EVERYONE had been dancing around the idea of Israel-Syria peace
talks for at least a year. Why are they happening now? Will they get
Negotiations are under way now because all those involved are under various kinds of pressure.
Syria's economy is in the doldrums. The threat of an international
tribunal hangs over its leaders because of their alleged involvement in
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's murder. A new peace
process could divert international attention and persuade the major
powers that making peace is more important than bringing Hariri's
killers to justice.
Plus, at least part of Syria's leadership also worries about the
regime's increasing reliance on the Islamic Republic in Tehran - which
has led to Syria's unprecedented isolation in the Arab world.
Even in Lebanon, the cost for Syria is high. For decades, Syria was
the main foreign influence in Lebanon. Now Iran has taken its place,
and Syria must rely on two Iranian-sponsored and -financed outfits, the
Shiite Hezbollah and the Maronite bloc led by ex-Gen. Michel Aoun.
The extent of Iranian influence in Lebanon became clear during last
week's Lebanese peace talks in Doha, Qatar: The Hezbollah delegation
leader, Muhammad Hassan Raad, had to leave the conference four times to
"check things out" with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motakki.
Worse still, Iran has built up a network of influence in Syria
itself by investing in businesses that employ thousands and distribute
favors among the ruling elite. Iranian influence in the Syrian military
and security services must concern some Damascus leaders.
Damascus was the capital of Yazid, the Umayyid caliph who ordered
the slaying of Hussein bin Ali, the third Imam of Shiism. Conquering
the city has been a dream of Hussein's descendants since 680.
Ayatollah Ali Husseini Khamenei, Iran's "supreme guide," claims
descent from Hussein. As Iran's president in 1988, he paid a state
visit to Damascus with unusual pomp - boasting that he was going to
Damascus to show that "Yazid is dead while Hussein is alive and
Religious and symbolic considerations aside, Iran wants to control
Syria and Lebanon as advance posts in what it sees as its inevitable
war against Israel. Its efforts in Syria include creating the largest
Shiite theological seminary outside Iran, plus a massive campaign of
"Shiificiation" via 14 Iranian "cultural centers" recently opened in
"We are facing an existential threat," says a senior Syrian
personality. "Tehran wants to transform Syria into an Islamic republic
in all but name."
Syria's leaders can't counter the Iranian threat without finding
friends elsewhere, notably among moderate Arab states, the Europeans
and the United States.
Israel, for its part, regards some measure of normalization with
Syria as an urgent priority. A less hostile Syria would make it more
difficult for Iran to threaten Israel with asymmetric warfare via
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Cynics might also suggest that Israel's beleaguered prime minister,
Ehud Olmert, is using talks with Syria as a diversion from his troubles
with the police in connection with allegations of corruption and money
laundering. Even if indicted and forced to resign, Olmert could at
least bow out with the claim that he revived Syrian peace talks.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, also hopes for some good Middle
East news to burnish its legacy. Peace with Syria would be a miracle,
hiding the fact that there's no progress on the Palestinian front.
Why did Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan play the key role in
restoring Syria-Israel contacts? Turkey doesn't wish to be sandwiched
between a hostile Islamic Republic in Iran and its client regime in
Syria. The Irano-Syrian axis isolates Turkey further, since Turkish
relations with Iraq remain tense because of the Kurdish issue.
There's also a domestic Turkish angle. Some in the moderate Islamic
coalition that swept Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his
Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power have never been
comfortable with Turkey's close ties to Israel. At least a dozen AKP
parliamentarians have pressed Erdogan to scale back. Renewed
Israel-Syria contacts could ease those pressures, strengthening Erdogan
at home and regionally.
Will the talks get anywhere? One should never lose hope, but the
chances of peace breaking out remain low. Syria can't easily abandon
Iran, something that Israel is demanding as a precondition. And Israel
can't commit itself to handing back the Golan Heights, which Syria
insists upon as a precondition.
Regimes of opposite natures can never make peace with one another.
At best, they can reduce tension and, perhaps, conclude a cease-fire.
Right now, though, even that remains a remote possibility as far as
Israel and Syria are concerned.