are satisfied, such as the return in its entirety of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967 and perhaps permitted a proprietary role in neighboring Lebanon, it will distance itself from Iran, thus weakening Hezbollah and Hamas.
Other analysts believe that Syria prefers to sit in the middle and play the role of regional spoiler, ensuring that it cannot be ignored – but deferring hard decisions that could end up undermining the regime.
Either way, even if Middle East peace remains elusive, the process itself can have a stabilizing effect on a region grappling with myriad tensions.
“A region in talks is better than a region in war,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “There may be no breakthrough but we can have talks, and talks have some import on the behavior of states.”