After four years of isolating the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the United States has invited Damascus to participate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this week in Annapolis, Md. Syria decided to attend after the Bush administration signaled a willingness to discuss the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Separately, Saudi Arabia on Friday announced its intention to join other Arab League nations in attending on a foreign minister level. The Saudis participated in other multilateral talks in the 1990s, but never at such a senior level.
Here are several key questions and answers about the role of both nations in the talks:
What do Syria and Saudi Arabia have to contribute to bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians?
Syria has a direct involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute because it hosts the headquarters of the Palestinian terrorist groups most determined to scuttle peace talks: Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An Israeli condition for any talks aimed at returning the Golan Heights is that Syria end such support. Depriving Hamas of its Damascus fund-raising and organizational base would hamper its efforts to undermine the more moderate government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as he contemplates compromise on critical issues such as borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Additionally, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is currently being pulled in two directions, analysts say: militants in Damascus and armed groups in Gaza reject any accommodation of the existence of a Jewish state, while relative moderates among the political leadership in Gaza favor a modus vivendi with Israel, perhaps by deferring to Abbas on foreign policy and ending the rocket attacks on Israel’s southern towns. Cutting the Gaza militants off from the financial support in Damascus could reinforce the moderates.
Indirectly, Syria acts as a conduit for Iranian influence in the region, primarily for Iranian backing of Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, but also for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Removing Syria from the current Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis would drastically reduce the chances for a repeat of the 2006 war on Israel’s northern border and help spur the Israeli public away from its skepticism from any Arab peace.
Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest nation in the region; its assistance is considered critical to helping the Palestinian Authority regain the economic footing it needs to restore its credibility among Palestinians after forces loyal to Abbas were ousted by Hamas from Gaza in June. Saudi Arabia’s Islamist leaders also still favor an accommodation between Abbas and Hamas, which promotes a theocracy. Saudi Arabia denies directly funding Hamas, but allows its nationals to prop up the Palestinian group. Persuading the Saudis to cut off Hamas could help cow the group into deferring to Abbas.
Those would be Saudi Arabia’s practical contributions to advancing the peace; its symbolic value could be even more important. The Saudis are the custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. That status and their oil wealth make the Saudis invaluable, the Americans believe, toward lending any peace deal regional credibility, especially one that suggests a formal Islamic recognition of Jewish rights in Jerusalem, which houses two mosques considered to comprise the third holiest site in Islam.
The Saudi peace initiative in 2002, made through the Arab League, offered Israel recognition in exchange for Israel’s return to the 1967 borders. The Israelis rejected the offer as insufficiently clear on the status of Palestinian refugees who would want to return to Israel. However, Israel now sees the Saudi plan as a breakthrough in rolling back rejectionism in the region, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state who will preside at Annapolis, now cites it as a basis for the current talks.
The caveat is that no one knows how stable the Saudi royal regime is. Its approval of an Israeli-Palestinian deal would have some resonance in the Arab street, but nowhere near the respect that Saudi Arabia once commanded for bringing the West to its knees with the oil crisis in the 1970s. It would do nothing at all to appease radical Islamist terrorists, most prominently Al Qaida.
What will the Syrians and the Saudis want for their participation?
The Bush administration is about to present for congressional approval a $20 billion arms deal with the Saudis. Details have yet to be released, but its core is believed to be aimed at equipping the Saudis with the smart bomb capabilities that could take out long distance targets with precision. The potential target would be Iran; in fact, the interest the Saudis have taken in the renewed peace process has mostly to do with the Sunni Muslim nation’s fears of Iranian Shi’ite hegemony. Already, the Saudis are chafing at Iran’s influence in neighboring post-war Iraq, where Shi’ite Muslims are the majority.
Ostensibly, the Syrians want the Golan Heights; and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly made clear that the whole plateau is on the table. Still no serious talks have developed, suggesting there is more on the Syrian mind than a simple reversal to the 1967 borders.
In fact, Syria is smarting from congressionally mandated sanctions President Bush imposed in December 2003. The sanctions, as currently applied, are limited to air travel and U.S. companies exporting to Syria, but their mere existence — and the threat of further sanctions — has inhibited European investment.
It seems that three conditions must be met to bring an end to the U.S. sanctions: Damascus must drop backing for Palestinian terrorists and for Hezbollah; stop freelance fighters from crossing the Syrian border to join the insurgency in Iraq; and drop attempts at restoring Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.
The Syrians have already instituted checks on the Iraqi border and say that they would be much more effective at stopping insurgents if the United States would share intelligence. Backing for Palestinian radical Islamists and Hezbollah was always little more than a convenient way to keep Israel off balance; such groups have little popular or ideological support in secular Syria.
But the Syrians, who maintain a formidable intelligence presence in Lebanon even after the departure of their troops from the country several years ago, are loathe to give up access to Lebanon’s wealth and its avenues to Western money and investment. The Bush administration wants Syria to end its political meddling through Hezbollah and to make accountable senior Syrian officials responsible for a wave of assassinations in Lebanon in recent years. Syria, at a minimum, wants international investigations into the political killings to end. That’s not likely to be forthcoming from a Bush administration that has made Lebanon’s fragile democracy a centerpiece of its democratization promotion.
Are the Israelis ready to live with such concessions?
Israel’s leadership is perhaps more willing than ever to countenance a return of the Golan Heights, because of two recent developments.
First, a proposal that arose last year in unofficial talks carried out by proxies guaranteed a continued Israeli presence on the Golan — a first in negotiations dating back to the early 1990s. Under the proposal, the plateau would be demilitarized and nationals from neither side would live there, but Israelis would continue to run their Golan businesses — wineries and tourism sites. Neither government has formally endorsed the proposal, but behind the scenes it is considered the likely outcome of any proposal.
Second, and more substantially, Israel considers Iran and its suspected ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons the greatest looming danger in the region, and another war with Hezbollah the most immediate threat. Removing Syria from that equation would considerably hamper Iranian ambitions.
The caveat is, in an expression that Israeli President Shimon Peres likes to use, “The son is not the father.” Hafez Assad was a fierce enemy, but one who Israelis say kept his word, especially regarding the 1974 armistice that kept Syrian forces away from the Golan Heights. Bashar, his London-educated son, is seen as nowhere near as reliable, massing forces near the Golan and promiscuously backing Hezbollah. Most worrisome is that, whereas the elder Assad kept Hezbollah on a tight leash, it seems that relationship is now reversed, and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah calls the shots.
As for the Saudi piece, Israeli leaders have swallowed hard and instructed pro-Israel groups here not to oppose the arms deal with the Saudis. No Israeli leader believes the Sauds will turn the “smart bombs” on Israel; what is more threatening is the possibility of a radical Islamist takeover of the kingdom.
The Bush administration brought Israel around by upping its annual defense package to Israel from $2.4 billion to $3 billion and by assuring Israel that the weapons would be designed to keep from pointing toward Israel. Additionally, Israeli leaders appreciate the role that a Saudi Arabia emboldened by superior military equipment can play in containing Iran.