Syria could yet be key to Middle East peace

A top MidEast expert says that renewed Israel-Syria negotiations are now likely

By Alex Brummer, April 16, 2009

Expectations that President Obama would lift the Middle East peace process to the top of his international agenda have been short lived. Not surprisingly, it has been the global recession together with resetting the Nato agenda which has been dominant in the headlines.

This does not mean, however, that a great deal of preparatory work and thinking is not taking place.

A lengthy New Yorker article by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh records the belief in Washington that the route to an overall Middle East settlement lies through Syria.

Hersh, with his impeccable sources in intelligence and the Pentagon, has proved one of the most authoritative writers on Iran and Afghanistan and was the first to reveal the American abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Here in Britain, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s key adviser on Northern Ireland, makes the case in the New Statesman for engaging with Hamas through back channels in much the same way as Britain forged its opening with the IRA.

Hersh notes that when Israel’s Gaza campaign ended on January 18 (at the request of the Americans, so that it didn’t deter from Obama’s inauguration celebrations) it looked as if the promising Israel-Syria talks, conducted through intermediaries in Istanbul, had been aborted.

But Hersh reveals that in an email sent to him directly by Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader reveals he is still holding out hopes of a deal.

Assad told Hersh that while Israel was doing everything possible to “undermine prospects for peace...we still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace”.

According to Hersh’s conversations with American and foreign government officials, intelligence officers and politicians, renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights are now likely following the formation of a new Israeli administration.

The success of the talks will depend on the Obama administration’s willingness to act as a mediator. Because Israel’s campaign had failed to unseat Hamas, it left the door open for Assad to continue to do business with Israel without damaging its standing in the Arab world.

The main view in the diplomatic and intelligence world is that a deal involving the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and to moderate Syrian support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and Hizbollah on Israel’s northern borders.

There is an alternative opinion: that Assad’s motive in pursuing the talks is not to marginalise Iran but to involve it in a regional deal involving not just America but Israel too.

Hersh found the Syrian leader uncompromising on the land captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War but ready to negotiate on everything else, including water.

Powell argues that the most important lesson from Northern Ireland is “the need to talk to your enemies”. In his view it is “inconceivable” that you can make peace in Palestine while ignoring Hamas. He argues that Hamas, like the IRA, is unlikely to accept any preconditions imposed on it publicly and that it should be persuaded to sign up to non-violence, but not that it recognise Israel in order to enter government.

He is cheered by the fact that Obama has selected George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, as he has shown “a remarkable talent for bringing about peace”.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 9:27am, April 16 2009