The dramatic announcement of indirect, Turkish-mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria has been greeted by a wave of skepticism. A majority of Israelis are convinced it is just "spin" to distract attention from Israel PM Ehud Olmert's legal problems, a view reinforced by the Israeli right. On the left, Akiva Eldar hints that it may be a device to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Amos Harel points out that the deal cannot work without US support and foreign aid for Syria, and the US appears cool to the initiative. The same opinion is given here as well, and an AP story notes that the US has been more or less exuberant about the disastrous Lebanon compromise (see Springtime for Nasrallah), but lukewarm about the announcement of talks between Syria and Israel.
There are many good reasons to be skeptical about the prospects for peace between Israel and Syria. Numerous commentators have pointed out their belief that Syrian President Bashar Assad will never break with Iran, and will never give up his support for Hamas or Hezbollah The basic Truth about Syria hasn't changed. The Assad government runs a repressive regime that is primarily interested in staying in power and furthering its own corrupt interests. Peace is not among those interests if it is not good for business.
Permit me however, to voice a minority opinion. I am not saying positively that there will be peace, or that this is what happened or will happen. I am only saying that some facts have been ignored, and some speculations are more than possible. When we view the larger picture, peace between Israel and Syria looks much more like a practical proposition.
Spin? - Ehud Olmert is an unpopular Prime Minister. Therefore, almost any move he makes might be attacked as "spin." This has been true at least since the ill-starred Second Lebanon war. But the secret negotiations with Syria have been going on for years, as we know, and the Turkish-mediated negotiations about negotiations have been going on for months. They could not have been prepared as a distraction for the current corruption charges, and it is really absurd to assume that Bashar Assad has an interest in promoting the political welfare of Ehud Olmert and therefore cooperated in manufacturing "Spin." Moreover if Olmert wanted to distract attention from his political woes and attract support from the right, he could not have chosen a worse way than to "threaten" to make peace with Syria and give up the Golan heights. He would perhaps invade Gaza or strike at some terrorist targets in Syria to manufacture spin.
Fact on the television - It is rather silly to continue to speculate that Syria will never break with Iran, after Syrian television announced that Syria and Israel have agreed to conduct indirect negotiations for comprehensive peace, in those words. Considering that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had previously announced that the demise of Israel was imminent, the wording of the Syrian announcement, which mentioned "comprehensive peace" specifically, rather than "recovery of the Golan" or other circumlocutions, is highly significant. Iran has yet to react -- a silence that speaks volumes.
Role of the United States - The United States has as usual, talked with a forked-tongue about Israeli-Syrian peace. Someone in the US apparatus must support these talks, since the US has, reportedly, been pressuring Turkey and Israel to advance the negotiations. Even if the report published in Al Ayyam is not true, the publication of this report may indicate that someone in the Arab world is very interested in the success of these negotiations. In any case, the Bush administration, as anyone including Bashar Assad can see, clearly will not be in power much longer. There is no chance that any American administration, no matter how obtuse, would pass up the opportunity to gain Syria as a client state, a second Egypt, and wean it away from Iran.
Turkey - No commentators mention Turkey, but Turkey most certainly has a significant role in the current doings. Turkey has much to gain by brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty, as it thereby becomes a leading factor in the Middle East. The prospect of developing Turkey as a moderate counterweight to another non-Arab nation, Iran, must be tempting to the United States and Europe, and it is a natural role for the successor to the Ottoman Empire.
The Lebanon connection? Is it entirely a coincidence that the Lebanon compromise deal brokered by Qatar and approved by the Arab League was announced at the same time as the Syrian-Israeli talks. It could be. But the compromise has one aspect that nobody mentions. Hezbollah now has veto power over the tribunal to try the murderers of Hariri, who presumably include certain persons in the vicinity of Damascus. This "compromise" may have been the price Syria exacted for the public announcement of negotiations. It is certainly peculiar that the US is praising the "deal" which is a shameless sell-out of Lebanese independence. But there didn't seem to be any way to salvage Lebanese democracy in any case, as the Lebanese themselves betrayed it by supporting Hezbollah.
Imad Moughnieh? - Iranian backed Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Moughnieh recent met with a fatal "accident." His car blew up. That is the sort of thing that can happen to such people. However, the location of his accident, Damascus, is possibly significant. It is hard to believe that anything really happens in Damascus without the knowledge and tacit cooperation of the Mukhabarat and Syrian Army intelligence, both of which are formidable organizations. Yet Syria claimed to know nothing of the attack, and a promised investigation seems never to have materialized. Assad may be a good for nothing, but he is not "good" for no reason. If Syrian authorities knew about the planned accident of Moughnieh and did nothing, then it is safe to assume Syria got something in return.
An Israeli-Syrian peace deal can be good for everyone, especially for the United states, and that is why it might just happen. What does everyone get?
Syria - Syria gets the Golan, a huge US aid package, an end to international isolation and it is cleared of involvement in the Hariri murder. Assad's regime is integrated both into the western system of "good guy" states and into the heart of the Arab League. Syria may get a green light for a discrete presence in Lebanon. Syria is after all an Arab state with a Sunni majority. Syrians can't be too happy about estrangement from the Arab League or its alliance with non-Arab and Shi'a Iran. The Assad family cannot be happy either, especially because they belong to the Alawi minority. If the number one concern of Assad's regime is staying in power, and the number two concern is staying rich, this may be the best way to do it.
Israel - Israel gets the Hamas and Hezbollah neutralized, peace with one, and perhaps all Arab states. Peace with Lebanon would almost certainly follow peace with Syria. Israel would, for the first time, be at peace with all the immediately neighboring states. Syrian opposition to a peace deal with the Palestinians is neutralized as well.
Turkey - Turkey becomes a much more important player in the Middle East, and an address for resolving conflicts. If the Arab world makes peace with Israel, Turkey's friendly relations with Israel become an asset rather than a liability in the Arab world. Turkey will be in a better position to enter the EU, and in a better position to dictate terms to the Kurds in northern Iraq.
United States - The United States can be the big winner from an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, that can pick the most pieces off the chess board. With Syria in the American orbit, the Iraq war will look a lot different. There is even a prospect of withdrawing successfully and leaving Iraq in the capable hands of Turkey and Syria. Syria will suddenly find no difficulty in controlling its own borders, and its intelligence services can be put to work foiling terror rather than aiding it. Indeed, if there could be peace between Syria and Israel, and Syria could be brought firmly into the western orbit, there would be a solid ring of pro-western states around the Mediterranean - Mare Nostrum.
If Lebanon is a pawn sacrificed to checkmate Iran everywhere else, some recent developments make more sense. Perhaps it will not be springtime for Nasrallah for long. Admittedly attribution of such a policy to the US gives American policy makers more credit for astute vision than they seem to deserve. The idea may have been born in Riyadh or Jerusalem. It is, admittedly, less a dream peace of idealists than a Machiavellian peace in which the rights and interests of Lebanese and Kurds may be sacrificed, but a Machiavellian peace may be the only possible peace. It is certainly better than a continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continued Hezbollah dominance in Lebanon, an ignominious US defeat and withdrawal from Iraq and growing Iranian hegemony.
Not all of the above makes perfect sense admittedly, but most of the things that happen in the Middle East do not seem to make sense. Are the above considerations really so far-fetched? The notion that peace with Syria is a real possibility seems to make more sense than insisting that Bashar Assad is a fool who betrayed his partner, Iran, without considering the consequences and with no prospect of success, or that Ehud Olmert is trying to win over the Israeli right by giving away the Golan Heights and needlessly antagonizing the United States. Keep an open mind. Not all Middle East surprises are bad.