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Op-Ed

Israel-Syria Relations: Does America Have a Role in Ankara?

The recent announcement that indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria are being conducted in Turkey has led many to ask whether this round of negotiations represents anything more than political games. Given that Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is facing a deepening corruption investigation with louder calls for him to step down, and in light of floundering negotiations with the Palestinians, many Israelis presume he might be using the cover of peace talks with Syria to divert attention from his political challenges.

But the unusual official announcements – both the Israeli and Syrian governments released coordinated remarks announcing the talks – and reports that agreement has been reached on a number of core issues indicate that something more than political games may be afoot. What remains to be seen and is of the utmost significance for forging a deal, however, is whether the United States will engage as a participant.

Israeli leaders have a history of acting boldly under political fire; former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for example, announced plans in 2003 to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip amidst a corruption investigation. While political troubles on the Israeli side portend movements towards peace, economic woes on the Syrian side exert pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to make changes to the status quo.

In this climate, it is no surprise that the Israeli and Syrian governments are testing the waters. But, while talks have moved forward, a key component remains missing: the United States.

Until recently, the United States was expected to act as the mediator in peace talks between Israel and its neighbours, including Syria. During Bill Clinton’s presidency American officials shuttled between Damascus and Jerusalem, overseeing negotiations between the parties. But today the United States not only has a shared interest with Israel in pulling Syria away from Iran and halting Syrian weapons assistance to Hizbullah, it has its own interest regarding Lebanon – ensuring it be independent from Syria – that does not concern Israel.

When commenting on the possibility of Israeli-Syrian talks, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear that the United States does “not wish to stand in the way of any attempt to achieve peace,” but added that “Syria [has] yet to show a desire for Middle East peace, especially vis-à-vis Lebanon.” Syria’s role in Lebanon, including its alleged assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, poses a direct assault on one of Bush’s priorities in the region: democracy promotion.

At the same time, things have changed on the Syrian side, whose main interest in talks with Israel is no longer the return of the Golan Heights: while this is a basic requirement, it is not incentive enough to reach agreement. Syria is struggling with a stagnant economy that is taxed by rising energy costs (partly due to a loss of illegal oil revenue from Iraq after the US invasion) and an influx of Iraqi refugees who are straining the country’s infrastructure.

Some analysts have speculated that the country may face a “day of reckoning” when the economy cannot keep up with population growth and domestic needs. Syria, therefore, seeks any financial and diplomatic relationship it can have with the United States.

While American compensation for making peace with Israel has been the norm – Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority all received large amounts of aid and deepening of trade when they worked out their respective agreements, this time the United States’ other interest – that relating to Lebanon – will play a determining role. Consequently, a peace dividend will not result from peace between Israel and Syria alone, but from a peace between Israel and Syria and the United States.

The question for the current round of talks then is whether the United States will engage not as a mediator, but as a participant. So far the White House, while apprised of the meetings, hasn’t expressed a willingness to join in the talks. So while Israel and Syria may make progress under Turkey’s guidance, a key piece of the peace puzzle will still be missing. But perhaps not for long. Even if the current US administration does not engage, Turkey may well be able to shepherd the talks to a point where at least the next administration can help finalise the deal.

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