12 March 2010
When I wrote about progress in American-Syrian relations months ago, the US president had just decided to send an ambassador to Syria after a 4-year absence but had yet to select someone for the position. At the time, any sort of comprehensive peace in the Middle East had seemed to be as distant as ever, not only because of the recent Israeli war on Gaza and its lingering repercussions in the international arena, but also because of the acute crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations. Although President Obama first renewed the sanctions on Syria he inherited from his predecessor and that I described as a "sore point" hindering American-Syrian relations, he then made another gesture by easing the process of granting export licenses to the Syrian aviation industry in July 2009. And finally came the news that Robert Stephen Ford, a former ambassador to Algeria and the current deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, has been nominated as the new U.S. ambassador, and will assume his post after being confirmed by the US Senate.
The appointment of Robert Stephen Ford, who is considered to be an expert in Middle Eastern affairs and has experience in the region, is a significant step in its own right toward facilitating healthier US-Syrian relations. As Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary, said, "If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern." Vice-President Joe Biden repeated the Obama administration’s goal to "put our [US-Syrian] relations on a new footing and move ahead on Israeli-Syrian peace - something we see to be in the interests of both parties and the region." The appointment of the ambassador obviously does not only matter for US-Syrian relations but also the Syrian and Israeli indirect talks, for which Turkey has just expressed its willingness to mediate between the conflicting parties once more.
Yet, Mr. Ford will find himself facing an uphill battle upon his arrival to Damascus. In the past several months, in addition to the already existing thorny points of contention between Syria and Israel (Syria’s longstanding ties to Iran and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas) a series of other developments have occurred that have bearing upon the chances for rekindling Syrian-Israeli talks.
Turkey, who would like to host indirect talks once again, has aired the possibility that Syrian-Israeli talks might be resumed. It is important that Turkey is willing to assume that role after what many have characterized as a full-blown crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations since the war on Gaza. The Turkish Foreign Minister has said that "if there is a political will on both sides, then we are ready for indirect Turkish mediation between Syria and Israel. While Israel welcomed the Turkish "aspiration" to mediate, it rejected the possibility that talks might begin any time soon. The Israeli Foreign Minister, as will be remembered, ruled out Turkey as a potential mediator during several periods of tense relations (two examples being the Ayalon incident and the canceled military exercise). Israel would hardly accept Turkish mediation while Turkey continues to criticize Israel. Yet, there is no sign that Turkey will refrain from making provocative comments if the situation in Gaza remains the same or gets worse. Turkey will not act unless there is an official Israeli request for Turkish mediation.
What is more, even though it has been claimed that the Israeli Prime Minister "is ready to meet with the Syrians immediately and without [setting] preconditions" in order to resume peace talks, Syria is very unlikely to sit at the negotiation table without some sort of condition set in advance regarding the return of the Golan Heights. As evidence of the steadfast Syrian position on this, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said that "One must begin with the target, and the target is the line of 4 June 1967. The question is: Is he (Netanyahu) ready to withdraw to this line?" Thus, Syria is very unlikely to start talks without some sort of guarantee on the return of Golan Heights or pre-set conditions.
Finally, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman seems to be another impediment to the possibility of talks, direct or indirect, between Syria and Israel. Lieberman, who has claimed credit for when Danny Ayalon had the Turkish ambassador to Israel sit on a lower chair, recently made an incendiary statement about Syrian president Bashar Assad being ousted from power. In the case of a military conflict between Syria and Israel, Lieberman said Assad and his family would not be in power in Syria anymore. Such rhetoric has no place in the diplomatic world.
More to the point, the building of settlements in East Jerusalem remains a stumbling block in front of the negotiations. Israel has just announced the construction of 1600 houses in East Jerusalem, upon which the Arab Peace Initiative Committee, of which Syria is also a member, suspended its previous decision to hold negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. East Jerusalem, it has been thought, would be part of the future Palestinian state. But, as indicated by the Arab Peace Initiative Committee’s decision, continued Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem is an obstacle to all parties involved in peace talks with Israel, not only the Palestinians. Thus it is highly unlikely that after the settlement announcement and collected response of frustration from regional players that Syria would sit at the negotiating table with Israel and negotiate a peace settlement.
At a time when regional tension is escalating and a sense of frustration and perfidy is growing, the reappointment of a US ambassador could be a helpful addition to the field. This step is directly in line with Obama’s policy of engagement and dialogue and is necessary if there is to be a real peace in the region as it shows the US is interested in both sides of the conflict. Yet while dialogue is helpful, more than just talk will have to be accomplished. The US would be wise to remember Turkey’s offer to mediate - Turkey is preferred over European states as Syria’s mediator of choice and Turkish efforts have been successful in the past.
 See http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3166/further-progress-for-u-s-%E2%80%93syrian-relations.html