This week's Mideast summit in Annapolis, Md., is bound to fail – unless the Bush administration makes sure that the gathering leads to renewed Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. That could be the first step to ending Syria's isolation and giving its renegade regime fresh incentive to reform.
The United States needs to do more than invite Syria to sit on the sidelines of yet another peace conference. Already, the administration nearly failed to bring the Syrians on board. They only agreed to attend at the last minute, after the US promised to put the Golan Heights – a strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war – on the agenda.
The Annapolis summit is a crucial opportunity to woo Syria away from its increasing reliance on Iran and North Korea. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal with Israel – unlike the weak Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of the Gaza Strip to the militant group Hamas in June. The Israeli-Syrian peace track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the final status of Jerusalem.
Mr. Assad has made clear that he wants to restart talks to regain the Golan. Some Israeli leaders are also keen to negotiate with Syria, and there have been reports in the press about secret meetings in Switzerland between the two sides under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the Bush administration has discouraged such dialogue.
Syria's leaders have consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if they recover all of the Golan. In 2000, President Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Assad's father, Hafez, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel. To reach a final settlement, the US must push Israel and Syria back to negotiations – without preconditions.
The US has much to gain strategically from renewed Syrian-Israeli dialogue. Syria could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region – instead of being a spoiler or, worse, turning into a full-fledged rogue state.
In contrast, the Bush administration's current policy of isolating Syria is pushing Assad's regime to behave in more dangerous ways: In September, Israeli warplanes attacked a site in the Syrian desert, leading to reports that Syria was in the initial stages of developing a nuclear reactor, with help from North Korea.
After Saddam Hussein's ouster, the Bush administration accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi leaders and allowing Islamic militants to infiltrate Iraq to fight US forces. In 2004, President Bush imposed economic sanctions against Damascus and tried to isolate it. That policy accelerated after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which a UN investigation has implicated top Syrian officials. But the more the West cut Syria off, the more Assad's regime turned to Iran, which helped bolster the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil.
Ultimately, the US can get more out of Assad in exchange for the Golan than it can by isolating him. If there are serious negotiations, Washington can demand that Assad stop interfering in Lebanon and Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel.
In addition to pushing for renewed talks over the Golan, Washington must send its ambassador (who was recalled after the Hariri assassination) back to Damascus and resume high-level contact with Syrian officials. The administration should also abandon its calls for regime change in Damascus.
Because of the Iraq war, Assad is stronger than he has ever been since he rose to power after his father's death in 2000. Sadly, for Syrians worried about the carnage in Iraq, the Baathist dictatorship offers security, even as it arrests democracy activists and stifles the few freedoms Syrians still have.
The US and Europe have little leverage over Assad as long as he remains isolated. But if the Bush administration uses the Annapolis summit to resuscitate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, then Assad's regime will have something to lose if it continues being a regional spoiler.