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.
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.
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.
"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.”