Virtual Diplomacy, Real Damage

Jerusalem Post-29/11/2009

The statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Riyadh last week expressing French willingness to mediate talks between Syria and Israel is the latest indication of Syria’s emergence from diplomatic isolation.

Damascus has largely rebuilt its links with Europe and the Arab world. There is now a real possibility of a revival of indirect talks between Israel and Syria.

Such talks, if they take place, are almost certain to get nowhere.

Still, the near guarantee of failure of any talks does not render Sarkozy’s offer insignificant. It is to be hoped that the Netanyahu government resists the temptation to reopen the Syrian track.

Why might the government be tempted to enter indirect negotiations with Syria at this point? It is an article of faith among European countries and in the current US administration that a peace process between Israel and one or other of its enemies is essential. Israel’s international diplomatic position currently leaves a lot to be desired. The perceived US distancing from Israel has emboldened those very considerable elements in Europe who would like to see increased pressure on the Jewish state.

There appears to be little hope of substantive movement in stalled talks between Israel and the troubled, perhaps moribund Palestinian Authority. Talks with Syria could provide the illusion of diplomatic motion which could help alleviate claims that Israel represents an intransigent barrier to progress toward regional stability.

Why would such talks almost certainly fail? The formula for success in negotiations between Israel and Syria is no longer the ’90s recipe of land for peace. A breakthrough in Jerusalem-Damascus negotiations would be predicated on the basis of “land for strategic realignment.”

That is, Syria would be expected to abandon its regional alliance with Iran in return for Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan Heights.

Damascus, however, has made abundantly clear that such a realignment is not on the table. The reasons are fairly obvious. Syria’s current stance of alliance with Iran gives the Damascus regime most of what it needs. Syria is seen as a vital part of any regional diplomatic process, because of its ability to spoil progress through its alignment with radical forces.

As Syria’s recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and France suggests, keeping the alliance with Iran comes at very little cost. And there is a deeper sense that the Damascus regime is comfortable with its place in the Iranian alliance, which enables it to indulge in the nationalist chest-beating and poses of “resistance,” which it enjoys.

So reviving the appearance of talks with Syria might seem a cost-free move for Israel. It could make the Europeans happier, diverting the oft-made (and incorrect) claims that Israel currently has the most right-wing government in its history. And it would almost certainly not lead to any potentially dangerous actual concessions to Damascus.

But this is not so. Restarting talks with Syria would not be cost-free.

Syria has emerged from isolation without in any way modifying its alliance with Iran, and its support for terror organizations in Lebanon, Iraq and among the Palestinians. This achievement is testimony not to any hidden diplomatic genius lurking among the Ba’athists of Damascus. Rather, it shows the weakness, confusion and disunity of those forces in the region and beyond it who might be expected to have an interest in challenging Iran and its allies in their bid for dominance of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia in the last week suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the Syrians in the Lebanese arena. The formation of the new Lebanese government represents an effective surrender of pro-Saudi forces in that country to the allies of Iran and Syria. Yet the Saudis are understood to be maintaining their improved relations with Damascus out of a shared desire to undermine the Maliki government in Iraq.

France, meanwhile, wishes to play an increased role in regional diplomacy and sees the revival of close relations with Damascus as a way to do this. France also (astonishingly) thinks that Syria could play a role in mediating with Iran over its nuclear program.

Both Paris and Riyadh have thus elected to place short-term gain over long term interest.

The bigger picture of the Israeli and broader Western interest in the region requires the containment and ultimately the rolling back of the currently emboldened Iranian-led alliance. Reviving the prospect of Israeli territorial concessions to Syria, at a time when Damascus is engaged in sponsoring organizations engaged in proxy war with Israel and others would be to reward aggression.

It would furnish an additional argument in the armory of Iran and its supporters who maintain, not without reason, that the camp facing them is weak and responds to pressure by making concessions.

The Obama administration has so far held off from joining in the rush to make up with Syria. Washington has sent a series of visitors to Damascus and is preparing to appoint a new ambassador. But the sanctions remain in place, and the administration appears mindful of Syrian actions in Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians.

The administration has failed, nevertheless, to articulate a clear understanding of the current strategic picture in the region. The building of clarity in this regard represents a core strategic interest for Israel. It would be mistaken to sacrifice this interest on the altar of any short-term alleviation of pressure resulting from a revival of virtual diplomacy with the Assad regime.

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